What my professor taught me about sin, activism, and reality

A scholarship at Bethel University has been started in Stacey Hunter Hecht's name.

A scholarship at Bethel University has been started in Stacey Hunter Hecht's name.

I met Stacey Hunter Hecht the first semester of my freshman year at Bethel.

I was one of a handful of freshman who had declared political science their major. As chair of the department, Stacey was my college advisor. I wasn't an easy advisee.

Sure, I was locked in as a political science major. But I wanted to double-major, and kept changing my mind. First it was political science and business. It was Stacey who broke the news to me that I would need to take math classes – like, real ones -- to even minor in Business. I dropped it the next day for English literature, then dropped that for creative writing.

But I wasn't that great about reading everything I was assigned. This, Stacey knew, having taught me my freshman year.

I started making friends with a growing number of the philosophy majors I met in political philosophy classes. I liked how ridiculously smart and clever they were. But I struggled with the coursework, which I equated with not liking it. And I came from a family of theologians and philosophers, so I had a complex about it.

Stacey knew where I belonged and what I needed, even better than I did, and she knew exactly what to say: "Students with philosophy degrees score the highest on the LSAT.”

By sophomore year, she recommended that I stop registering for classes that met before 10 a.m., saying they were "a waste of money.” My GPA went up by about a point.

One story stands out. My junior year, I was being lobbied hard by gay rights advocates, who were on a nationwide protest tour of conservative Christian colleges with anti-LGBT policies. They wanted me to be the media hook, and the token gay student for the Bethel leg of the tour.

I needed Stacey’s advice. First, that meant I had to come out to her.

I sat in her office, very nervous and emotional. I shouldn’t have been. She already knew I was gay, because 1.) duh, and 2.) the poli-sci department isn’t good at keeping secrets, and someone already told her.

I’ll never forget Stacey’s reaction when I came out. "Sin is existential," she said, and she shrugged.

I didn't know what to say. Going into it, I held out a little bit of hope she would join me in condemning Bethel's stance in the press. What I feared was her telling me to drop out because I was a disgrace.

What I got was reality, compassion, and thoughtfulness. She gave me a big hug, and told me her church had gay clergy, and she had friends who were gay. But she didn't console me for too long, and didn't give me pity. She gave me strategy.

The author, center, pictured at graduation with Stacey Hunter Hecht, far left

And even though I was a student in her office threatening to do a media blitz against her employer, I knew that she cared about my well-being more than some bad public relations for Bethel.

Stacey knew I hadn't come out to my family yet and that doing it via press release was probably not how I wanted it. She suggested that maybe the activists needed me more than I needed them, and that putting my name down in writing, in the press, would force the administration to react.

I was already out to a growing number of the student body, who were overwhelmingly supportive of me. I had a group of smart friends, mostly philosophy majors, who were destroying the arguments being made by a lazy Biblical and Theological Department on this issue -- but more importantly, who I liked hanging out with.

She suggested that I may not be ready to be a kamikaze pilot, but that didn't mean I couldn't advocate for who I was and what I believed.

Stacey was president of the Faculty Senate, which had pushed the administration to welcome the activists to campus. Bethel agreed, and allowed them to attend any class they wanted, and to talk to any students unmonitored. This was in contrast to some conservative colleges, where activists would be arrested the moment they stepped onto campus. (This tended to backfire, only bringing more media attention to the group.)

Bethel, with the leadership of the faculty, even had an all-school forum on the subject in Benson Great Hall. It was the best-attended "chapel" all year.

So, I skipped the media stuff. The day of the event, a critical mass of friends made T-shirts in support of LGBT people, and had conversations all day with other students, regardless of how they felt.

During the all-school chapel, we packed the front two rows of Benson Great Hall. When they asked for those who supported their LGBT classmates to stand up, I stood up and so did my friends, including the student body president and the editor of the school paper. Aside from us, maybe three dozen other people stood up, scattered among the 1,700-seat auditorium.

The administration never asked for our names. And the next day, when the activists left on their bus, I didn't have to pack up my dorm and find a new school, or apologize to my parents for coming out to them via the Star Tribune.

But after that day, I was out to everyone on campus, and spent my last year on campus talking with people who were changing their minds about things every day. That experience ended up being one of the most powerful of my life, and taught me so much about the work I do today.

Stacey taught me that activism can take many forms, but you can only light yourself on fire once. A longer-term strategy is often more effective then headline-grabbing stunts. This was on top of teaching me how to write, how Congress worked, how institutions and systems interact, how they can be changed, and on and on.

Stacey modeled what a moderate, compassionate, and effective approach to politics looks like.

She passed away from cancer last year, way too young. David Schulz, a political science professor at Hamline and friend of Stacey’s, has started a new scholarship in her name at Bethel.

I didn't ever expect to donate to Bethel, but scholarships for political science majors in Stacey's name will do it. Funny how life works like that.

But it is what it is. Or as Stacey might say, sin is existential.

The Stacey Hunter Hecht Scholarship Fund will provide funds to Bethel University students who are pursuing careers in political science. To contribute to this scholarship fund online, click here, select "Other" and enter "Stacey Hunter Hecht Scholarship Fund."

Ben Olson is an advocate, public affairs consultant, and lobbyist. He is currently a 2017 Fellow at the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute at the Wilder Foundation.