Years ago, when my husband and I were young MCC service workers in the Philippines, we visited Jose and Lita (names changed) in prison. A married couple, the two Catholic lay leaders had been detained for their efforts to organize communities against the corrupt and violent dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos.
We had already visited a number of prisons and knew, as we arrived at the facility where Jose and Lita were held, that we would likely find them in decrepit surroundings – with inadequate food, crowded and harsh accommodations, and abusive treatment.
How surprised we were to find the couple in their own comfortable dwelling within the prison compound.
We asked them about their situation – so different from the prisoners we could see behind bars across the courtyard. They explained, “It’s because Amnesty has taken up our cause.”
Amnesty International, the respected human rights organization, had indeed identified Jose and Lita as prisoners of conscience. It had urged its supporters to write Filipino officials, demanding the couple receive fair and decent treatment as they awaited trial. People had responded, and letters from around the world had made Lita and Jose’s prison stay much more comfortable than it might have been. Those letters also possibly played a role in the dismissal of charges against the couple later on.
This experience, among others, convinced me of the importance of calling authorities to account when their actions cause harm and injustice. It persuaded me of the importance of addressing systems which oppress. In other words, it converted me to the ministry of advocacy.
That experience, so many years ago, was transformative. It continues to inform my perspective on MCC’s ministry of service to those in need. I remain convinced that advocacy, undertaken in a spirit of Christian love, is an essential part of MCC’s mission. It is as important as donating money, volunteering in a thrift shop, or knotting a comforter.
In many situations, letters and other means of communication will not make such a sudden and dramatic difference as they did in the case of Jose and Lita. Oftentimes, the work of advocacy is painstakingly slow, with few immediate results. Yet, advocacy remains an essential means of witness and service, with and on behalf of those who suffer, in keeping with the biblical call to seek justice.
What are the things that have called you to become an advocate? Is it a similar experience or encounter? A story? A new understanding of scripture? A compelling argument? Or, conversely, what are the things that keep you from becoming an advocate?
As public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada, my job is to help people become advocates. I welcome your thoughts on how I and my colleagues can best do this. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada and its Ottawa Office.