There is never a dull day fighting for religious freedom. Last week I was in the Rocky Mountains speaking to a room full of some 3,000 young activists who are passionate about freedom. Yesterday I was in a hall full of diplomats and government officials, being sworn in as a Commissioner for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The two experiences couldn’t have been more different. And yet to me, they feel equally a part of the broader battle for conscience rights and religious liberty around the world.
They both reminded me of a story I told the crowd in Denver (click here to watch the full speech). My father fled Fidel Castro's Cuba and lost everything. My father did not stew on his losses. Instead, he stayed focused on the horizon, on the future, and he taught his kids to do the same. Sitting around our kitchen table at night, he would speak about what was possible, not what was lost.
He filled me with excitement when he would tell me that in this new country, a young Latina woman from Cuba could do whatever she set her mind to. Speaking to the next generation in Denver and taking the oath of office for USCIRF—both experiences brought me back to that kitchen table.
In taking on this role for USCIRF, I want to carry on that spirit of possibility and optimism for all people who suffer, especially for their beliefs.
That’s why I asked the Green family of Hobby Lobby if I could borrow a Bible from their collection with a story of its own for my swearing-in ceremony. The Bible they lent me came from Ghana and was written in an original language for a country where as many as 600,000 slaves were taken and sent to Cuba. To me that Bible represents the suffering that is a part of human history, but also of the spirit of hope that conquers suffering and restores human dignity, a human dignity to which every man and woman is entitled.
And that’s why I asked Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and Afro-Cuban dissident, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, to hold the Bible as I took the oath of office. Dr. Biscet is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. After years of terrible abuse for his beliefs and for his audacity to stand up to one of the most oppressive regimes in human history, and after finally getting a taste of the freedom we enjoy here in America, Dr. Biscet is voluntarily going back to keep fighting for his people and their God-given right to freedom.
Dr. Biscet is not satisfied with his own freedom; he won’t stop fighting until others have it too. I only hope I can live up to his example, even if that means I never get to retire.
USCIRF is a bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that was created through the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and signed into law by President Clinton. I am incredibly humbled to join the likes of Commission Chair Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Vice Chairs Dr. Daniel Mark and Dr. James J. Zogby, Sandra Jolley, Dr. John Ruskay, and Ambassador Jackie Wolcott as we bring the message of human dignity and religious liberty to some of the darkest corners of the globe. That will inevitably bring its own challenges, as our nation is struggling to preserve conscience rights in our own schools, city councils, government buildings, universities, and courtrooms today.
But as I told the crowd in the mile-high city, this is still the freest country in the world, and it is a truly magical place. The challenge of this line of work is to press on without losing that sense of magic that inspires us to keep fighting for those who have never experienced it, whose lives have been so downtrodden by oppression that they don’t know what it’s like to go to synagogue without fear of harassment, to mass without fear of violence, or simply to live daily life without being shamed for believing something different.
But whether it's our supporters and my colleagues at Becket, a hall packed with energized activists in Denver, or a sober room filled with heroes like Dr. Biscet, each person who hasn’t given up gives me the courage to endure the future.