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.So Help Me God
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

 

On the office wall of Michigan State Senator William Van Regenmorter '61 hangs this verse:Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Proverbs 31: 8

These words of Solomon reflect the standard that he has tried to meet ever since becoming involved in politics 20 years ago.

Serving others is a common theme among Calvin alumni like Van Regenmorter. In fact, a part of Calvin's mission statement reads that the purpose of Calvin College is "to engage in vigorous liberal arts education that promotes life-long Christian service."

Given the purpose of Calvin, it should come as no surprise then to find eight seats of the Michigan State legislature filled by people who attended or graduated from Calvin.

"I think it is no accident that there are eight Calvin alumni in the legislature," said State Representative Bill Byl '71, of Grand Rapids. "We all come from a Reformed perspective which emphasizes calling and service and mission and that does not mean just missionaries and ministers. Calvin emphasizes serving in whatever place we're called and that includes the political process."

However, Byl did admit to some amazement after reviewing statistics on the number of various school's alumni in the legislature.

"It is far out of proportion when comparing our number of students and alumni to Western Michigan's, Michigan State's or University of Michigan's," he said. "We have the same number of alumni as most of the larger universities have current students."

Besides being called to serve, Byl believes that there are other factors involved in Calvin's disproportionate number.

"We have a very strong history of intellectual development in the Reformed tradition," he said. "You don't listen to sermons 52 days out of the year and not develop some thinking ability. Calvin hones that and it is a good match for the political arena."

Byl also added that Calvin's liberal arts perspective is ideal for the political process.

"The liberal arts framework helps people think of and look at the big picture," he said. "In politics you have to be a generalist and consider different ideas. Calvin is as good at developing that as any place I've ever seen. As an engineer fully half of the classes I took were in the liberal arts. That serves the college well; it serves the community well; and it serves the legislature well."

Nowhere is the liberal arts background more obvious than in a quick listing of the octet's majors: math and engineering, business, history, political science, special education and English.

None of the eight envisioned themselves as politicians and all were encouraged to run for office by an outside source.

"If you would have told me 16 years ago that this is where I would be, I would have said you were crazy," said State Representative Wayne Kuipers '83. "If I would have known all this, I probably would have chosen a different major. The interesting thing is how God worked on my servant heart and attitude through my special education major."

Kuipers, of Holland, went from Calvin into small business. "It was after I started working that I got involved with Kiwanis, the Rotary Club, special education ministries and as a tutor and director for Kids' Hope in our church," he said. "I see my role now as an extension of that. I am the people's eyes and ears in Lansing. I got to bat for them."

Going to bat for individuals is also what gives State Representative Jon Jellema '66, of Grand Haven, the most satisfaction.

A former English professor at Grand Valley State University, near Grand Rapids, Jellema feels his job now and his previous job of teaching have a lot in common.

"There's always an element of education involved in dealing with constituents. Either you are educating them about laws and procedures or you are educating Lansing about their particular needs," he said.

Specifically, Jellema was approached by an elderly man in his district who could not drink his water due to a contamination problem.

As a response, Jellema authored the Safe Drinking Water Act, which helps direct federal money to local municipalities who have drinking water that is unsafe.

"That type of thing has been real rewarding for me," said Jellema.

Rewarding for Van Regemorter, of Hudsonville, has been the passing of Michigan's Crime Victims Rights Act, which he authored and has since become a constitutional amendment.

"It was the first comprehensive crime victims Bill of Rights in the nation," he said. "It gives victims the right to notification, participation, protection and restitution."

It came about after Van Regenmorter had heard numerous stories from victims felt powerless working within the judicial and criminal justice system.

"Their stories were very moving to me," he said. "This truly was a case of speaking up for those who couldn't speak for themselves because they had no right to do so."

Representative Jerry Van Woerkom '69, of Muskegon, believes that attitudes like Van Regenmorter's develop over time.

"Calvin really stresses upon people the importance of transforming the world," said Van Woerkom. "You can do that in any walk of life. But by being a light in government, it really allows you to influence a lot of people. I think what I see and what my Calvin colleagues see is that Christians should be involved in politics. If we sit on the sidelines, then the non-Christians are in control."

Van Woerkom weighs each issue considering whether or not it will make Michigan a better place to live, he said.

Representative `Jim Koetje '76, of Grandville, uses the same criteria.

"If we can make Michigan a better state-culturally, educationally, economically-for our kids, then we've made an impact," said Koetje. "I'm happy to be in the House while the state has been looking carefully at education. We've developed the Detroit schools rescue plan and it's been exciting to see their educational opportunities improve."

"I am on the education committee and I think a lot has been done to enhance education in our state," added Van Woerkom.

As a former school superintendent, Van Woerkom has found the education aspect to be especially intriguing.

"It's really satisfying to be on this end working to make education in Michigan better," he said. "Being involved as a teacher, principal and superintendent for almost 30 years and now as a legislator has given me the opportunity to see education from all perspectives."

Like Van Woerkom, Doug Hart '92, of Rockford, was also in education but only for one year before becoming involved in politics. Hart was asked to work for State Representative Jack Horton in 1993.

"I thought some real-life experience in politics would be good to take back to the classroom," said Hart. "The whole time I worked for him I never expected to take his place."

Hart, however, has had a passion for politics all his life.

"I went door-to-door for candidates in elementary school," he said. "I campaigned for Paul Henry. I knew a lot about federal government and politics in junior high school. I was like a real-life Alex Keaton [the young character, with lofty political aspirations, on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties]. Then I burned out on politics and I got a teaching degree. I assumed that's what I would be doing for the rest of my life."

His interest was revitalized while working for Horton. "After a few years I started thinking, 'Hey, I can do this. I understand the nuances of how government bureaucracies work. I felt I had a certain level of competence and I was inspired by people like [U.S. Congressman] Vern Ehlers '55 and [former U.S. Congressman ] Paul Henry [a former Calvin political science professor].

"Public service is dignified at Calvin," added Hart. "When you have people like these two representing their constituents with the integrity they do, that validates that politics is one way to go about redeeming the earth."

One of the areas Hart is most passionate about is in figuring out "ways that we can expand partnerships between state government and the non-profit sector to the vulnerable in society."

"People need relationships," he said. "We [government] can help people survive by giving them food and shelter, but we can't help them climb out of their scenario. We would like to find ways to bring communities together to help fix their problems."

This is something that both Hart and Mark Jansen '89, of Grand Rapids, feel so passionate about that they have partnered to establish the "We Can Make a Difference" campaign.

One part of the campaign will feature a human services exposition which will bring together 175 charitable non-profit organizations to highlight their available services and recruit volunteers.

Looking back, Jansen, who previously served in youth ministries, found going into public service a natural step for him although he was initially so convinced.

"I was approached by the local township clerk's wife and was told he was retiring and I should consider the position," said Jansen. "At the time I didn't even know what the township clerk did. I would have laughed at the idea of running for office. In fact, in 1992 I did laugh at her."

Jansen was ultimately elected after moving to the correct district and went on to the state representative seat he now holds.

"I have seen the Lord's hand working the whole way through this process," he said, "and I truly believe that I am in a mission field right now. The way I live my life right now draws a curiosity out of people. I make a conscious effort to do that. There are many people that I meet who are searching so I ask myself, 'What can I do to make a difference here?'"

Besides the "We Can Make a Difference campaign," Jansen has organized two home buildings for Habitat for Humanity with his colleagues.

"People asked me, 'Why did you do this?' and I told them integrating my faith into what I do is very important to me. Calvin really stresses that you have to pull your faith into your calling. I'm trying to do that here."

Kuipers has also organized a mentoring program for his colleagues in which they work with at-risk students in schools within their districts

"Some had never done that before and I was told it was the highlight of their first eight months in office," Kuipers said. "It seemed so simple to me, but they didn't have the vehicle to do it. I think it's a great way to find out what's going on in the schools and to help a young kid."

All of the alumni agreed that integrating one's faith into the political arena, while challenging, is a necessary and worthwhile endeavor.

When Jansen first came to Lansing after being elected in 1996, he was "like the little kid who comes to Chicago and sees all of those big buildings for the first time."

" I was in awe of this place, this institution," he said. "But when I was sworn in, the final words of the oath are 'So help me God.'"

Jansen said that thinking about who he is really working for brings it all into perspective.

"Some people have it on their hearts that there should be more Christians in politics," he said. "To make that happen more have to step in there to make a difference. We have a stronger presence in Lansing partly because of the Calvin people we have there, but we're only there for six years. There's always opportunity for more."

Lynn Rosendale is Calvin's publications coordinator.

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