May 2024 Church & State Magazine - May 2024

‘The energy is amazing’: SRF attendees reflect on the power of community

  Liz Hayes

The breakout sessions. The diversity of attendees. The opportunity to lobby members of Congress. And above all, being in community with like-minded people passionate about church-state separation, religious freedom and the many issues that depend on them.

These are just a few of the characteristics of the Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) lauded by attendees.

“It’s really just the inspiration — being in the room with so many people who are just as dedicated to this cause as I am is a really great feeling,” said Aaron Tyrrell of Tennessee. “It’s really nice to be in the room with really excited people that are really trying to make things happen. It’s very inspirational.”

The Rev. Selena Fox, a member of AU’s Faith Advisory Council and senior minister of Wisconsin-based Circle Sanctuary, an international nature spirituality church, applauded how the conference brings together diverse people: “Being able to be with a diverse grouping of people to explore the problems of Christian extremism in our nation and other forces that are undermining democracy. Finding ways that we can work together — people of many faiths, of no faith, of many cultures, many backgrounds — for equality, liberty and justice for all.”

Maureen O’Leary, senior director of field & organizing at Interfaith Alliance, a longtime ally of AU, also pointed to the religious diversity of SRF’s attendees.

“You have Christians sitting at the same table as their Jewish and Muslim and atheist and Buddhist siblings and neighbors and friends, all trying to achieve this democracy,” she said. “It is a frightening time, but from an organizing perspective, a really exciting time because people are starting to realize that the only way to get through this is together.”

In addition to religious diversity at SRF, attendees also remarked on the age range of SRF attendees. O’Leary’s colleague Tranée McDonald, a policy and advocacy associate at Interfaith Alliance, said she was intrigued to see not only young people — the age group she’s most accustomed to seeing at conferences — but older activists too.

“Seeing older generations still doing this and fighting for this and showing up and coming from so many different states — the energy is amazing,” McDonald said. “That was what immediately impressed me, shocked me, interested me. I haven’t been in environments like that. Sometimes it feels like this is only our fight and we’re the only ones who care about this issue, and that’s so not true.”

Eleanor Crafton, a high school student from California, said she also appreciated the learning opportunity of SRF, including being around more experienced activists.

“It’s been a really, really amazing experience; being with people that are a lot older than me is almost one of the best things about it because I’m learning so much from an elder generation that has been going through this for years … and have experienced a lot more that can really share that experience,” she said.

Crafton said she learned about Americans United and SRF through a research paper she was working on about Christian fundamentalism and its impact on public education.

Her takeaway from SRF: “I’m not alone in this battle. I think through a lot of my research I was thinking I was kind of hopeless, especially with youth. But I found there are a lot of people who care about the same topic that I do. It’s something that I really value from this.”

Several attendees touted their favorite workshops and presentations.

Rouchon: Grasping the power of words to unite (Photo by Chris Line Photography)

The Rev. Omar Rouchon, associate pastor of St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Houston and a member of AU’s Houston Chapter, said he appreciated the breakout session “Plain Words: Dismantling and Countering the Linguistic Framework of Christian Nationalism.” Presented by historian and author Bruce Gourley, the session offered suggestions on how to have effective conversations with those who may be swayed by Christian Nationalism.

Rouchon said he was intrigued by the discussion on “the power of language, how words can shape conversations among people who are diametrically opposed to one another, who have fundamentally different views … how words have the power to convey our unifying ideas and where we can meet and what we can agree on and how we’re more similar than we are dissimilar to one another and how the choice of words in the moment and conversations can be intentionally constructive in bringing people together. … Using the power of words to unite rather than divide to bring people together I think is really important. It was a really great offering.”

Ivan Torres, a college student in New Mexico and a member of AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship program, said one of his favorite presentations was “The State of US Democracy and Emerging Threats: Project 2025.” Megan Uzzell and Max Levy from Democracy Forward introduced SRF attendees to Project 2025, an initiative for restructuring the federal government in order to accomplish the policy goals of Christian Nationalists.

Torres: Understanding the Shadow Network (Photo by Chris Line Photography)

“It breaks down what the Shadow Network is trying to do when it comes to separation of church and state and how it intersects with so many different issues — public education and so many others,” Torres said. “And how important it is that we really understand what they’re trying to do because if we don’t, we’re going to fall behind.”

Hill Day — when SRF participants go to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and their staff to advocate for the Do No Harm Act — was also a highlight for many attendees.

Dan Hogan of Virginia, back at SRF for a second year in a row, said he was encouraged to learn that since meeting with the office of U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) last year, she has since signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

“I think we actually made an impact,” Hogan said.

Hogan urged others to consider attending SRF next year and taking the opportunity to lobby their representatives: “Come. It matters. The Capitol is a small world. … You can make an impact.”

Almost all of the SRF attendees interviewed said they found the conference inspiring and motivating.

“I think that what I took away from this [SRF] is that there is an urgency,” said Michael Poppa of Kansas. He’s the executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, which empowers informed participation and meaningful action in the political process.

“There is a game plan from those who want to meld religion and state forever,” Poppa said. “This is a time, right now, that we have to stop them. That’s what I took from here. And I took inspiration, I took the comradery that all of us working together to build power — we can do this. We really can.”

This story features additional reporting by Whitney Oppenhuizen.

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