The room was utterly still. The only sound was the soft sniffling from the audience as the final speaker at the November Belief & Belonging Festival began to close his talk.
As his family watched from the front row, Michael Liga, a Mayo Clinic hospice chaplain, told his family’s harrowing story of immigrating from the Philippines. In his final refrain he exhorted the audience to “Remember your story. Remember who you are …I am Michael Wayne Tan Liga. The son of Wennie Liga, a nurse and nurturing mother, and Ronnie Liga, a pastor and faithful father. A brother to two beautiful and gifted sisters, Lyza and Precious Liga. An immigrant from the Philippines and proud Filipino-American. A Christian called to be a chaplain and minister … And I no longer want to forget.”
A powerful ending to an unforgettable day. Peeking around the corner of the makeshift wing constructed for the festival held at University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, I took a full breath for maybe the first time all day. I was listening to one of my former students give one of the best talks I’d heard on the stage of my own church. I looked out at the diverse audience who had been enthralled by equally diverse speakers all day long, while festivalgoers were being assisted by an all-Muslim college student volunteer team, who were also my former students. I could not have dreamed of a more perfect way to bring about a conversation on the things we believe, once believed or are trying to believe and how those things impact when, where, and how we belong.
As a native Texan having just survived my first snow squall during a whirlwind trip to see friends in New York City and Philadelphia in February 2022, I was finally safe and sound under a pile of blankets on my dear friend’s magical couch. The couch where all the best ideas were born. I met Kristen Donnelly while attending seminary together. Our close friendship developed after graduation as we found new commonalities such as our intercultural marriages, our love of baseball, our drive to untangle systems of oppression and institutional harm, our obsession over all things Broadway, our commitment to our communities, and the gift of public speaking. This web of joys and convictions often led us to long conversations that only we could follow, and on the rare occurrence we were in the same space, on that couch, the ideation was unstoppable.
Donnelly had just finished her fourth TEDx Talk in a staggering eight-month span, and I was on my way to delivering my first. Neither of us were strangers to using the stage as a platform for social change from conferences and retreats to trainings and workshops to podcasts and preaching, we were both finding more opportunities to speak than ever, but something was missing. Even as the world engages more openly about various social identities, the way in which people orient around religion has been excluded from the conversation. This exclusion is usually intentional to protect the perceived integrity of the event and the sensibilities of the participants who may have been harmed by religious rhetoric in the past. The conclusion is that religion is a private matter. Except religion never stays private.
One only has to look at the gross miscalculations in the last few election cycles by pollsters to realize that religion is part of the public sphere. Whether or not we choose to talk about our beliefs, traditions, worldviews, et cetera, we are still formed by them. We are influenced in such a way that we act and react without full awareness, at times based on these deeply embedded beliefs. Even if we vehemently reject a religious tradition of our childhood, the very nature of acting in antithesis of that system still leaves us orienting around it. If we are going to be so shaped by our religious traditions, rejection of religion, former traditions, or quest for a new worldview that fits, we should learn how to talk about all these things openly in our community settings.
With our shared affection for Waco, Texas, and my permanent residence there, an idea emerged. If we could not find a stage that would let us speak on these topics that are vital to our communities, we would have to build it. I wanted a space to showcase the power of interfaith cooperation and the complexity of belonging through periods of deconstructing belief, and for Donnelly it was a deep dive into the real reason we are sick, tired and burned out. The Puritans gave us a civil religion, namely the Protestant work ethic we know as capitalism, and we are afraid to rest. Immediately our minds flooded with other people, speakers, and non-speakers alike, who had stories to tell about how they had navigated their personal journey with belief and belonging. By the time I landed back in Texas, the venue was booked, and the Belief & Belonging Festival was born.
The festival consisted of poets, musicians and speakers giving 10 to 15-minute memorized talks around the theme of navigating belief and belonging. They shared vulnerably and powerfully on topics such as what it means to own one’s Native American identity and practice the Christian faith; what preparing for a Jewish intrafaith wedding can teach us about creating a thriving diverse democracy; the problem of Christian nationalism as a false sense of belonging; and how something as simple as learning to say someone’s name correctly, especially for a child, can set them on a trajectory of self-confidence and belonging. As speaker, Marcus Hollingsworth stated in his talk about wrestling with his desire to be accepted by his faith community and family and live openly in his sexual identity, “belonging is powerful stuff.”
The Belief & Belonging Festival was important to Waco and important to those across the country and world who joined us virtually. We must learn to face our fear of not belonging long enough to be honest about our beliefs, and we must be able to listen well as those in our communities express their own doubts and questions, and difficulty finding belonging.
As the audience trickled out at the end of the event, I heard comments like “I feel like I can breathe,” “I have a lot to process,” and “I didn’t know how much I needed that” fill the room. The 2023 Belief & Belonging Festival will continue with the same goals, because we all need a space to think about what we believe, where we belong, and to remember who we are.
Sharyl West Loeung is a TEDx speaker, author, event producer, and social entrepreneur who facilitates spaces of belonging where connection, collaboration, and creativity can flourish.
Watch the 2022 Belief & Belonging Festival on this YouTube playlist.