TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–Don’t tell Olivia Shindel that Christianity and politics don’t mix. To the question, “Why should Christians be involved in politics,” Shindel answers, “I say, ‘How can you not be?’ It not only directly affects your life in every area, the Bible speaks clearly about defending our values.”
Shindel and her husband, Tom, joined 32 others from Tampa’s Idlewild Baptist Church recently on a two-day trek to Tallahassee to meet their legislators, learn how government works and tour historic sites in the state capitol. It was the seventh annual trip for Idlewild’s Call to Action Committee, a group of church members empowered to educate the church on moral and public policy issues throughout the year.
The committee was the passion of Sara Tillis. Nearly ten years ago, she and other members of Idlewild were concerned about public policy developments in Washington and Tallahassee and believed that Christians should be informed about what was taking place so that they could make a difference.
In addition to the Tallahassee trip, the committee has other activities to educate its members about government. The committee
— publishes a quarterly newsletter;
— holds voter registration drives;
— hosts forums with candidates for public office;
— maintains information kiosks with brochures from the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and other publications about moral and public policy issues; and
— distributes action alerts to church members urging them to contact their representatives at key times when votes in Washington and Tallahassee are imminent.
“Education is main thing we do,” said Tillis in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness in Tallahassee. Church members “want to learn more. As one member said, ‘I’m not going to be a part of the uninformed anymore.'”
In its decade of existence, Tillis has noted growth in the committee and in interest by other members of the church. The committee currently has 28 members, the largest in the history of the group.
But, why would “ordinary people” take two days out of their lives to visit their state capitol?
“It’s exciting to be in Tallahassee. That’s where it’s at!” Tillis answers.
Leading her sixth trip to the state capitol in early April, Tillis adds, “I’ve enjoyed bringing people here because they learn so much. When they get home, they’re mouth is hanging open. They can’t believe all the things they have seen and heard and learned. That’s a joy for me.”
All kinds of people made the trip: homemakers, mechanics, professionals, homeschool students, retired persons.
Although members don’t have to have a degree in political science, interest in government and issues is a requirement.
That’s not a problem for Olivia Shindel. The homemaker and pediatric occupational therapist has a passion for children and the pro-life issue. Going to Tallahassee was “awesome.”
“I love the fact that I can see the reality of what goes on to make our government work,” she said. “It gave me a deeper appreciation for the people who serve in public office. I love our country so much the more, even with the problems. … I got to see the reality of how things work.”
“I baby-sit while she goes to the meetings,” Tom jokes about his committee member wife. The Shindel’s have two young children. Olivia is grateful for her husband’s support. “We all have passions in certain areas. This is my passion. Tom helps to let me fulfill that passion.”
But the trip helped Tom, too: “I’ve learned so much from this trip. … I didn’t know you had to get a bill passed to get something done. I didn’t realize the process that you have to go through. It’s so complicated.”
For Bill Bunkley, the trip has a long-term, as well as short-term objective. In addition to meeting with legislators and sharing concerns about bills that are currently under consideration, Bunkley believes the visit to the state capitol may shape the futures of some of the kids on the trip.
“When those kids come and experience this, someone out of that group is going to think about some sort of career in public policy.” Past participants in the trip have gone on to serve as a senator’s intern, while another served as a House page (courier).
Bunkley is no stranger to the political process. A veteran of politics and public policy, Bunkley serves as the Florida Baptist Convention’s legislative consultant. He also owns a mortgage and real estate company in Tampa and has been a member of Idlewild since the early ’80s.
“I think the model for the state is Idlewild,” Bunkley said. Noting that legislators are more sensitive to direct constituent contact than to professional lobbyists, Bunkley added, “I think Florida Baptists could become very effective if we had churches coming in and out of Tallahassee with their folks who are articulate about the issues.”
Freshman state Representative Baxley (R-Ocala) agrees. “It’s very important what a few people on fire for an issue and sold out to God can do to affect policy and direction.” A freshman state representative, Baxley, Senator Victor Crist (R-Tampa), legislative staff and pro-family lobbyists had dinner with the Idlewild group on the first day of the trip.
A regular participant in mission trips with Belleview Baptist Church, Belleview, Baxley said, “It’s a great blessing to be called to any mission field. This one is an unusual one.”
The visit to the state capitol helps Christians “to be able to pray in an intentional way for what’s going on here,” Baxley said.
Bunkley is careful to note politics is not the main objective of the church. “Our number one goal is to share the Gospel and to do the Great Commission.”
But Bunkley believes there is a place for involvement. “We have been given a great blessing to be able to participate,” he said.
While every Christian can’t be a lobbyist or a senator, Olivia Shindel believes all Christians should be involved in some fashion.
“You need to at least write your representatives or email them or fax them or something to let them know because representatives or senators represent thousands of people in the district. The only way they’re going to know how to vote on issues is by hearing from us. How can you not do that?