by Shelly Barsuhn
photography by Josh Stokes
Northwestern students and alumni are forging relationships and seeking healthy conversation in state government
The path between the Northwestern College campus and the Minnesota State Capitol has become a well-worn route, traveled by students, alumni and parents. Northwestern is currently the common connection point for three senators, a representative, a legislative assistant and several interns each semester. Public service is a chance to live out convictions while serving the state and constituents. Internships offer students an opportunity to break out of the “bubble” of college life and get their hands into real issues.
In a time when people feel discouraged by their politicians’ seemingly obstinate inability to get along, these public servants may give you hope.
The art of listening
Can people who follow Jesus navigate today’s polarized viewpoints with unique sensitivity?
Brian Gordon ’10, who works for U.S. Congressman Chip Cravaack, says that respect matters. Certain topics will create division and even outright animosity, but “respect of the other person’s views” is a good first step.
State Senator John C. Pederson ’90 (District 15) views listening as an “obligation of an elected official” and is always open to talk with people who disagree with him. “If people are treated fairly through that process, they’ll understand that they’ve been heard.”
Not that it is always a pleasant experience. Representative Pamela Myhra (District 40A) recalls receiving a “very upsetting, negative” letter. She followed up, and after a long conversation, the writer of the letter asked for forgiveness.
“I think it’s important to stay grounded in your convictions,” said Rep. Myhra, the mother of three NWC students. “Listening to others doesn’t mean you give up or give in on key things.”
Intern Justin Myhra ’12 is helping with his mom’s re-election campaign and has learned to counter political vitriol with the common wisdom: “Seek first to understand before you’re understood.”
Reading constituents’ letters opens windows to understanding. Intern Kayla Schwartz ’13 said letters and e-mails can show, “‘This is how this issue affects me.’ Even if I didn’t agree, it’s made me understand…and made me more informed.”
Even in disagreement, Christians should be guided by the life modeled by Jesus, said Max Rymer ’13, who interns for Rep. Myhra. “If Jesus Christ were a politician, I think he would be loving and willing to listen to others.”
Cooperation and relationship building
At its best, the political sphere is where individuals of diverse convictions come together to work out differences. At its worst, it is the arena for inflexibility, standoffs and bad behavior.
Progress can’t always occur without conflict. “Part of being a leader is about making decisions—and sometimes difficult decisions,” said Senator Benjamin Kruse (District 47), who is enrolled in NWC’s FOCUS program. “Sometimes you need to have a healthy conflict and healthy debate.”
But conflict can also become a barrier to process. “There are people who say, ‘If it comes from across the aisle, I’m not going to listen to it,’” said Rep. Myhra. “I don’t find that helpful.”
She described the reciprocal interaction that occurs when a bill is taking shape. “You take an idea, write it out, put it in a bill and go to committee. Members on both sides of the aisle ask questions. You improve, improve and improve on it. There are times when people across the aisle have really good ideas.”
Sen. Pederson said, “There’s little that we can do by ourselves in this life if we’re always off doing our own thing, unconcerned about the relationships around us. Isolated, we will be ineffective. That’s true in friendship, family, business, church and politics.”
Living out beliefs—even in hardship
For many Christians involved in politics, the practice of their faith is critical. “I think there’s a lot of prayer behind the scenes,” said Sen. Kruse. “There’s a group of senators and a like group in the House of Representatives that get together and pray once a week. That’s a huge part of keeping grounded.”
Jeanette Purcell ’09, who interned while an undergraduate and now works in her own fundraising firm, said, “One of the most important things that has gotten me through this has been a network of Christian mentors and prayer.” She recalled a time when going with the flow—a direction that she felt was contrary to her faith—would have meant getting a good position. She turned down the opportunity.
Being under constant watch can make the political life a harsh reality. Politicians are filmed, photographed and analyzed. Every word is up for scrutiny. And in that super-charged political environment, said Sen. Kruse, “fifty percent of the people in the room disagree with you.” The constant confrontation can be disheartening. “It’s easy to feel like you have to defend yourself; I don’t think that’s a good representation of Christ. We are called to be peacemakers. We’re called to be lights, to shine.”
Serving for a purpose
Self-sacrifice. Humility. Love. Listening. Prayerfulness. They are not the attributes typically associated with politicians, but for NWC alumni, parents and students involved in the political sphere, they are core values.
Sen. Pederson said, “I believe that each of us is in this spot for a purpose. That purpose is much higher than a lot of us even understand.”
Rep. Myhra concurs. “My relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is the only reason why I’m doing any of this, [which is] deeper than political gain or power. If the Lord wants me here, I’m happy to serve him here.”