We close the New Mexico installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series with this piece.
A reflection by the Rev. Chuck Exley,
St. Luke Lutheran Church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The concept of advocacy, in my vocabulary, means speaking up for those who do not or cannot speak up for themselves. It’s an intercession, not unlike intercessory prayer when we turn to God on behalf of those in need. Advocacy, however, involves speaking to individuals of authority within the human realm. We take the time, the trouble, and the risk to express our concerns, our outrage or our pleas for compassion.
In most cases such advocacy takes the form of signing petitions, writing letters, meeting personally with powerful people, or making some other public show of support. Many of us have advocated in this way countless times. We have been encouraged, inspired, or cajoled by any manner of activist to reach out beyond ourselves. In fact, it is often the very same advocates who are recruited time after time to make their voices heard. We know each other. We have worked together for years. We comfortably speak in each other’s name. It’s a tight group; almost an elite group!
But, therein lies one of the critical difficulties in advocacy: finding more advocates. Prayer chains can bring innumerable individuals together, praying silently in the seclusion and anonymity of one’s home. Advocacy, on the other hand, has no such luxury. To be an advocate means making your name – if not your face – known to everyone. Your feelings and your position on hunger policy or some other controversial issue are exposed. Taking such a step, especially for the first time, requires some degree of self-sacrifice. How do we motivate individuals to take such a step; to leave their comfort zone and stand publicly with people society would gladly dismiss; to put their faith out front?
I think the answer lies in telling stories. None other than Jesus himself found stories to be essential. His parables fill us with the profoundly beautiful combining of knowledge and inspiration. No list of facts, no course of study could communicate so fully or touch us so deeply. But Jesus’ parables are not the only parables around us. There are countless parables – stories that surround us with the telling of God’s love in the midst of ordinary life. Parables contain the motivating spirit of God’s love.
Let me tell you a story. My wife teaches first grade. The children she teaches include some of the poorest and most deprived children in Albuquerque. She has done this for a very long time. She teaches them in Spanish rather than English. For many, it is the only language they know. It becomes their point of entry into an experience that may well change their lives. But all the children, Spanish speakers and English speakers alike, learn each other’s tongue very quickly. Within weeks they speak with each other as freely and easily as any children anywhere – playing, laughing, chattering as the teacher tells them to be still.
Not so with their parents. It is they who must interact with the culture around them. But some – perhaps many – are completely illiterate; not just in English but in Spanish as well. Their inabilities lie at the heart of their poverty and hunger; seen most graphically in their need for food each month. But, imagine, if you can, sitting with a 6-year-old child who is learning to read. The lesson, however, is not about vowel sounds or spelling. Instead the teacher explains, “If you do this you can teach your mother to read.” She goes on to demonstrate what the child might try while recounting his day at school. His expression changes as he listens with new interest.
This is my wife’s story. It is one of her experiences in caring for her students. And yet, the story of her experience becomes my parable. And my parable becomes the challenge to advocate that I can share time and time again. Such is the gift of a story: it can be told and retold to any who are willing to listen. Each telling touches a listener with the spirit of advocacy; with the challenge to tell others of something that touched his or her heart; with the imagining of possibilities for a more equitable world. Each telling becomes like the call to the disciples: Go and tell what you hear and what you know. Your experience becomes my parable, and every parable becomes an invitation to advocate for those God loves.
We have been too quiet. We have been too quiet in advocating for our hungry neighbors. We know so much about God’s work in the world that we have been unwilling to tell. I can imagine no other way of inspiring, gathering, or recruiting advocates than to touch their hearts with the active presence of God’s love. We all have stories worth telling. And, they are probably more powerful than any of us know. Your experience becomes my parable, which invites all listeners to advocate for God’s people in need.
Go and tell!