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My Blog
  • David Beckmann

From the Sunday after Easter to the 4th of July, I’ve published the Poverty, God, Politics series of webcasts and companion blog posts. The webcasts were drawn from guest presentations to a graduate seminar I taught in Berkeley this spring. Today I’m releasing the final webcast, a 20-minute summary of what I’ve learned through this whole process.

  • David Beckmann

In this week’s webcast, Eugene Cho talks about Bread for the World, the nation’s largest faith-based advocacy organization on issues related to hunger and poverty. Eugene has now been president of Bread for a year. I led the organization before that, and I love hearing my successor talk about Bread for the World now.

Bread’s board wisely looked for a successor to me who is different from me. Eugene’s family immigrated from Korea when he was six years old, and his webcast starts with a compelling discussion of anti-Asian hate crimes. He speaks about immigration and racial justice issues from first-hand experience.

The Washington Post announced Eugene’s election with a front-page story about a comment he had made on his personal Twitter account about Donald Trump trying to get the country to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” My sense is that Trump pretty much stopped talking about the “Chinese virus” after this well-publicized criticism from a prominent Evangelical pastor - an immediate advocacy win for Eugene and Bread.

Eugene was the founder and long-time pastor of an Evangelical mega-church in Seattle. He is a Christian influencer whose posts on the web sometimes reach 1.5 million people. He has also published a series of popular books and is a sought-after speaker at big Evangelical conferences. Bread for the World has always reached out to Evangelical churches, but has never had much success with the mega-churches and electronic networks that are important among Evangelicals. Eugene may be able to change this

Eugene’s deep experience with digital communication is already bearing fruit in the quality of Bread’s digital communication. Eugene was elected president just a few days before the pandemic shut down the country. Despite the challenges of adjusting to at-home work, Bread shifted quickly and effectively to digital communication with its far-flung national network. The organization is planning serious investment in its digital communication capacity - which is important to Bread’s effectiveness in today’s world and absolutely crucial to the engagement of young and middle-aged people.

I am struck that Eugene’s webcast includes lots of stories about people - the 14 pastors who founded Bread, the experiences of Bread for the World activists, the experiences of people (including his own family) who have suffered hunger and food insecurity. Eugene’s presentation finally gets to the policy changes that Bread for the World has achieved and is working on. But as a pastor and communicator, his primary focus is on people.

The biggest change he has made at Bread is to shift budget resources from inside-the-beltway policy analysis to on-the-ground and digital work with Bread’s extraordinary network of individuals and thousands of congregations across the country. He is also on the look-out for ways that Bread for the World can help to win “the battle for the narrative.” He sees that most people’s attitudes - toward people in poverty, for example - are shaped more by stories than by analysis. They’ve been shaped by stories about people who are poor because they are lazy, for example, and need to hear compelling stories about people who have been driven into poverty by forces beyond their control. They need to hear stories about the advocacy triumphs of individual Bread for the World activists and about how the resulting programs made it possible for other individuals to protect their children while they worked their way back to self-sufficiency.

Eugene’s webcast puts heavy emphasis on Bread for the World’s long-standing commitment to working with people and politicians in both parties. When I stopped being the lead spokesperson for Bread for the World, I got involved in the Biden for President campaign. I’ve been terribly disappointed this year that Trumpism has come to dominate Republican Party leadership even more than before, and I’ll be active in support of the Democrats next year.

But Eugene is right to maintain Bread for the World’s commitment to working with both parties. He wants Bread to speak up for people struggling with hunger, even if that sometimes requires opposition to one of the parties. But Bread’s work in churches needs to have broad appeal, because most churches still include Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. Also, Bread’s record of legislative success is due partly to its persistent connections with members of Congress from both parties.

The global child-nutrition legislation that Bread is helping to prepare has a good chance to pass this Congress on a bipartisan basis, and Bread’s bipartisan outreach will help the nation overcome bitter partisan division and begin to work together more easily again.

After serving as president of Bread for the World for 28 years, it’s a joy to watch this generational transition in leadership unfold successfully. I pray for Eugene Cho and his family.

  • David Beckmann

The Catholic bishops this week took a step toward denying communion to President Biden. John Carr’s insightful, 32-minute discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic Church is timely.

John worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for more than 20 years. Since 2013, he has led the Initiative on Catholic Social Teaching and Public Life at Georgetown University, encouraging faithful, critical reflection among thousands of people on U.S. politics and developments in the Catholic Church. John disagrees with President Biden’s policy on whether abortion should be illegal, but he has argued for years - now with backing from Pope Francis - that Catholic life and social teaching are not entirely defined by this issue.

The step that the bishops approved is to undertake a fresh study of the Eucharist. I presume that John and many other Catholics across the country will find ways to contribute to the study process, and I pray that it leads the bishops to back away from the idea of denying communion to President Biden. Even if the bishops decide that political leaders who take positions that are inconsistent with Catholic teaching should be denied communion, Biden's positions on poverty and racial justice should count for something. Biden's first major piece of legislation, the American Rescue Act, is expected to cut child poverty in half this year.

This discussion in the Catholic community is likely to have far-reaching impacts on the beliefs of many Catholics, on U.S. politics, and on the kind of nation we will be a decade from now.

The Southern Baptist Convention also made a big decision this week. By a narrow margin their annual meeting elected Rev. Ed Litton to be their next president. He is a conservative who seeks unity in the church and sees racial reconciliation as a spiritual priority. The Southern Baptist Convention is the second-largest religious body in the country, and it has been more closely connected into the Religious Right than any other church body. So this election is good news for the country as a whole. It turned out as it did partly because of the leadership of Russell Moore, who recently resigned as head of its public policy arm, and partly because lots of like-minded Baptists made the effort to attend the national church convention and cast a ballot.

It's clear that some of our nation's problems are rooted in spiritual causes - the bitter divisions in our society, for example, and persistent national neglect of racial and economic injustice. This week’s two big decisions in conservative-leaning church bodies dramatize the importance of active, Spirit-led participation in the life of our churches.

The “Poverty, God, Politics” series of webcasts and blog posts has featured a series of leaders who are influencing their religious communities at the national level - Amy Reumann among Lutherans, Galen Carey among Evangelicals, Gabriel Salguero among Latino Evangelicals, Barbara Williams-Skinner among African-American churches, and now John among Catholics.

All of them and millions of other faithful people across the country are also working to strengthen the spiritual life and community outreach of their local churches. That's where far-reaching spiritual developments are cultivated in individuals and families, and it happens partly because of the leadership of active church members. They sing in the choir, contribute money, teach Sunday School, and try to live and share their faith in daily life. They visit church friends with serious medical problems, and they volunteer and recruit others for community ministries. They support congregational discussion of social issues.

Many of the people who read this blog are working for needed spiritual and political change in a local church and in broader church structures. What we do in our own religious communities contributes to the spiritual and political changes our country so desperately needs. Church work can be spiritual balm for our wounded body politic.