Susan Vergeront is co-director of Better Angels in Wisconsin. Better Angels is a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization. “The minute I saw what the organization stood for, it clicked with me,” noted Vergeront. She brings experience from dual careers in politics and the ministry to the position. The roots of both stem from her childhood in Manitowoc.
Vergeront recalled discussing politics at dinner.
“My interest in government and politics was kind of fed to me. I’m the product of a mixed marriage. My mom was active in the Democratic Party and my dad would whisper, ‘Don’t tell mom. I cancelled her vote,’” she said.
Later, her political science classes at UW-Madison were just “like being at home.” She arrived in Madison a young Democrat, but left a committed Republican.
Vergeront recalled, “My political thinking evolved. Then, I married a Republican.”
Vergeront was a stay-at-home mom in Grafton with children Meg, John and David. When her youngest was in fourth grade, she was elected first to the local school board and later to the state Assembly, where she represented Ozaukee and Sheboygan counties for 10 years.
Vergeront experienced a religious reawakening when she ran for office. “I got a different outlook on things. I didn’t know what it meant. I felt God calling me to look more deeply into my faith,” she said.
While in the Assembly, Vergeront began studying at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She explained, “I’ve always felt very spiritual. My parents were members of the Christian Science Church. That’s where the religion came in, even though I wasn’t necessarily embracing their traditions.”
Over the years, a member of her staff was in Campus Crusade for Christ. A Madison pastor took her under his wing. A fellow legislator “sat down and explained the plan of salvation to me.” It was one influence after another.
“They just appeared. That told me I was going in the right direction,” smiled Vergeront.
After receiving her Master of Divinity degree in 1995, Vergeront’s life changed in a number of ways. David, her first husband, left her. And she left politics and began a series of interim positions in the ministry in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.
Vergeront’s connection to Waunakee began on a train in Minnesota. One of her friends overheard First Presbyterian Church pastor Kirk Morledge and his wife discuss looking for an associate pastor. Morledge told the friend to have Vergeront give him a call. After going their separate ways, Morledge came running back. Morledge told the friend, “My wife says I should get Susan’s number. She has a feeling about this.”
Vergeront was focused on a full-time opening in Manitowoc at the time, so it took Morledge to make the follow-up call. Although the Waunakee position was only part-time, she agreed to stop by.
She recalled, “I walked into that church, it was just like, ‘Okay this is where I belong.’ Waunakee made it full time for me. They felt the same thing I did. I just felt called here.”
She moved here in 2003.
“Waunakee is wonderful town. It reminds me a lot of where I brought up my children, Grafton, an industrial farm town and then grew into this wonderful suburb, comparable in their care for their community.”
She described First Presbyterian as a warm, friendly church, once the only Protestant Church in town.
“Its grounding is in an ecumenical setting. I think that accounts for that church being very tolerant of other peoples’ views – both religious views and political views,” she said.
Vergeront spent 10 years with the congregation. “After two interims I finally felt I was able to see the long term learning and faith building that went on. A minister’s true reward is seeing people grow in their faith. For me, that’s it,” she said.
During this time, Vergeront met the man she described as the love of her life. Roman, whom she married in 2011, passed away in 2012.
“We had four wonderful years together. This was a gift from God, I’m sure,” she said.
About her current work with Better Angels, Vergeront harkened back to her career in politics. She said, “I was there when people really did work across the aisle. Some of my best work was bipartisan.”
Her view is that this country faces important issues and often even friends and family can’t talk about them. She reasoned, “I know it’s possible to carry on a conversation, not to change somebody’s mind, but to understand where they’re coming from.”
With a good faith dialogue, people might find they “have some things in common and might even like each other.”