U.S. hunger. Poverty. Climate change. Foreign aid. The Middle East.
The list reads like a presidential cabinet agenda. Instead, this weighty catalog represents issues important to Lutherans and – in particular – Lutherans guiding the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Washington Office.
At the forefront of these issues – perhaps sometimes in the line of fire – is 2000 Trinity graduate Andrew Genszler, director of the Washington office and a passionate advocate on Capitol Hill. “Advocacy,” he says, directs his call to ministry and should grow out of all Lutherans’ faith. In fact, he supports this mission with a passage from John 15: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
|Drew Genszler during a recent trip to Trinity.|
This is the Scriptural call to advocate on behalf of the homeless, of those who live in poverty or lack health care, and of those who live in the line of fire in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Luther also called on Christians to advocate in the public sphere.
“I tell people that good advocacy is local, it is Biblical and – thirdly and most important – it is Lutheran…Writing a letter from a youth group to a member of Congress is actually adding to the pile that Luther and Melanchthon wrote to their burghers and town councils,” he says.
In any one week, Genszler might travel to Denver for a conference on hunger or homelessness; write a letter on behalf of Bishop Mark Hanson to members of Congress or the U.S president regarding the administration and climate change; or preach in an ELCA congregation about the importance of advocacy as it relates to theology and
our Lutheran heritage.
In January, he accompanied 44 bishops representing the ELCA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) to Israel and the West Bank for a series of meetings with religious, political and community leaders. At home, he has connected members of rural Midwestern synods with members of congress who are working on the U.S. farm bill and its impact on rural communities. In turn, he encourages the same synods to unite with their neighbors in Africa who may be impacted by our farm bill’s initiatives.
“Good advocacy is when we can connect members of congress to Lutherans in their local district, and vice versa; when we can motivate Lutherans to meet with their congressional leaders,” says Genszler. Hunger and homeless are two “urgent issues” the Washington office regularly addresses. “We try to speak with and for people not regularly heard…the people living in poverty and, also, the shrinking middle class that has been ignored in policy,” he says.
In a telephone interview from his office just two months before the inauguration of the nation’s first African American president, Genszler was quick to add that the current president’s party affiliation has little impact on the work of the ELCA’s Washington office.
Issues of poverty, hunger and climate change cross party lines, says Genszler, who also believes the words “Republican” and “Democrat” do not hold the same meaning they once did. “Those who argue a strict party line seem ‘old generation,’ not part of the new solution. I think, increasingly, a large number of Americans are registered as Independent,” he says. And he appreciates having a young, energetic staff that embraces this phenomenon.
Genszler sees their work as that of engaging people rather than policies. The people he meets, the members of Congress, are more interested in what Lutherans from their district are doing. “What people in Washington really care about is, number one, what are Lutherans doing collectively in my district? And, number two, how many Lutherans can the ELCA office muster to put some voices behind what we’re saying?” he says. If the Washington office encounters a congregation with a significant “green program,” Genszler encourages them to share their stories and needs with members of Congress.
“To move from charity to public policy is a leap for Lutherans,” he says. “People are volunteering and doing development all the time. The next step for us is to make advocacy a natural progression. Advocacy is organically related to the kind of volunteering we do.”
A political science major at Wittenberg University and the son of a Lutheran pastor, Genszler always had an interest in politics and the church. His interest in advocacy continued to emerge at Trinity in his Interim travels to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, to Washington D.C., and to Cuba; and through work with organizations in Columbus, such as BREAD and the Interfaith Hospitality Network. His professors’ emphasis on the Lutheran confessions, history, and public theology also paved his path to Washington.
“What I grew into at Trinity, through practical experience and classroom experience, is that we have a ‘cultural moment’ in this country for Christians to reclaim the word Christian, and the Christian language,” he says. “I wouldn’t last very long without a constructive sense of what the Bible says about speaking for vulnerable people, peacemaking, and care for creation. I work with a lot of secular partners who seem jaded, and I constantly draw on a wellspring of hope from faith.”