Jessica Arneson has always been passionate about caring for others. “It was deeply rooted in my upbringing,” she says.
Her grandmother taught that caring for the poor matters greatly. “And my mom, who was a special-education teacher, taught me about empathy,” says Jessica, who admits that as a child she also daydreamed about becoming a missionary overseas or serving as a spokesperson for Amnesty International.
She had big dreams, and the influences of her mother and grandmother planted a seed in Jessica. But as she got older and life became busy, the growth of that seed remained dormant.
“As an adult I got busy with being a mom and a wife,” she says. “I had also worked as a nursing assistant, volunteered as first-responder for the local ambulance squad, served part-time at a veterinary clinic and was an active member at church,” says Jessica, who is a member of Martin Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Casselton, N.D.
Although there was little room for anything else, Jessica knew that she was destined to do more with her life. And at age 30, her passions from childhood were unleashed, unexpectedly.
Becoming an advocate
In 2006 Jessica attended her congregation’s annual women’s retreat. There she was asked what she would do in life if money and other things were not a factor, and what it would take to make dreams a reality.
“Well, I knew that my husband and daughter would not move out of North Dakota if I were to pursue my dream of becoming a missionary. With the second question, however, I realized that I could become a missionary in North Dakota. Here, I can do what I can, right where I am and make a difference,” she says.
Something clicked within Jessica, and those childhood passions resurfaced. It was a now a new beginning, and she decided to go back to school.
“I studied social work and became active in the community,” says Jessica. And during that time, the pastor of her congregation was looking for someone to serve as a hunger contact between the congregation and the ELCA Eastern North Dakota Synod.
“I didn’t know much about that,” says Jessica, “but my pastor encouraged me and said that the ELCA provides resources to help educate about hunger and poverty.” In addition to connecting with ELCA World Hunger, Jessica also became trained to serve as a hunger advocate through Bread for the World.
Two years after the women’s retreat Jessica found herself resurrecting the synod’s hunger and justice committee, and in 2010 she worked with the committee on submitting a resolution that would commit the synod to making hunger and poverty the theme of the 2011 assembly of the synod.
“Every part of the assembly focused on hunger — workshops, panel presentations, everything. And since then, we have seen congregations increase their giving to ELCA World Hunger,” says Jessica.
“(Since) the day that I became a hunger advocate, learning more about hunger and poverty in the context of Lutheran theology, I’ve become a stronger Christian. And being a stronger Christian has made me a stronger advocate. It’s a cycle that’s deepening my faith and deepening my advocacy work,” she says.
Advocacy creates new opportunities
Jessica’s commitment to advocacy has led her to acquire her “dream job” of becoming agency relations manager for the Great Plains Food Bank, a position she’ll start in June. But it’s not ending there — she’s also making a run for a seat in the North Dakota Senate in the November 2012 elections.
“There’s a big economic boom in North Dakota with the extraction of oil,” says Jessica. “It’s very exciting and things here are moving fast. We have jobs in the field, but there are people being displaced because of the boom. The cost of living has gone up dramatically,” she says, adding that increases in rent and groceries have produced a hardship for some people in the state.
“I want to make sure that people are not left behind. We value our neighbors, friends and family, but I don’t feel that people are at the forefront of discussions at our state capitol,” she says.
Jessica’s passion and commitment to advocacy has led her to meet Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran peace activist from Liberia who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She met Leymah at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March 2012. She attended the gathering as an ELCA representative.
“What inspired me the most (about the gathering) was being in the midst of women from around the world, who are equally as passionate as me about community and rural issues, hunger and poverty,” she says.
“Women came in every dress and in every language, and we were unified by this common ground of humanity, caring for our families and caring for each other, as well as a desire for strength and health in our community.” And, Jessica says, meeting Leymah “was awesome.”
As Jessica’s work in the ELCA calls her to work on projects that will empower rural women to be engaged in their communities, increase awareness and giving to ELCA World Hunger, and to work toward impacting social policies, she also hopes to “shine God’s light in places of darkness, in places of struggle, indifference and idleness.
“I feel called to make a difference and to be in solidarity with people who are hungry and poor. I feel called to make their voices heard and that they are not left behind. I feel called to share the message that in everyone with whom I come across I will see the image of God,” she says, “particularly among the hungry and poor with whom Jesus has called us to serve.”