THE INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS LIBERTY ASSOCIATION (IRLA) 8th WORLD CONGRESS
1st September 2017
The International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) 8th World Congress took place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 22-24 August, 2017. IRLA has reported that this Congress entitled 'Religious Freedom and the Hope for Peaceful Coexistence', "…[it] was our most internationally diverse Congress yet, with some 550 attendees and guests, coming from 65 countries and six continents."
It was a privilege to attend this quinquennial IRLA 8th World Congress event ‒ the first to be held in North America. The Trans-European Division was ably represented by the BUC President, Ian Sweeney, NEC President Richard Jackson and the representative from the NEC, Adrian Roberts. I attended as the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) leader for the West London Area 6D Advisory Committee.
The sessions started promptly each day at 09:00 am with a diversity of speakers presenting their thoughts on how to achieve peaceful coexistence. This Congress provided a hotbed of diverse presentations, one mainly spoken in Portuguese, which confronted the usual way of addressing the issue of religious freedom. However, all were centred on religious liberty, addressing how there was a growth of resistance to religious freedom in the world and how could peace be achieved through religious liberty.
There was also the discussion of the rise of worldwide secularism and the struggle that the millennial generation struggled with due to what they recognised as inconsistency in the way that the world conducted religion, among other things, killing one another in the name of their deities. There were discussions about the views held by Martin Luther who oppressed other believers that did not believe as he did. All raising the ultimate question of how is it even possible, for there to be peaceful coexistence?
I believe that each speaker highlighted the difficulty that is created when religious freedoms are restricted, refused or ignored. General Conference President, Ted N C Wilson, presented the need for each member to build their relationship with God in a personal way. He continued that if we as children of God read our Bibles daily, and build the relationship with Jesus, our hearts would change into the mind and character of Christ. This then in turn would lead to members taking Christ-based actions in their lives. President Wilson, in answer to the question of, "What the Church would look like if this practice was embedded as a way of life" responded that, "We would treat others with integrity, honesty and courtesy and show others both in the Church and in our communities that we are Jesus' example." President Wilson continued that this could only be achieved as each member created and built a relationship with God that is tangible so that we are able to coexist in peace with others, having the opportunity of sharing Christ with others as we prepare for His soon return.
Seventh-day Adventist speakers were not hesitant in raising the point that the world is not a peaceful place and I believe that this was a witness as we are experiencing end time events especially in regard to the increase of religious intolerance.
It was inspiring to see speakers, once they had completed their presentations, to sit in the audience willing to listen to their colleagues' thought-provoking views.
The conference highlighted that religious freedom is a God-given gift. That we should pray and advocate for those who are suffering without religious freedom and to thank our officials in the cases where we have religious liberty for this freedom. We, as PARL leaders are able to facilitate these relationships. With a willing and open heart that is ready to listen to and learn from the voice of the Holy Spirit PARL leaders are well placed to be the Church's ambassadors in our communities collaborating with our local and government officials.
Dr John Graz, former IRLA Secretary General, advanced the challenge for PARL leaders to mingle with officials by including in their repertoire the promotion of religious liberty events, and holding the annual Religious Liberty Day and religious liberty festivals. Dr Graz's relayed his experience of interacting with officials, requesting their participation at events where relationships were built and connections made easier. This ultimately provided an avenue for the Church to foster relationships which worked toward the purpose of sharing the love of Jesus and His soon return.
Dr John Graz recommended PARL leaders as ambassadors trained to fulfil their calling as agents of Christ.Enhancing the role of the PARL leader Dr Cesar Garcia challenged the position of a Christian that knew all of their Church's fundamental beliefs and doctrines yet was unable to relate to their fellow believers or community. He suggested, "Let our lives be more about deeds and less of creed." With our hearts fixed on Christ we become more Christ-like. In becoming Christ-like we will seek the best for everyone and as such our coexistence with others can be peaceful.
Legal Symposium brings the Church's lawyers together
The 8th IRLA World Congress was prefaced on Monday 21 August with the Legal Symposium arranged by the Office of the General Counsel of Seventh-day Adventists (OGC), which was well attended by Adventist lawyers from across the world. It was concerning to hear from the attendees that everyone was experiencing similar issues such as the challenges of teaching in state schools or restrictions regarding Sabbath keeping and that such matters were becoming more litigious.
Karnik Doukmetzian, General Counsel for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (OGC), welcomed the lawyers and advocated one's willingness to become a resource for our conferences. Doukmetzian also encouraged inter-relational working between the Conferences and the OGC.
The Brazilian delegates were well represented having about 20 or so lawyers attending the symposium. This group led by General Counsel Luigu Braga represented the 136 lawyers employed by the Church working in the 8 regions of Brazil. General Counsel Braga reported on how he became a lawyer working for the Church having left his full-time role in one of the leading law firms to form 'The Firm' for Jesus.
He is passionate about his work for the Church, even in spite of the 10% pay cut he received when he started 'The Firm' for Jesus. From experience, he encouraged that all Church meetings should have a lawyer who would be familiar with the work of the Church and have an understanding of its principles. This connection would provide proactive support with personal heartfelt interest to collaboratively work to endeavour that the Church stays safe.
Attendees were honoured with a presentation from Judge James Graves Jr, a Seventh-day Adventist United States Circuit Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2011. His legal career started in 1980 and he lives by the virtue of treating everybody fairly. Judge Graves aims to give justice in the decisions that he and his colleagues 'hand down'. He recognises that the work, not him, is important and as such he remains humble. Judge Graves advocated, "Be kind to people."
In conclusion, he quoted Dr Kent M Keith's paradoxical poem that was written on a wall of a children's home in Calcutta by Mother Theresa known as the 'Anyway' poem, "If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; be kind anyway…You see, in the final analysis it is between you and your God; it was never between you and them anyway."
Other OGC team members to present during the event were Associate General Counsel Josue Pierre and Jennifer Gray Woods. They hold the contracts/procurement and intellectual property law responsibilities respectively. Associate General Counsel Jennifer Gray Woods was also able to support future developments in an international collaboration of Seventh-day Adventist lawyers. They were also able to remind attendees of the association which all Seventh-day Adventist lawyers are encouraged to join.
The symposium was a great forum to meet like-minded legal professionals that were experiencing the same issues. The camaraderie enjoyed between attendees was tangible and the OGC agreed that this forum should be held again in the near future. The resounding comment from volunteer workers' and those employed by the Church was that working as a lawyer for God is a joy.
[Chucks Golding Area 6D - PARL Coordinator]