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Hunger Action Advocate helps congregations see ‘the big picture’

Laura VanDale moves Ohio churches to use their collective voices

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Getting churches involved in letter-writing campaigns is part of Laura VanDale’s work as a Hunger Action Advocate in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve. (Photo contributed by Laura VanDale)

LOUISVILLE — For nearly a dozen years, Laura VanDale has crisscrossed northeastern Ohio, encouraging congregations in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve to tackle the root causes of hunger.

As one of 17 Hunger Action Advocates for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, she encourages churches to take socially responsible actions, such as serving fair-trade coffee and writing letters against policies and programs that contribute to poverty and hunger.

The role of Hunger Action Advocates is to help congregations see beyond direct hunger assistance to the things that contribute to hunger, whether that be low wages, exploitation, social and political marginalization or structures that reinforce historic injustices. However, that can be a hard sell.

“When you talk about a church doing hunger ministry, the first thing people think about is a community meal or food pantry,” said VanDale, who’s based in Cleveland. “The challenge for our Hunger Action Network here in the presbytery is to figure out a variety of ways to have conversations with people in our congregations about the bigger picture of hunger.”

Hunger Action Advocates serve multi-pronged roles as educators, motivators, and facilitators, working with churches on both short-term and long-term actions against hunger. Their work is funded by their presbyteries and grants from the Presbyterian Hunger Program, or PHP, which is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.

Their ultimate goal is to help congregations to understand that “people are coming to these community meals and food pantries because they’re hungry because of other underlying issues,” she said.

That kind of work is invaluable to PHP.

“One of the things I’ve always noted and appreciated about Laura is her understanding and commitment to the importance of advocacy related to hunger and justice work,” said Jessica Maudlin, PHP’s Associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care Concerns. “She gets that without networking and advocacy, deep and lasting change isn’t possible.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitates staying apart instead of coming together for meetings and services, has complicated matters, but VanDale and her colleagues in Ohio are continuing to push forward, using technology, such as videoconferencing.

Laura VanDale, a Hunger Action Advocate in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, tries to get  Ohio congregations to have bigger conversations around the causes of hunger. (Photo by Kimberly Boone)

With the help of a savvy office administrator, “we’re doing a lot, technologically,” she said. “We’re maintaining a lot of connection with our pastors. We had a Zoom coffee hour, where folks could just drop in and sort of ask questions or visit. Every single day, we feel like we are reinventing what we’re doing.”

Right now, VanDale and other members of the Hunger Action Network are working with a representative of the advocacy group Bread for the World on how to do a letter-writing campaign while church members are sheltering in place at home.

Bread for the World describes itself as a collective Christian voice urging the nation’s decision-makers to end hunger in this country and abroad.

Nicole Schmidt is the Ohio state organizer for Bread for the World. Its annual campaign asks churches to take up an Offering of Letters to Congress on legislation that impacts people who are hungry and poor.

VanDale “helps coordinate Bread for the World’s Offering of Letters campaign,” Schmidt said in an email. “Last year she played a big role in organizing hundreds of letters to Congress on the Global Food Security Act Reauthorization. Laura is vital in communicating advocacy opportunities to the local church, as a part of their broader mission to care for the poor.”

Also, VanDale “has been actively involved in promoting ways for church members to take action around the COVID-19 crisis as it is a really scary time for our neighbors struggling with hunger.”

VanDale explained her passion for the work in correspondence to the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

“We can (and must!) have a voice in how policies are created and people are treated — whether this is around hunger specifically or the broader issues which result in hunger,” she wrote. “It is not easy and we cannot do it alone, but we must keep at it.”

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to support the Presbyterian Hunger Program in its work to alleviate hunger and eliminate its root causes.

To listen to how other aspects of PHP and OGHS programs are responding to COVID-19 and how to support the Offering in this time, please view this webinar.


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