By Michael Scott Peters, 2018-2019 U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations
“At all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from want — for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
On October 27, we celebrate International Day of Religious Freedom. Freedom of religion is at the very core of the American experience, and is a fundamental human right for every person on earth. It is also declared in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and we are currently celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration!)
The ability of Americans to live out their beliefs has been a fundamental freedom since the founding of our nation, and respecting religious freedom can support prosperity, peace, and security. I believe youth have an important perspective on this topic, and recently had the opportunity to engage with youth leaders from a variety of faith backgrounds and multicultural perspectives.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations hosted over 30 youth delegates from over 20 countries for a discussion on Religious Freedom. As the U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations, I selected this topic for its relevance at the national and global levels. This topic is extremely timely because the U.S. State Department recently hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Under the direction of Secretary Pompeo, the Ministerial joined government officials, representatives of international organizations, religious leaders, rights advocates, and members of civil society organizations from around the world to discuss challenges to religious freedom, identify concrete means to address persecution of and discrimination against religious groups, and promote greater respect for religious freedom for all.
As we began the discussion, I connected our purpose with the theme of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly to ‘Make the United Nations Relevant to All People.’ We accomplish this mission as we transfer our energy to young people in our home countries and ensure all of our peers know they have a voice. It was personally humbling to look around the room and find myself in the presence of such remarkable young leaders. It was in that moment I realized that no matter where we come from or what we believe in, we all possess the potential to accomplish something incredible. For this reason, I set the stage for our discussion with the following story:
An elderly carpenter was due to retire. He told his employer of his plans to leave the business and start a life of leisure with his wife and extended family. He would miss the money, but the time was right and he was ready to hang up his hammer. His boss was disappointed as the carpenter had been a loyal and diligent worker for many years, so he was sad to see him go. He asked for one last favor, requesting that the carpenter could build one last house before retiring.
The tradesman agreed, but it was soon clear that his heart wasn’t in it. He took shortcuts, used inferior materials and put in a half-hearted effort. In the end, the final product was well short of his usual standards, a disappointing way to end his career. When the job was finished, the employer came to inspect the work. After taking a look around, he handed the keys to the carpenter and said, “This is your house, it’s my gift to you.” The carpenter was shocked and embarrassed. If only he had known, he would have made sure that everything was perfect. If he had known the consequences, he would have demanded excellence from himself.
It is my hope that anyone reading this blog can realize that we’re not that different from this carpenter. We go about our business, working as we see fit. Some with passion, some without caring. Some with excellence, some with low standards. Some with diligence, some without effort. We are all in the process of building our own lives. If you’re not happy with what you see, perhaps it’s a direct consequence of what you’ve been building over the years. The good news is that we are still relatively young, so let’s build wisely!
This story is significant because it helps us realize how our current efforts impact future generations.
The global youth delegates had many perspectives to share on this vital human right. I will summarize a few of their thoughts to the best of my ability:
- Religion can be a space where grassroots movements begin
- Young people can be leaders in promoting diversity, tolerance, and respect, especially when it comes to religious tolerance and interfaith movements
- A great question for us to consider is how young people lead efforts for greater acceptance, and model these values for older generations who might be more traditional
The Youth Delegates also brainstormed ideas for how young people can improve Religious Freedom in our home countries. We can:
- Visit new places and attend events outside of our comfort zone
- Stand up for human rights of refugees and vulnerable groups
- Seek a variety of news sources for differing perspectives
- Share our stories to raise awareness, especially on International Day of Religious Freedom!
On this day, we are especially mindful that there are far too many around the world without protections for religious freedoms. We reaffirm our stance that all people, in every country, deserve to exercise their right to live according to their conscience: to be free to worship, practice, share, change, and express their beliefs as they see fit. There will be many challenges along the way, but we will continue striving to perfect our house until all can enjoy these fundamental freedoms.