By Corey Mitchell
2017 BJC Fellow
Simply put, the BJC Fellows Seminar was a life-changing experience. From the moment I stepped foot onto the beautiful campus of the Williamsburg Lodge to the time I left the historic city, my mind was stretched and challenged to think outside the box. I was encouraged to step outside of my comfort zone and engage in advocacy work and the promotion of religious liberty for all Americans; not just the black Baptists in my local congregation, but every denomination represented in these great United States, including the non-believer.
I found the required texts helpful for understanding the historical, theological, political and biblical underpinnings of religious liberty in this country, which prepared me for the Fellows Seminar. The best part, however, was the fact that our sessions were led by high-profile thinkers in the field of religion and religious liberty law.
For example, it was an honor to meet Dr. Michael Meyerson, the author of Endowed by our Creator, one of the required readings for the Seminar. His discussions helped illuminate a lot of the information presented in his book. BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks patiently walked through the legal jargon of religious liberty to ensure a working knowledge of the First Amendment and the foundations of religious liberty in a legal context. Dr. Pam Durso, a professor of church history, provided us with a wealth of knowledge related to the theological basis for religious liberty as well as Baptist history and heritage. Even though I’ve been a Baptist my entire life, I learned more about my heritage and denomination in those four days than I have my whole life!
Day three of the seminar was probably the most intense, yet most helpful, for me. I learned about advocacy in the courts and in the legislature of current hot-button cases. I also gained in-depth knowledge of current legislation and regulations surrounding religious liberty, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). I soon realized that current religious liberty issues are extremely complicated. Having discussed these current issues and cases in detail, I can now comfortably engage in conversation about recent issues (such as the Trinity Lutheran Church case, President Donald Trump’s executive order commonly known as the “travel ban,” and the Johnson Amendment), how these issues affect religious liberty, and how the courts have interpreted the “no establishment” and/or “free exercise” clauses in relation to these cases.
Not only did I gain legal knowledge, but I also learned how to communicate religious liberty and legality to others, as well as how to become an ambassador for religious liberty in my community. As a minister and civic leader, this piece was quite helpful for me as I engage others in my religious and social context. BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler’s training on advocacy and best practices was extremely helpful because it taught me how to put all this knowledge into action. As the leader of the organization, Amanda’s presence in our sessions was powerful. Her knowledge and experience in the legislative process was extremely helpful in providing strategies to advocate for the religious rights of all people.
The importance of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the training that I received really hit home for me when an American citizen who was living in Saudia Arabia stopped by our seminar room to get more information about the BJC. He was so excited to speak with us and learn more about the organization because of his religious beliefs and the persecution he and his group were experiencing. I was excited to hear his story and to get immediate practice sharing what I was learning. On top of all that, he was a fellow speech therapist!
The BJC Fellows Seminar truly changed the way I think about religion in this country. I realize now that a threat to anyone’s religious freedom is also a threat to my religious freedom. Knowing that, historically, Baptists have led the fight for religious liberty in this country has really changed my views on several issues. I never realized how closed-minded I was about the freedoms we enjoy and how easy it is to infringe on others’ rights based on my religious views.
As a person of faith who is preparing to lead a congregation, this training has helped me to realize that if the Gospel is synonymous with love and grace, then ministry must extend itself beyond religious boundaries, cultural boundaries and belief systems. I believe this is inherent in the concept of religious liberty and the work of the BJC. Learning about the rich history of advocacy of the BJC has also been eye-opening. The fact that for more than 80 years, the BJC has been the only faith-based organization that has tirelessly fought to preserve the religious freedom for ALL Americans is impressive and says a lot about the organization. This makes me proud to be a BJC Fellow!