I am the daughter of a politician. My father served as member of the Florida State Senate in 1966, he was elected to serve as the 5th Congressional District of Florida’s member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, and he served as the Insurance Commissioner/Treasurer/Fire Marshall of the State of Florida from 1976 – 1988. It is precisely because of my early and in depth exposure to politics that I ran kicking and screaming from all things political. For me, politics equaled public scrutiny, fabricated stories and sometimes damaging encounters with people I knew and loved. It was not for me!
During seminary I remember thinking, “Thank God I was called into ministry and we can’t even broach the subject of politics in church because of all the differing opinions.” I also recall a phone call from a church member in a congregation where I served during an intense presidential election. Every week at her women’s Bible study group at church someone prayed for their chosen candidate to win as if you could not be a Christian and vote any other way. This woman was trying to take the high road, but still wanted her friends to understand how hurtful their prayers were since she was a person of deep faith and planned to vote for a different candidate. It was another example to me of how church and politics did not play well together.
It wasn’t until Stephen Reeves, CBF Global’s Associate Coordinator of Partnerships and Advocacy, asked me to consider joining the larger ecumenical and interfaith community on an advocacy issue that needed urgent attention in my state, that I even contemplated the work of public advocacy. Sure, I would vote, and would contact my representatives when an issue of importance to me arose, but never was I outspoken on such matters due to my past experiences. Yet the patterns of brokenness I continued to see were not changing for the better. Instead it seemed that those living in poverty were being drawn deeper into a chasm from which they might never emerge. I came to the conclusion that in seeking solutions for the sake of transforming my community, my state and our nation, missions alone would not cut it. I began to learn how to use my voice in the public square in order to demonstrate my love for God and my neighbors.
I still don’t have the work of advocacy all figured out, but here are some things I have learned along the way:
Know Your Why
It is imperative for people of faith to take the time to reflect on our own personal “why” for participating in advocacy. Why is using my voice in the public square a necessary part of my spiritual practice? What life experiences have made me passionate about this particular issue? And if you have not yet felt a personal calling to be an advocate, you may need to ask yourself, “Why not?”
Ready or Not, Jump!
There are matters of dire need in our world that require our attention now. If people of faith wait until we feel prepared to participate in advocacy, we may be too late to affect change on matters that are pressing today. If you wait to call your senator until you feel educated enough about the issue, the vote may have already taken place. If you hold off on testifying in a legislative committee because you’ve never done so before, who will be there to speak on behalf of the poor? The work of advocacy is one that can best be learned while in the process of engaging in it.
Recognize Your Humanity
You are one person. You cannot be THE champion for every cause. It is much more practical to consider becoming fully engaged in the work of one or two advocacy issues and then jump into the shallow waters on other issues that are important to you as they arise.
Be Prepared to Lose
The work of advocacy involves many defeats. Long before you are able to see positive change you will experiences losses. Oftentimes it takes years of effort before a success of any magnitude can be achieved. Don’t get discouraged! Take the time to name everything you gained in pursuit of your goal, even when you didn’t reach your desired outcome.
Collaboration is Key
You are not the only one who feels passionately about any given issue. Join forces with those in your city, state and across the country who feel the same way about a certain issue and share the load in pursuit of your goal.
Get Over Yourself
Stop being offended by the things an advocacy partner stands for that you disagree with and focus on that which you have in common in order to meet your advocacy goal. So many would-be advocates walk away from the work because they could not get past a difference in opinion that varied from their own. We will never transform our communities unless we can learn to work with those who believe differently than we do. Sometimes we have to suck it up and focus on what is at stake.
Don’t wait! We can all be a part of transforming our communities today by participating in the work of faith-based advocacy.
Rachel Gunter Shapard serves as the associate coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida. She is pictured fourth from left in the above photo.