Donna Burney is not your typical advocate, after serving as an English professor and then with Woman's Missionary Union, she retired. But, a few years ago, Donna became aware of the uncertainty facing women just released from prison.
The Lord gave Donna a heart for these women and a few years ago, she began “Light in the Gap” ministry. Volunteers literally meet women in the gap of time between their old lives as prisoners and their new lives in their communities.
Since its founding only a few years ago, Light in the Gap volunteers have met some 4,000 recently release women at the bus stops in their towns. They bring cookies and bags filled with toiletries and a devotional. During the winter they bring coats. But mostly, they bring Christ’s love and hope to women who feel forgotten and a deep sense of shame about their pasts.
Donna saw through her ministry an injustice, one that the hugs and prayers, while powerful, could not correct.
She reached out to the Christian Life Commission and asked for our help. The women Donna was ministering to needed an advocate to stand in the gap for them. The women needed their elected officials to step in and get the government agency responsible to change its policy. Donna met me in Austin, and we went to meet the men and women with the power to change the policy.
Before our first meeting, we prayed for God, our advocate, to stand in the gap for us, to give our words power and to give us favor with those we were to meet. And He did!
In our last meeting of the day, officials from the exact agency we needed to make a change happened to have just met with the elected official and he called them back into the office. They agreed to change the policy and one even asked Donna to meet again to collaborate on ways to better assist these ladies as they re-integrate into their communities. We had an extraordinary success, and not every advocacy effort ends this quickly, but God does call us to make the effort where we can.
Donna is not a professional lobbyist. She was nervous, but she went into those offices and asked for a change in policy. She is simply a woman faithfully serving the women God called her to minister to. Donna is one of my personal heroes. She had a successful career, but she has never stopped serving. She was nervous, but she came to the Capitol and spoke up anyway.
Many Christians are afraid of advocacy. They are afraid to step into the public square because they feel they do not know enough or they may be rejected for their beliefs, so they sit on the sidelines while a broken and desperate world looks for salvation and hope in all the wrong places.
Presbyterian minister and PBS television host, Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, suggested that in times of disaster we should “look for helpers.” Our country is in need of more Christian helpers, motivated by the love of Christ to care for the hurting and the hopeless.
Advocacy is one way to pursue justice and love your neighbor. The best advocates are the ones with lived experiences, the ones in the trenches doing the work and serving their communities just like Donna. Her advocacy was tied to her ministry. When we are focused on ministry, it is easier to avoid partisan entanglements because your focus tends to be on helping those in your ministry.
Donna could not sit on the sidelines while the women she loved were being deprived of their dignity; she had to act. Her advocacy came from a place of deep love for the women she served, because she saw them as God sees them -- “beloved daughters.”
We need more Christians like Donna -- people who serve with gentleness and kindness the lost, the least, and the overlooked in their communities (Luke 10:25-37).
We need people who will speak with boldness and humility about injustice (Esther 8).
We need people who will pray and earnestly seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7)
As we engage our communities our eyes are opened to suffering and injustice, we can respond in faithfulness with justice and mercy (Matthew 22:23).
We all are called to go beyond the four walls of our churches out into our communities as the hands and feet of Jesus. We all have the opportunity, like Donna, to stand in the gap for our neighbors. We all, like Donna, can be advocates.
If you're interested in learning more about advocacy, there is still time to join us for Advocacy Day on March 26 and 27. Sign up at www.texasbaptists.org/advocacyday.