By Ken Camp
As a child, the daydreams of Kathryn Freeman, future attorney and public policy director for Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission, never centered on courtroom drama or legislative power plays.
“I wanted to be like Oprah,” Freeman acknowledges. “I wanted to have a talk show.”
Neither Oprah Winfrey’s multibillion-dollar net worth nor her expensive wardrobe primarily attracted Freeman.
“I’m a talker,” she says, so a talk show seemed like a natural fit. “But what I really loved about the show was that she seemed sincerely in-terested in people and their problems. She brought to light issues that needed to be talked about. And she was able to influence people and encourage people to do more with their lives.”
As a student at Texas A&M University, Freeman’s interest in helping people with their problems took a different turn. She served with a ministry that mobilized college students to work with at-risk low-in-come children and youth in the Bryan/College Station area.
Two particular students stand out in her mind. One was a 10th grader who could not read and clearly had learning disabilities but who never had received special-education services. The other was a senior who was making good grades and aspired to go to college, but who could not recognize simple, two-syllable vocabulary words on an SAT preparation exam.
“Something had gone wrong,” Freeman says. “Their parents didn’t know how to ask the right questions. To a large degree, the kids were products of their environments and of systems beyond their control.”
While she recognized the importance of providing direct remedial help to individuals, Freeman wondered if she could make a greater impact by addressing flawed systems and shaping policies to secure justice for the marginalized and disadvantaged. Although she initially considered graduate studies in public policy administration, an adviser counseled her to consider the University of Texas School of Law.
Working with Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston confirmed her earlier inclination to commit her life to systemic change.
“I didn’t love it,” she confesses. “Instead of focusing on one person, I wanted to work on fixing the system. Rather than offering direct services to one individual after another, I wanted to work on changing policies.”
While serving an internship with Texas State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat from San Antonio, she learned more about the legislative process and the important role of staff who serve lawmakers.
“My goal was to become chief of staff for a senator or the governor,” Freeman says.
After serving a couple of years as press secretary for Van de Putte, Freeman put her newly earned law degree to work as an attorney for Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization devoted to social and economic justice for underrepresented people, and policy coordinator for the Institute of Urban Policy.
In 2013, Stephen Reeves left his role as director of public policy and counsel for Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission to become associate coordinator of advocacy and partnership for the national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Joseph Parker, pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, served on the Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board. As soon as he learned about the CLC opening, Parker — a graduate of the UT School of Law — recognized one of his church members as a potential candidate for the position.
“Pastor Parker told me the CLC needed a director of public policy, and he said, ‘I feel like it would be a good fit for you,’” Freeman recalls. She told Parker she already had a job she enjoyed, but he urged her to pray about it.
“I did, and I never got a clear ‘no,’” she says. So, she applied for the position.
Parker recalls how Freeman impressed him when she joined his congregation, and his respect for her increased as they became better acquainted. In time, she became “like a sister” to his daughters, and he and his wife, LaVerne, “became like her Austin parents,” he says.
“Through many conversations, I learned about her Christian journey, her Christian family background and upbringing, and how involved she had been in her Dallas home church. I also saw her heart for ministry and love for the youth of our church.
“As I pastored her in our church and mentored her in her legal career, I observed that she had a longing for a way to join her Christian faith and witness with her legal training and significant public policy experience, while also making a contribution to her community and beyond.”
Parker recognized Freeman as a lifelong learner — both in her Christian faith journey and her vocation — and he noticed how her supervisors, colleagues and youth to whom she ministered all respected her.
“Her discernment, intellect and analytical, communications and people skills are outstanding,” he added.
So, Freeman seemed like “the perfect fit” for the public policy role at the CLC, “given what she would bring to the position and the remarkable potential she had to grow into it,” Parker concluded.
However, Freeman initially knew little about the commission — or much related to Texas Baptist life beyond her Austin church. She grew up attending Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in South Dallas, and she considered herself a “baby Baptist” in terms of understanding Baptist polity and denominational structure.
“When I was younger, dreaming about my life and career, I didn’t know something like this [the CLC] even existed,” she says.
But as she discovered more about Texas Baptists’ moral concerns and public policy agency, she became convinced it matched her sense of vocational calling.
“I attended a commission meeting in Abilene, and I was so impressed with the CLC’s mission. I learned about the history of the CLC and how it was founded out of concern over race relations.”
Freeman arrived at the commission “with a wealth of knowledge and experience … inside the capital, as well as outside in the public policy area,” CLC Director Gus Reyes says.
“Her familiarity with legislators and legislative processes positions her to lead the CLC to make strategic contributions with reference to issues important to Texas Baptists.”
While Freeman has built valuable relationships with lawmakers, legislative staff and coalition leaders, Reyes points to her relationship with Jesus Christ as vital.
“She is an ambassador for Christ inside and outside the Capitol of Texas.”
Freeman finds great enjoyment in mobilizing Christians to address public policy issues and seeing individual believers recognize their capacity to help bring about positive change.
“I like seeing people discover their own advocacy passions and get engaged,” she says. “There are so many areas where faith-based voices are lacking. It’s exciting to see people of faith learn how to transform things, to change things. For instance, it’s great to see churches get excited about public schools.”
She admits her frustration with Christians who are slow to understand the detrimental impact of unjust systems and the importance of systemic change.
“There’s a lack of awareness that some people start out life, through no fault of their own, with severe disadvantages. Churches understand the power of the gospel to transform individual lives and even transform communities. But they also need to understand about transforming systems.”
Payday lending reform has captured much of Freeman’s attention and consumed much of her energy since she joined the CLC. She remains frustrated Texas has not passed comprehensive reform of an industry that’s often guilty of what she views as “legalized loan sharking,” but she finds satisfaction in the way churches have been instrumental in passing local ordinances to regulate the businesses.
She also finds encouragement in growing bipartisan support for criminal justice reform — particularly efforts to help ex-offenders reenter society successfully.
“If a person commits a crime, he should do the time. But 10 years later, after he’s paid his debt and when he’s filling out an employment application, should it cost him a job? If we are redemption people who believe the blood of Jesus has the power to transform lives, then the church needs to extend that to those on the margins of society.
“We know what really changes people is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Prison chaplains do great work. After their release, we need to help transformed ex-offenders get jobs and find a place to live, where they can live out their calling as a new creation.”
Freeman acknowledges the enormity of her job sometimes can seem even larger to her as a young, African-American woman. At age 32, she notes many people think she looks even younger.
“Sometimes, it’s a challenge to be taken seriously.”
In dealing with lawmakers, the greatest challenge can be breaking into the “good ol’ boys network,” she says, adding, “The Texas Capitol is a male-dominated environment.”
After growing up in predominantly Anglo suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth, attending Texas A&M and the UT Law School, Freeman noted she is accustomed to being one of the few African-Americans — sometimes the only African-American — in the room.
“I’ve spent most of my time in majority white spaces, so that’s just the story of my life. It’s a challenge, but it’s both a blessing and an awesome responsibility.”
For example, she noted, after racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere sparked the “Black Lives Matter” movement, she was able to engage in “tough conversations” with the CLC staff and its constituents.
“It changes the color of the conversation, because I’m able to speak to these kinds of issues experientially,” she says.
“The fact that she is an African-American woman is an added blessing. While her concerns relate to all believers, she can share from her context when appropriate and helpful. Her insights and maturity are a gift to the CLC team.”
Freeman finds fulfillment in her role at the commission.
“It gives me the opportunity to bring together my two great passions — public policy and my faith. I am so blessed to be able to do this thing that I love.”