Can A Christian Make A Difference In A Corrupt World?
Originally appeared in
the The Church Herald
Why would a thirty-four-year-old elder of Old Bergen Church (Reformed and Presbyterian) in Jersey City, New Jersey, want to get involved in the politics of the second largest city in New Jersey? A city whose previous mayor was removed from office after being convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion? A city whose tax base has been shrinking at an alarming rate? A city with a massive budget deficit? A city whose public schools are under the control of the state because the city-run board of education was so corrupt? A city that is home to numerous ethnic and racial groups that don't always get along?
Mayor Bret Schundler, who is the youngest of a family that includes seven brothers and one sister, says "My parents brought us up with a sense of obligation. They told each of us that we should try to do something good in this world. If I didn't have a sense that this is the right thing to be doing, I wouldn't be doing it."
What the Schundler children heard at the Presbyterian Church where they grew up -- about serving others and responding to God's call -- was reinforced at home. A youth-oriented Bible study at a neighbor's home and summers at a Christian camp also helped him realize that no one is "a Christian simply because that is what you are. You are a Christian because of how you commit yourself."
At one time Schundler thought of becoming a minister like one of his older brothers. At Harvard University he was active in the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, serving as the organization's evangelism coordinator. He was also active with a number of social justice organizations on campus, but he says, "none of those things were Democrats versus Republicans.
In fact, his first foray into politics came incidentally while doing research on a thesis he was writing as part of his sociology major at Harvard. He had gone to Washington to write his thesis on Sojourners, a Christian community, and while he was there, he decided to get a job on Capitol Hill "to see what that was all about." Schundler interned with newly elected Democratic Congressman from Maryland, Roy Dyson, who invited him to return to Washington after completing his thesis.
After graduating with honors in sociology, Schundler became an executive assistant in Dyson's Washington, D.C. office, a job he held for two years. He joined Gary Hart's first campaign for president in 1984, serving as the campaign's field director in Western Iowa and Georgia and as state coordinator for a brief time in his native New Jersey.
He didn't make any money working for Hart. In fact, he used up his savings and borrowed from relatives. He did it, he says, because "he believed in what he was doing and because he thought it would have some impact on his country." By the end of the campaign, he was deeply in debt. "I had to find a job."
Schundler had met his wife, the former Lynn Greenfield, during the Hart campaign when she was a Democratic committeewoman in Middlesex County (New Jersey). After a short engagement, the couple married and moved to Jersey City. Schundler joined a securities brokerage firm, even though he had no background in economics or finances. "They figured if I could sell Hart in Iowa, I could sell bonds to corporations and municipalities." And he did very well, for himself and for the firm. So well, he and Lynn gave up their jobs to travel around the world for ten months. After their trip, Lynn resumed her work as an attorney handling insurance litigation. Bret became a self-employed financial manager. He also became deeply involved with the Coalition for Fair Taxation, formed to fight the 1987 property revaluation in Jersey City.
That experience made him decide to run for the state Senate, an election which he lost but in which he won 46 percent of the votes in a district where people said "it was impossible for Republicans to do well." He admits that he didn't expect to win that election, but it set the stage for the 1992 Jersey City mayoral campaign and an election he did win.
Schundler believes that "political involvement is no more sacred than any other [vocation]." He says, "An individual simply has to respond to what he or she is called to, especially if that person feels they have solutions to problems and the ability to implement those solutions."
He admits that serving as mayor can be tiring; he usually works six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. "The worst part," he says, "is that I desperately miss being with and spending time with my wife and baby." The couple's daughter, Shaylin, was born in February 1992. Schundler tries to spend time with Shaylin every morning, but often she and Lynn are both asleep by the time he gets home.
Still, Schundler feels a responsibility to serve as mayor of Jersey City. He says, "The mere fact that it may take an enormous amount of work and one may get tired is no excuse for not pursuing the job to which you feel called, Paul says that if we run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, we will not grow weary or lose heart [Hb. 12:1-3]. If you work hard at something you get very, very weary. But if you feel that you have the ability to do it and it's the right thing to do, then you're asked to continue doing it despite the weariness."
Several years ago Pastor Roland Ratmeyer asked Lynn and Bret Schundler to serve as youth group sponsors. Schundler remembers that he didn't really feel called to work with youth. He offered instead to begin a young adult group. The Monday night Bible study group begun in 1988 continues to meet in the Schundler brownstone.
The mayor has tried to maintain his commitment to this group in spite of his busy schedule. "Not only does it keep me from getting too cocky, but it also keeps me from getting too discouraged. In this job you get a lot of praise, a lot of respect, which could make you lose a sense of your own humility. You also get an awful lot of criticism and a lot of pressure. Bible study always refocuses me on the fact that my Christian calling is not to save the world, but simply to be faithful to my calling. My own sense is you don't know what is going to be right and helpful or what is going to be wrong, but you have to be faithful to your call."
Schundler's call includes changing the spirit in Jersey City. He believes that government should help people, but he also believes that citizens must help each other. In his State of the City address he noted, "True democracy is not ME-ism. It is WE-ism." Schundler is hopeful. "Factional fights can get very bloody, but they don't represent any fundamental change in direction." He believes that if everyone works together, Jersey City will be a place where homeowners will be able to keep their homes, small businesses will remain open, people will retain jobs, and schools will improve.
In June 1993 Schundler faces another election. He is optimistic about his chances. In the first election he faced the credibility issue. "People don't want to waste their votes. Once you're in office, you have to exercise good government." He is not worried about being re-elected because "the people are on my side." They don't care, he says, that he is a Republican in a highly Democratic city, or that he switched from Democrat to Republican. During .the first election Schundler battled machine politics. "This time," he says, "it will be very difficult to beat me."