Religious Freedom and Personal Faith

We believe in God, and our faith in a higher power grounds us in hope for a better world.  We understand that our faith allows us the internal power and influence to effectively impact our external surroundings and world. It gives us a mentality of abundance (unity, purpose, and a positive outlook etc.) as we overcome challenges and hardship.  (BigOceanWomen.org)

Being a woman of faith brings power to our lives. Freedom of religion, to worship, to hold to our convictions according to our personal belief is, therefore, an important issue for women to embrace.

In Big Ocean, we believe sincerely that, “Faith in God is the ultimate source of power.”

Abigail Ryan’s trials included losing her father who was a Lutheran Minister at a young age, and enduring infidelity by her husband and then divorce, and being a single parent for several years before her recent marriage. When asked how her faith sustained her, Abigail shared the following:

“Having my faith during some of the lowest parts of my life has made me a survivor. I know with the help and guidance of God I will always persevere. I have had a great deal of trials in my life, but I never doubted that I could survive them. Even at my lowest, I knew there was a higher power walking beside me and carrying me through the hard parts.”

Photo credit AC Photography

Each of us has personal hardships that we must face. Throughout the world, the type of trials women endure varies widely. Turning to God can be what strengthens us. Sometimes, the desire to turn to God in the way we believe becomes the trial. Nearly 70 years ago, this reality was recognized by the General Assembly of the United Nations and addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18, Right to freedom of thought and religion states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in a community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

More recently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights organized a “Faith for Rights” meeting which was held 28-29 March 2017. From these meetings, two documents were created: the Beirut Declaration on “Faith for Rights” and 18 Commitments on “Faith for Rights.” http://news.bahai.org/story/1160/

The first of the 18 Commitments on “Faith for Rights” reads:

  1. Our most fundamental responsibility is to stand up and act for everyone’s right to free choices and particularly for everyone’s freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. We affirm our commitment to the universal norms and standards, including Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice. These freedoms, unconditionally protected by universal norms, are also sacred and inalienable entitlements according to religious teachings.
  • “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” (Qu’ran 2:256);
  • “The Truth is from your Lord; so let he or she who please believe and let he or she who please disbelieve” (Qu’ran 18:29);
  • “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15)
  • “No one shall coerce another; no one shall exploit another. Everyone, each individual, has the inalienable birth right to seek and pursue happiness and self-fulfilment. Love and persuasion is the only law of social coherence.” (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 74)
  • “When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail—that is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give expression to his beliefs—development and growth are inevitable.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
  • “People should aim to treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves – with tolerance, consideration and compassion.” (Golden Rule)

These are high ideals, and, as evidenced by the plurality of religions represented at the meeting, something that we can all work toward. As Marianne Downing, Big Ocean board member, recently said in describing the vision of the organization, “We are not about changing whole communities. We are about changing the individual so that communities will be changed as a result.”

It is important to start all our work within our immediate sphere of influence. This includes preserving religious freedom. Some of our board members shared their thoughts about how we can engage in this important work.

Carolina Allen, Big Ocean Founder, encourages the following:

  1. Have a strong knowledge: In private and personal ways, learn and know your religion well.
  2. Language: In your everyday encounters with others, share your joy about God.
  3. Technology: Utilize technology to share your testimony about God.
  4. Recognize and support a positive religious voice: Support organizations and news reports and articles that are both faith affirming and culturally sensitive and thoughtful in their delivery.
  5. History and Geography: Take time to read from historical books about the cycle of religious freedom. Teach this within the family and to your children.
  6. Support organizations: Support and get involved with organizations that are in the front lines or directly working on religious freedoms issues.
  7. Take action in politics: As you become more aware of the religious freedoms issues at stake, find your own creative ways to get involved and persuade others to do the same. Vote. Help others to vote.

Similarly, Dana Robb spoke of the “importance of speaking openly about our religious beliefs in uplifting ways and encouraging religious expression that points to the positive results of believing in God.” She said, “It all comes back to the fruits – some of which include lifting others’ burdens, creating harmonious and happy relationships, charity, and service. Without religious freedom, we would lose the fruits. So, I would encourage individuals to speak openly of the fruits of their faith.”

“The world changes most by the myriad choices of individuals,” Angela Silva explained. She continued, “I think we need to focus more on being than on doing. We need to focus most on who we are as we actually do the work of practicing our religion, rather than demanding that others allow us to practice our religion. Sometimes, I wonder how each of us would choose to live if there was a clear end date of religious freedom rather than the more subtle diminishing that we’re experiencing.” Angela also expressed the need for civil dialogue and reminds that, “Respect begets respect.”

Board members jointly pointed to this ideal of being respectful toward all religions. Many of them spoke of the importance of teaching this to our children by purposefully helping them understand their own religion and the belief systems of others. Ann Takasaki, the Chairwoman of the Board, shared, “It is the principle of religious freedom that we want to protect, not just our own religion. For example, my Buddhist relatives who usually attend their Buddhist service in casual clothes, put on dresses and suits and come to our church to support us as we give baby blessings, talks before leaving on missions, and as we hold funeral services for our loved ones. On the other hand, we go to the Buddhist services and bow respectfully before we place incense in their large urns. Our donations to their church are reciprocated by their donations to our church.”

Abigail Ryan and I spent a few years in our youth in the same small town. She recently shared with me that she felt challenged in her faith during her childhood, growing up in a community that the majority of the people did not practice her faith. “In that community, practicing a particular faith was part of the culture and when you didn’t practice it, you felt outcast. Although the religion was the same (Christianity), the faith and practices of the faith were made to seem very different. Looking back, it made me stronger in my own faith.” She said that through her friends she was able to learn about the other faith, but was sad that her friends weren’t always very open to learning about hers. She also said, “Those challenges made me even stronger in the way I believe. I was able to stand up for something that was different in a graceful way.”

I hadn’t realized then that my actions had possibly caused her pain. I had thought I was a good friend. But I think it really took me moving halfway across the country to a small town with no other members of my faith except my little family to get a better idea of what she might have experienced.

Religion and faith are personal things, but they also provide a link for individuals and families to a higher power and to congregational communities. However, we need to be careful that we don’t segregate ourselves and forget to reach out in love and respect to others in our neighborhoods and communities who have different religions and beliefs. We may find that we have more commonalities than differences. For instance, Abigail says, “My faith sustains me. It keeps me hopeful, awake, and aware. I am so very thankful for it every day.” I feel exactly the same way.

Photo credit AC Photography

Written by Lisa Bjornberg