Congressman Hern: Living out The American Dream

Written by Teresa Goodnight

Kevin and Tammy Hern

Meeting Kevin Hern:

I’ve had the honor to meet Congress­man Kevin Hern a few times. Each time, I find myself overwhelmed with the complete sincerity of conviction visible in his core. He’s a Christian. He believes in The American Dream.

The first time I met Hern, he was a guest speaker at a Christian dinner, where they were honoring Christian influential legacies. The second time, he came out on a hectic Saturday to support life and all the ways so many groups are helping infants, children and families in our community. The next time was a startle. He sort of burst into a City Elders meeting requesting prayer for the flood victims, because he knew the group would be meeting. He had just left a radio talk show and felt they needed immediate intercession. He was welcomed at the door, led the prayer and exited.

After that? I was surprised to see him speaking with flood victims over in Sand Springs, offering guidance and encouragement. He stayed long after the formal meeting was over talking with folks, who honestly just needed to be heard. He just shows up in places I would expect someone of his character to be. These places, these actions, they certainly don’t make the nightly news. However, they do make the cover in a magazine focused on finding Christians living out their faith in meaningful, inspirational ways in our community. He’s kind of the definition of #GoDoBe, our magazine motto.

So, I’m going to let his words, his story, speak to you as it has to me. We usually don’t get the chance to hear the story behind the man. Really, that story shares how the man was made—by God, for this purpose He prepared in advance for him to do.

Kevin shared,

“One of the things when you grow up and you maybe have a lot less than your peers have, a lot of times you don’t really know that. I think what’s different now than when I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, You didn’t have a lot of media outlets telling you that you were poor. You knew what you didn’t have compared to some of your friends, but you just weren’t told every day that you were not being treated fairly and it was wrong to be successful. I don’t ever recall hearing that being successful was wrong. They always kept you motivated to find somebody successful and try to emulate them instead of being envious of them.

Today, it’s different than that. We have a lot of people, in Washington D.C. and even running for President, saying that if you’ve been successful you are an evil person. You’ve cheated the system if you’ve been successful. And the problem is, that’s an affront to The American Dream. The American Dream says you work hard every day. You take risks. You get knocked down. You get knocked down and you get back up and do it time and time again. You do and repeat. Then you change your focus. If your focus isn’t enough, then maybe you have your allegiance in the wrong place. Maybe you’re seeking money as opposed to this thing called God.”

Growing Up Kevin Hern:

“For me, it wasn’t media telling me failure was eminent, because I was really poor. It was basically you could tell how people looked at you. ‘You can never be successful.’—not because being wealthy is bad, but because you grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. ‘You or your stepdad live on food stamps and you can never do anything. You’re going to be locked into this world of poorness and poverty the rest of your life.’ That was my life.

Ironically in Arkansas, where I grew up, the slogan for the state in those days was ‘The Land of Opportunity.’ The joke was that you had the opportunity to stay there and starve to death or get out of the state and do something. It was sort of a mockery of the state because it was so poor. And, we were in that world.

My mom and dad were married. Before I was born, my older sister passed away with spina bifida just after birth. I was born about 14 months later with a brother who came along 18 months later. We lived on military bases. At that time, my mom and dad got divorced around 1968 when he was going to Vietnam for the third time. She was young, around 20’ish, and decided she couldn’t do this military mom thing anymore. Losing my sister was a lot to bear. She lived a long way from home and a support system. So, she moved my brother and I to Arkansas. Once there, my mom married a man, who had been married three times with three kids from each of those marriages; she then ended up having three kids with him. That was my life.

My stepdad didn’t like to work. He was actually the first generation in his family not working; his parents were very, very hard workers. He figured out how to master the system of not working hard, and not working at all, parlaying it into getting food stamps back in 1969. Then, through my entire childhood until I left home in 1979, he continued his plan.

We moved a lot; he wouldn’t pay the rent. People thought we were in the military until they knew who we were. We would move from school district to school district and sometimes back to the same one in the same year. Because I was the oldest at that time of two brothers and two sisters—I was always the one who caught the brunt of it. I remember the embarrassment of going from grocery store to grocery store with my mom trying to buy certain things with food stamps and she couldn’t. Then, she would ask me to go back and put it on the shelf. I remember that very vividly. Maybe it was because of my memory of those times that I made a mission in my life that I would always work hard, earn money, and never be dependent on anyone—not my parents, the government or anyone else. I’ve never taken a dime from the government at any time in my working life.

It was very tough being home. In 7th grade, I worked. Since we never had any real cash from his lack of working, I would come home and give most of my paycheck to my parents and specifically to my mom. In 9th grade, he would buy trucks all the time and never make any payments. They would go back. Then in 1976, he bought a new Chevrolet pickup. Eight months later, I took over the payments on the family car as a sophomore in high school.

All I ever knew was working hard. We never went to church. We never said God’s name in a way you would want to repeat it. It was a pretty tough life. So, it was always about me. It was about survivability. I married when I was 21. We never went to church as a couple—maybe a few times. When the offering plate went by, you’d put a dollar in there just so people thought you were doing the right thing. It was about observing what people thought about you. Never the right reasons.

I had a lot of failures along the way. One of the things I tell people we should never get rid of are failures. Failures remind you. You just always remember all your failures. In comparison, I doubt you remember all your successes unless they were recent highlights—having a child or something like that. Most of the time, with the successes in businesses, I’ve just moved on, but I’ve learned a lot from failures. I think one of the failures of our government is they want to eliminate failures. It’s part of The American Dream: taking a risk, living outside of your comfort zone, failing and getting back up again and going on.

70 years of living that I’ve ever met anyone more honest than you or who works harder than you—ever. But I’ll tell you this: you’re surely gonna go to hell if you don’t have God in your life.”

What I learned was, if you look at my direction in life from the time it was early, and even through my first marriage, it was all about work, work and work. I knew nobody would ever outwork me. Even today, that’s my narrative—it’s about work. I’ll tell you that chasing that materialism, chasing that narrative, is wrong.

What I learned later in life, after my marriage failed, is that it was always about me. Even my first marriage, my first daughter with that marriage, I was about achieving something for me. I put myself on a pinnacle to own a McDonald’s franchise. I was not only working 60-70 hours a week in the restaurant business, but also working in businesses outside of that one to save up $100,000 to get my first restaurant. I was always in this mode of ‘I’m going this direction. Everybody get on the bus.’ You don’t realize when it’s going on. Your intent is not to hurt anyone, but that becomes your mission. You drift apart from family and things like that.”

She asked, ‘Kevin, Do you KNOW God?’

“After my divorce in 1992, I was going to pick my daughter up—60 miles from where I lived. My ex-sister in law, whom I had known for most of her life, said ‘We have a person we want you to meet.’ We think she’d be really great. Funny enough, that’s how I met my wife.

She was a strong Christian lady. She led her mom and dad to Christ at about 16. I was 30 and she was 28 when we met. I asked her out. She said, ‘I’ll go out with you, but I need to ask you about yourself.’ I said, ‘Sure ask me anything. I know everything. I’m a survivor.’ She said very quickly, ‘I need to know if you know God.’ I said, ‘Well sure. I know everything. Everybody knows who God is.’ At that time, I think I was thinking little g and she was thinking big G. Very quickly after that she said, ‘Are you a Christian?’ I looked at her pretty funny and she said, ‘Are you saved?’ ‘I’ll get back with you on that one.’ I said. I didn’t have a response. I think that was God’s way of saying ‘You don’t truly know who I am. You know how to spell my name, but you don’t know who I am.’

Probably the first time I had ever been challenged in my life to know who God is and check on my personal salvation—at 30 years old. Clearly, I was not on the right path. My priorities were really messed up. Again, it was all about me, me, me. That’s how I had lived my life.

Even that day my previous wife filed the divorce papers, it was a bad moment, but it wasn’t truly a bad day. I am an eternal optimist about moving forward and not dwelling on the past. I always tell people when they ask how I’m doing—’Fantastic.’ I remember walking into my regular convenience store. The person behind the counter asked me how my day was. I answered it wasn’t the best day I’ve ever had. That’s the only time I remember saying it’s not a great day.

Again, you remember these failures. I think it was God’s way of taking a situation, I would never say he would cause that situation, but taking the situation and using it. He takes our weakest moments, because that was the only chink I had had in my armor at that time. Then, taking that opportunity to say to me ‘We’ve gotta get you on a different pathway. Right now, what you’ve got . . . you’ve opened the door a little bit. Let me come on in.’

Think about it. The person you would never think would introduce you to God and lead you to salvation was introduced to me just three months after my divorce by my ex-sister-in-law, a person no longer in my family unit. She has now been my now wife of 26 years and a great friend since 1992. So, after I was sitting in her living room and she asked me if I knew God, if I was a Christian, and if I was saved—I turned to my grandfather for answers.”

Grandpa Sets Him Straight

“My grandfather was really the person who gave me my greatest joy being with him. I got so many opportunities to work hard, haul hay, things that seem kind of flippant today or irrelevant. He was the person who was always very supportive of who I was. He always went to church. My grandmother, in those days when I was younger, was sort of a reprieve from a less than exciting household with my mom and stepdad. Some would probably argue, she was the one who probably raised me my last couple of years when I was in school.

So, I went to my grandpa and grabbed him. I said, ‘I need to ask you a question.’ You remember these days and exactly where you drove. So I told him, I met this lady and she asked me these three questions. Do you know God? Are you a Christian? Are you saved? I have to be honest with you I have no clue what she is talking about. He said ‘I don’t think in my 70 years of living that I’ve ever met anyone more honest than you or who works harder than you—ever. But I’ll tell you this: you’re surely gonna go to hell if you don’t have God in your life.’ That was his direct quote. I said, ‘Well that’s pretty direct.’ He wasn’t a really educated man, and so that’s the first time in my life ever hearing him say that or even talking of that. I’d been around him a lot. You look back and you think he didn’t go to church a lot, but you don’t have to go to church a lot to know where your priorities in life ought to be.

My grandpa said, “I don’t think in my
70 years of living that I’ve ever met anyone more honest than you or who works harder than you—ever. But I’ll tell you this: you’re surely gonna go to hell if you don’t have God in your life.”

So that was Feb 1993. I had been going to church at Antioch Baptist Church for a few months by myself. You hear these stories all the time about people who are under conviction and that was me. There was a guy, Henry Horton, who was a pretty hellfire and brimstone kind of pastor from Texas. It was kind of God working on my heart—putting the right people in the right place at the right time in my life as He does.

In April 1993, I became a Christian. At that time, I was 31 years old. I was a guy who knew everything in life, who knew really nothing. I had lost everything at that time. I was living without rent in somebody else’s house. I was making $25-26,000 a year. I had a blue recliner. I had a skillet my ex-wife gave me because my grandmother had given it to me. (Plus, she hated the blue recliner.) In reality, April 1993 was really a start to a new life, at 31 years old, as a very young Christian.”

Failure—a Stepping Stone towards Success

“In one of my lessons early on, I went to work for a guy just after the aerospace industry fell apart. It was right after I was married. He said, ‘I’ll help you get a McDonald’s franchise.’ and he never did. In 1991, he moved to Florida and I went to work for another guy. I was still married to my former wife. Then, this guy said if I’d work for him for two years, he’d help me get a McDonald’s restaurant. Then two years passed. Nothing. Then three years passed. Nothing. Four years passed. Nothing. I thought he was a friend. Then, finally I realized nothing was going to happen. It was very disappointing. I started looking and trying to get a restaurant. He said, ‘I hear you are looking—let me go fix these documents.’ This is five years into what was going to be a two-year deal. All in, it would be another ten years before I was going to get a restaurant. I didn’t do it.

So, because of this lesson, I have a guy who is working in my restaurants. I knew this fellow a month; I said, ‘Because of the lesson I learned from what was done to me, I’m gonna make sure it never happens to you.’ He’s gonna be a millionaire when he retires in a year or two.

I think this is part of the journey God has put me on since being saved in 1993—helping people be successful. I think some of the failures I had in my younger life, that God uses those. He set me up for an opportunity to run for Congress. I could not have done it had I not had a tremendous amount of success in business and experience working across different groups in an industry that’s extraordinarily difficult. The restaurant industry helped me build a very thick skin with folks who don’t always agree with what you do and how you do it. The world I worked in with national leadership at McDonalds, dealing with all ethnicities, every diversity group in America from coast to coast as well as a tremendous amount of experiences of real breadth in economic policy, tax policy, tariffs, insurance, the list goes on and on. I dealt with all of those things that really matter in congress. So, as a new congressman for about ten months, there really hasn’t been anything that I’ve seen or touched that I haven’t lived in my life.

The conversation of poverty is one I understand. You know you remember very vivid moments. I went through some training early on at one of the institutions just to get some policy background in 7-8 different policies. One was looking at the various income levels or socioeconomic levels in the country. Lower 1%, 10%, 25% and the list goes on and on. It is the Heritage Foundation, who is probably one of the largest think tanks in Washington D.C. I told these folks ‘I doubt that you will ever have many members or any members, who have actually lived in every one of those socioeconomic scales. Regardless of what anyone else tells you, it is much more fun and much more rewarding to live in the upper 1%. To know that you were in the lower 1% at the bottom and achieved all those scales and remember everything that you did and was done and the opportunities you have had? That’s what you want to secure.”

Helping Others Succeed

“This isn’t a zero-sum game in the United States of America. It doesn’t mean that the upper 1% exist because the other 99% have had to be pushed down and stepped on. You haven’t had to make everybody else look small so that you could look tall. I think that’s where we lose the narrative and we lose our way. ‘The only way I can succeed is if you fail.’ If you believe that everybody can succeed then you have a tremendous responsibility to help others succeed and that’s what I’ve done.

I’ve worked my entire life to help folks who thought they couldn’t do something to do something. When they were people who said ‘I’ve been told my entire life I couldn’t’ or ‘I can’t,’ well, that’s been a real motivator for me. When people tell me they can’t, I tell them ‘The only reason you can’t is because you think you can’t. It’s not because somebody else is telling you that you can’t.’ Because of that, we have McDonalds employees with high school educations making $60-70,000, $80,000 a year running multi-million dollar businesses. I think that God has put me in a position that I can have the opportunity to speak to folks. If I can inspire any hope—that it doesn’t matter where you came from— that you can be anything you want in this country, then I’ve won. That’s what it’s all about.

This is the greatest country on this planet. We have got to protect the opportunities for those successes. (CALL OUT) It doesn’t mean you will ever achieve everything you want to do. That’s what keeps you motivated. If someone is going to guarantee you success or outcome, you’ll never have that motivation to want to be something better every single day. It’s our job to better ourselves every single day. If I can inspire any hope—that it doesn’t matter where you came from— that you can be anything you want in this country, then I’ve won. That’s what it’s all about. 

So, what are you going to #GoDoBe today that someone told you you couldn’t do? That maybe you told yourself you can’t do? Satan is the great accuser trying to hold us down from all God has called us to be. God has prepared a plan in advance for you to do. So, the way has been made. All you need to do is step out from the lies and into the life God created you to live. So, again I ask, “What are you going to #GoDoBe today?”