As an American living overseas for about 20 years, I had many occasions to examine my American heritage and the freedoms I hold dear in juxtaposition to other political systems and cultural mores. I dare say anyone living overseas for any time comes to the realization that many things are not necessarily right or better because they are American; they are just different. When I left Texas in 1986 to go to West Africa I left what was essentially a mono-cultural milieu. For the most part, we understood our environment, our culture, and the people around us. Increasing diversity in ethnicities, nationalities, religious systems, etc has forced the average American to examine faith, culture, and political ideology. That is a positive thing! As we do, we more deeply appreciate the process that our country has gone through to secure our rights and freedoms. And we can appreciate the profound efforts of our leaders in protecting those freedoms. As we watch events unfold in other parts of the world, I am reminded again to never take for granted the religious freedom I enjoy here.
In my years serving overseas, you might think it was living in Europe that permitted me the greatest religious freedom. Actually, very often it felt stifled to me. My children were not allowed to wear any sort of religious symbols to school. No crosses, no t-shirts, no Bibles in their back packs. The whole debate about Muslim women who cover their heads is less about them being Muslim and more about how any outward expression of faith is viewed. After teams had renovated and readied a space for a Mother’s Day Out program, there was great debate as to whether we could put up a plaque thanking these Baptist brothers and sisters as it might be viewed as a sort of religious coercion. At times it felt like “Freedom from religion” rather than “freedom of religion.” Actually, it was Africa that taught me most about religious freedom.
Christmas was always a wonderful time for our family in Africa. In a country that was 98% Muslim you wouldn’t think that would you? We shared in our Muslim friends’ holidays and they shared in ours. Every year we would set up a live nativity. I can still see Moustapha standing on top of the center, as the angel heralding the arrival of Jesus. The line of cars to see the nativity was a sight! One of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city, but people would come drive by to see the live nativity. Every year at our home we put up Christmas lights. We enjoyed hosting our friends who still tell us all these years later what an exciting time it was for them to come to our home for food, fun, and celebrating.
One year there was a very large Muslim conference being held in our city. Muslim leaders from around the world were there. We lived on the main highway. Every day these leaders would be passing by our home as they arrived at the conference center. It happened to be just before Christmas. Other ex-pats were very concerned about our lights, particularly the cross that was lit on top of our house. Many came to us and asked us to please forgo the lights and the live nativity on this particular year. They feared trouble and retribution. We debated for weeks leading up to the holidays. Eventually our Muslim friends learned of the problem. They came to us asking us to please not change our traditions. They made clear that though they were Muslim, theirs was a democratic country and religious freedom was a basic right. They assured us that if there were any problems at all they would step in to uphold our right to celebrate our holiday. What a gift! How well I remember the honor and privilege I felt! In a Muslim country and Muslims were upholding my right to express my Christian faith!
I wish I had answers for the upheaval, destruction, and loss of life occurring at this time in various places around the world. I am afraid I am not that smart. But I can do some things here and now to protect religious freedom for others.
1. I can support those of other faiths all around me as they seek to worship according to their tradition and support their right to express their faith.
2. I can very intentionally share my special holidays with others and accept invitations to share theirs.
3. I can welcome the nations as they come here because they too appreciate freedom.
4. I can support legislation both state and federal that upholds religious freedom.
5. I can endeavor that my speech does not incite mistrust or hatred of other faiths.
6. I can participate in interfaith events that promote understanding.
7. I can follow online petition tools and support those petitions upholding religious freedom.
8. I can support the work of Baptist World Alliance as they advocate for religious freedom around the world for all persons, not just those who believe the way we do.
9. I can make use of the information available to learn where and how religious persecution of all sorts is occurring.
10. I can choose a place in the world where others are not free to practice their faith and I can pray daily with knowledge and insight for that place and those people.