A self-confessed workaholic with incredible drive, powered by a deep Christian faith, a sense of civic responsibility and apparently a lot of Diet Coke, Carla Lockhart, 28, is initially reluctant to be open about her religion in case people imagine she is setting herself up as holier-than-thou.
It is perhaps a mark of the increasingly secular age we live in that often young people feel they must hide their faith under a bushel for fear of being branded uncool or out of step with the times. (When, and why, did atheism and the ‘Rage Against God’ – the title of Peter Hitchens’ spirited defence of his faith – become so dominant in today’s culture, a culture in which science has often supplanted the sacred?).
“It’s not that I feel embarrassed about my faith,” explains the former Mayor of Craigavon and rising star within the DUP, who was raised in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone.
“I’m very open about it. But I definitely would say that I understand how young people today can feel that their faith isn’t considered cool or always something they want to shout about.
“I do try to always be as open as I can about my faith.”
Carla, today a political researcher for the DUP’s Stephen Moutray and hugely ambitious to climb higher in the world of politics – you can sense the steely ambition in the poise of her politician-speak and dedication to working long hours; during her mayoral year she is said to have attended more events than any mayor of Craigavon before her.
Carla, like her husband Rodney of nine years, was raised in a devout Free Presbyterian household.
“Since I was a little girl my parents always told me about God, my need to be saved and about the need to lead my life according to God’s word. A verse that I learned when I was very young and that always stays with me and gives me strength in moments of stress is from John 3: 16: ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’
“My family would attend church twice a day on a Sunday; basically if there was a church service within a five-mile radius of our house, my parents made sure we were there.”
According to the traditions of the Free Presbyterian Church – members are not baptised at birth but are dedicated to Christ at a young age according to the guidance – in Carla’s case – of her parents and a church minister.
“I became a Christian when I was four because I was told I could not depend on my mum and dad’s salvation – this was after a Gospel Mission held by our church in a little village called Caledon. I simply prayed in childlike faith that the Lord Jesus Christ would come into my heart and wash my sins away through the blood that He shed when He died at Calvary.
“The prayer I prayed at the age of four was ‘Come into my heart lord Jesus. Come in today come in to stay. Come Into my heart Lord Jesus.’ When you pray this and mean it God enters your life and you are saved for time and eternity. I still say this prayer.
“Free Presbyterians believe you need to ask for forgiveness of sin and accept God’s free gift of salvation by welcoming him into your life to secure a place in heaven.
“You must ask for salvation and develop a personal relationship with God.
“When you accept God into your life it’s of course never a supernatural thing of flashing lights or anything like that – obviously – but you have a sense of God’s peace and love in your heart.
“As you grow and mature your faith deepens and that’s what I have always aimed for. It isn’t easy. I fail the Lord every day.”
Perhaps all of us fail the Lord every day, I interject, when we complain, backbite, lie, be unkind, fail to love those around us, though? Every day, for those of good faith, it’s a struggle to serve the Christian principles of love, tolerance and forgiveness, I suggest.
Being human, according to the Bible, means to be born in sin, to be imperfect; every single one of us on this earth is a sinner in need of forgiveness and love?
“To be saved we must put our faith solidly in the Lord Jesus Christ,” says Carla.
“He gave us this gift of love when He died on the cross for us, bore the weight of the world, and suffered for us that we might be saved and have eternal life.”
She continues: “A few people have been incredibly inspirational to me in terms of encouraging me in my walk with God; my mum and dad, but also by lovely granny Mary Lockhart who is 87 and who prays for each and every one of her family each and every night.
“I used to overhear her at night praying for her family, praying that the Lord would save each and every one of those who were close to her heart, praying for those who were sick and unwell across the world.”
Are you in any sense guided by Christian principles in your choice of career? I ask.
“I believe God has placed me where I am today because that is where he wants me to be.”
I ask if she ever finds any conflict between her commitment to politics and her commitment to her faith. What I mean in asking her this is that, of course, Northern Ireland’s political dispensation is rooted in adversarial positions – unionist and nationalist forced into an often tense unity at Stormont. Carla is not an MLA, but being a member of the DUP means being bound up in this political struggle towards a better Northern Ireland.
“God teaches us to love our neighbour and certainly in politics, particularly, as we strive towards a shared society this is something I am having to live out in my personal and political life every day,” Carla responds.
Carla seems wise beyond her years and given her poise in answering difficult questions during our interview, the ambition and steeliness you sense in the way she presents herself , she is someone of strong faith with the potential to rise high in political life.
She seems ready to love her neighbour, which is to say, do her bit to build the shared future we’re all holding out for.