By Erika Perez

Attending the Baptist Joint Committee Fellows Seminar in Williamsburg, Virginia was full circle for me, as only last year I visited the BJC Office in Washington D.C. with the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas Young Latino Leadership Program. In August, I became part of the fourth cohort of the BJC Fellows Program. I remember sitting in the BJC’s Washington D.C. office wondering if I could become a BJC Fellow one day, and am now thankful to say it has become a reality. I am very grateful.

During the first few days of the BJC Fellows seminar we learned about Baptist History and the work of the BJC in our nation today. I learned that Baptists had a commitment to religious liberty and church-state separation since the beginning of the establishment of our country and where the catalyst for religious freedom in the United States. Baptists believed that religious freedom was a right granted as a gift by God and was rooted in their biblical and theological foundations. They saw the authority of scripture as paramount because it spoke about the nature of God, nature of Christ and the nature of humanity, as a divine source of freedom, love, community and liberation. Most importantly that Jesus was an invitational savior, He did not coerce or force his way to anyone. Revelation 3:20 says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Which implies that everyone was born free and is free to choose to follow Christ, not follow Christ or not follow anyone. The right to religious freedom was inherited by everyone.

The work of the BJC is an extension of the legacy of our Baptist history, the right to religious freedom granted by God and free exercise of our religious beliefs as protected by our United States Constitution. Their work reminds us that with our freedom comes responsibility, and that we as Baptists have a duty to protect our religious freedom and our neighbor’s religious freedom, because “a threat to our religious freedom, is a threat to everyone’s religious freedom.” I was surprised to learn that the PEW Research Center reports that 79% of the world’s population lives in a country with high or very high restriction on religion. Fortunately, here in the United States, as stated by the First Amendment in the Constitution, prohibits the government from establishing a religion or interfering in the free exercise of religion. This is a reminder that the freedom to our thoughts and beliefs is granted by God and protected by our government. It also helps us recognize that we are not the only ones in this world, but that there are minds that think and believe different than we do and should lift our voices when our religious freedom is jeopardized.

The great thing about the BJC is that they are in tune and in the forefront of religious freedom issues that can impact us all and I consider it important to stay connected so that I can act and funnel calls to action to my community. As a BJC Fellow, I have access to resources, experiences and a network in which I too can respond and advocate for the protection of religious liberty for all.

Erika Perez is a licensed professional counselor and professor in Edinburg, Texas.