Religious Minorities

Creating change – one conversation at a time

  Creating change – one conversation at a time

By Sebastian Mahal

Last month, Americans United sent me and a handful of the other Youth Organizing Fellows to New Orleans to participate in the 2024 Creating Change conference – the largest conference in the U.S. focused specifically on promoting and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and equality. The conference was truly restorative and reinforced in me the importance of having moments of joy in organizing; the queer joy was palpable, and something that once you’ve experienced, you don’t want to give up.

When staffing AU’s table at the conference, I was lucky enough to meet and connect with dozens of inspiring organizers and leaders. I got to speak with them about their successes and goals as leaders, as well as my own. The type of people who attend a conference like Creating Change – those who are already working for the cause of queer and trans liberation – know fully well the importance of keeping religion out of government. Having those conversations and highlighting the resources and opportunities AU has to offer was incredibly valuable.

An opportunity for engagement

But another interest of mine during the trip to New Orleans was engaging with someone who might not originally align with the principles AU stands for. Luckily, I had that opportunity on my last day in the city when, after grabbing two beignets from Café Du Monde, I met two women handing out pamphlets on the waterfront of the French Quarter. They began our conversation by asking if I had accepted Jesus into my heart.

What ensued, my last beignet in hand, was a surprisingly productive conversation on religion and its place in American politics and government. Both women were evangelical enough to be proselytizing at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, and my mind was still in “tabling mode” (i.e., ready to make the pitch for church-state separation) after staffing AU’s booth for the past several days. I told them about the conference and my affiliation with AU; initially, one woman seemed more puzzled than anything else, perhaps thinking that advocating for church-state separation meant opposing religion itself, a common misconception. I clarified that AU’s stance has never been an anti-religious one, but instead one of ensuring that government remains out of religious matters to protect the freedoms of those of any religious background, or none at all.

The other woman was expressly wary, noting how she found Christian values to be good values, and thus how our government could benefit from the inclusion of such principles. She seemed to believe that American politics desperately needed a dose of Christian honesty, ethics, and commitment to a higher good. My response was posed as a question: How would she feel if a different religion’s doctrines were integrated into government policies? It didn’t take long for her to realize how scary of a thought religious imposition truly is, particularly for those with minority religious views in America.

Finding common ground

As our conversation began to wind down, we all agreed on one crucial point: to safeguard the freedoms of those from both minority and majority religious backgrounds, it is essential for the government to maintain neutrality in religious matters. The women appreciated the open conversation, leaving all three of us gratified that we were able to share views without raising voices or storming off in a huff of powdered sugar. In fact, I took down both of their names and contact information, as they wished to be signed up for updates from AU.

This brief encounter highlighted for me the importance of engaging not only with those who already share our views, but also with those whose perspectives differ considerably from our own. In this way, my conversation with the two women gave me the opportunity not only to challenge our preconceived assumptions, but also to expand the movement to unlikely supporters.

As I left New Orleans to return home, I realized the Creating Change conference wasn’t the only thing that provided me with a renewed sense of purpose and a reminder of the transformative power of open, respectful conversations in driving meaningful change. Change isn’t confined to conferences or big events. We can “create change” simply when we stop and talk to strangers on the side of the road.

Sebastian Mahal is a member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship. Photo: Members of the Fellowship at the Creating Change conference in New Orleans.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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