By Robert Walter
Assistant Director, SUNY Washington Internship Program

Each semester, I accompany a group of interns from the State University of New York (SUNY) Washington Internship Program to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty on Capitol Hill and, without fail, they learn something they did not expect.

The SUNY students come from a variety of experiences: small schools in upstate New York, schools near New York City, large public schools or small private colleges. Our students have arrived in Washington to spend one entire semester interning in our nation’s capital. They gain experience in their field, earn credits towards graduation, make networking contacts (possibly to gain entry into a future job opening), and have a chance to explore living outside of New York. We bring the students to the BJC as a regular part our Friday seminar class, and we always come in the first few weeks of their semester in D.C.

They arrive here from all majors and backgrounds, and internships range from positions dealing with politics (inside and outside of the federal government) to private companies to nonprofits and think tanks. The students tend to come with an idea about what they want to do with their life along with their preconceived notions on what D.C. is like from the national media and what a religious group is like that does work on Capitol Hill.

Most of them are unsure about what their time at the BJC will hold for them, and I hear them approach the visit with trepidation about the topics and attitudes they might encounter. Are they going to be lectured about religion? Will our visit include arguments about why we should make religion part of our federal government?

Our sessions with BJC staff members include a discussion of history, law and the Baptist experience. The students have the chance to learn more about the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, including how religious liberty is protected in Article VI and the First Amendment’s two Religion Clauses that both ensure the free exercise of religion and prevent against government establishment. The students also learn about the BJC’s work in Washington through legislation, litigation and other education initiatives, and they have a chance to hear why it’s so important for Baptists to protect religious freedom for all people – not just themselves.

The students leave not just with new knowledge from the session, but also with the understanding that not everything in D.C. is as it seems from the outside. Most of them are pleasantly surprised to learn that their preconceived notions are not correct, and they discover that the BJC is a very inclusive group and usually takes positions on issues that surprise the students.

Our educational sessions at the BJC are an important part of our engagement for each semester of interns: We want to teach them in the classroom, and we also want to help them learn to challenge their preconceived ideas, to investigate below the surface of an organization’s positions or philosophy, and to keep an open mind to each organization that they encounter during their time here.

The Baptist Joint Committee does an excellent job in presenting the issues that they are involved with in D.C. and in states around the country. They also explain very well their mission, background and how they carry out their goals. The session at the BJC is usually one of the best discussions that our students engage in during our SUNY Washington Program, and I already have booked our fall semester visit.

Groups of any size or background are welcome at the BJC. Book a session for your school or church group:

From the July/August 2017 edition of Report from the Capital. You can also read the digital version of the magazine or view it as a PDF.