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Finding my role as a Christian working in foreign policy

By Michelle Bekkering

In March 2006, I found myself in a Volkswagen van bouncing along a narrow road in the western Ukraine. Along with another delegate, I was leading an election observation mission to the oblast of Ternopil on behalf of the International Republican Institute (IRI). Our mission was to observe the voting in as many precincts as possible throughout the region, so we decided to leave the main city and start visiting the villages. Our guide seemed surprised that two “city girls” would choose to visit the countryside rather than remain in the city. I smiled and told him that I wasn’t originally from the city; in fact, I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and that my husband and I had lived for several years on a farm in Canada. He paused for a moment and asked me “then how did you ever get here?” I laughed. That was a good question.

Michelle Bekkering and her husband, Mark, live in  Washington, D.C., so that Michelle can live her desire to be involved in politics and international relations.

Michelle Bekkering and her husband, Mark, live in Washington, D.C., so that Michelle can live her desire to be involved in politics and international relations.

I was born and raised on a farm near Sanborn, Iowa. Since junior high, I’ve been interested in politics. My grandmother and aunt were actively involved in local politics, and since I was young, I had accompanied them as they assisted in campaigns, attended caucuses and party conventions, and made trips to the state capital in Des Moines to lobby on behalf of the pro-life cause. These events had a monumental impact on me and helped shape my worldview early on. I felt strongly that God’s people had a responsibility to stand up for their Christian beliefs and values. What better arena for this than politics?

So in 1994, I enrolled in Dordt College, as a political studies major. I spent the second semester of my junior year in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on the Dordt N-SPICE semester abroad program. Being there opened my eyes in so many ways; it was the first time I had traveled outside of North America, and I was fascinated. I was intrigued by the differences in culture and political system and yearned to see an even broader picture of the world. By my senior year, I knew that I wanted to focus on international relations. I took as many comparative politics and other internationally focused classes as I could. My worldview was being shaped, and I found myself contemplating what the role of a Christian in foreign policy should be.

My path to a career in foreign policy took several years. I married fellow Dordt student Mark Bekkering in 1998, and we moved to Taber, Alberta, Canada, where Mark joined his family’s farming business. I kept thinking about how best to turn my love for politics and international relations into a career, and four years later Mark and I decided to move to Washington, D.C.—to me the natural center of things political. Mark started his own business and is now a general contractor. My first job was on “the Hill” working for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from California. It was a great opportunity to see how Congress functions and how the three branches of government relate.

Then in 2003, I was offered an extraordinary opportunity to obtain security clearance and work for the White House in the National Security Council. I worked in the European and Eurasian Directorate, and assisted with the portfolios of Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe. The National Security Council advises and assists the President on national security and foreign policies. I learned so much in this job, and it was a pleasure to serve both the President and Dr. Condoleezza Rice. During this time, I also became increasingly interested in not only helping to shape our foreign policy, but in implementing these policy objectives.

Working to advance freedom and democracy took Michelle Bekkering to Belarus to monitor elections in what she calls the last dictatorship in Europe.

Working to advance freedom and democracy took Michelle Bekkering to Belarus to monitor elections in what she calls the last dictatorship in Europe.

So, in 2005, I accepted a job with the International Republican Institute (IRI). IRI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance and the rule of law. I work in the Eurasia division, and my portfolio is Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe. We work with the emerging democratic coalition which is seeking to remove the shackles of dictatorial oppression and bring about true democratic change and a free and open society. We offer trainings like “Democracy Schools” which teach about the institutions, values, and principles of a democracy. We also work to cultivate active women and youth leaders. As a Christian, a unique opportunity for me has been working with a group of evangelicals in Belarus who want to strengthen the alliance and activism of the religious sector and form a Christian Democratic Party. We seek to introduce them to similar religious organizations in the United States and Europe and expose them to various models for faith-based activism.

The courage of these activists in Belarus inspires me. While in America we often take our political liberties for granted—the ability to protest, speak out against injustice, demand change— the citizens of Belarus are routinely jailed and beaten for criticizing their government or simply for attending pro-democratic rallies or meetings. As Christians, we often ask ourselves how God can use us in the careers that we have chosen. I hope that one way in which I can serve God is by working with these victims of political repression to make sure that their voice is heard and that their rights are acknowledged.

IRI also hosts election observation missions to fulfill its mission to promote open and honest elections — which is how I found myself traveling through Ukraine in March of this year. I was observing Ukraine’s first parliamentary and local elections since the Orange Revolution in 2004.

In Ternopil, my fellow delegate and I met with local election officials and campaign and political leaders before election day to ascertain whether or not electoral regulations were being followed. On election day, we traveled around the oblast and observed the voting process. We were not to interfere in any way, but to observe whether regulations were being followed and to document causes for concern—such as whether people were being coerced to vote for a specific candidate or whether we observed voter fraud or ballot box tampering. Finally, at the close of voting on Election Day, we observed the counting of votes and tabulation of results at a local precinct. We also documented the results so that we could later compare them to official results released from the Central Election Commission and make sure that the results had not been changed during transmission from the local polling station. Our team chose to observe the counting process in the village of Gayi Shevchenkivski. I had expected some resentment from the Ukrainians to our presence, but they welcomed us with open arms. They were so proud of their country and the democratic changes that had been made since the Orange Revolution, and they were specifically proud that they had the opportunity to conduct free and fair elections. So, in a small building without indoor plumbing or centralized heat, we sat up all night and watched ballots being counted. We finally left the next morning at sunrise. As the van drove away, I turned around and saw that a small crowd was standing on the front stoop watching us leave. They were waving and shouting “thank you.” It was an experience I won’t soon forget.