“No one is free until we are all free”- MLK, Jr.

When I was born, I was born to a young teenager who had accidentally gotten pregnant in Oklahoma City, in the early 1980’s. She made the loving decision to put me up for adoption, and after 4 days in the hospital, I was adopted and moved to California with my wonderful family. My parents explained my adoption in a beautiful narrative of God’s providence and God’s love for all of us. They helped frame my conception, birth and adoption as part of a larger plan- God saw that they could not have children, so God created me, and worked to make sure that I ended up with the family I was meant to be in. I never experienced the whispers, the feelings of less-than, or the judgement that would have come to me as the child born to an unmarried young woman in Oklahoma. My rights were never questioned, and my validity as a whole person was preserved.

As I reflect on my adoption, I am deeply grateful that two loving people were given full rights to pursue adoption, and were given the opportunity to choose to raise me in a home where I was loved deeply and afforded much. Without that, who knows what my life would have looked like- and who knows what my understanding of God would be.

Growing up, I never heard “God doesn’t love you”…instead, I always heard “God loved you so much that God created you in extraordinary circumstances so you could find your way to us.” I never heard “God thinks you are an abomination.” I only heard “You are precious in God’s sight.”

What is hard for me to digest is the fact that this is not the narrative that many “preach” as religious leaders, and the words they spew are damaging to children and families everywhere…and what breaks my heart is that they do it in the name of God.

I am now a Pastor in the Presbyterian Church, USA serving in North Texas. Coming from the Bay Area of California, there were sure to be adjustments on a lot of levels- I mean, I didn’t pay “fair weather tax” or have to put down $300,000 as a down-payment for my home. But I never imagined that I would find myself in the thick of the battle over “religious freedom.”

Beyond freedom, I was not prepared to find myself helping people of faith understand that we are all whole, worthy of dignity, and worthy of knowing that our Creator thinks we are precious.

As an adopted child, I look at this differently than most. I understand the concept of being adopted into family with Christ as a gift and opportunity- adoption that is extended to all, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, or sexuality. It is part of my identity- both as a child to my parents, and as a child of God. If God could find a way to make sure I got from Oklahoma to California, why would God not seek to do the same for all of God’s children? Why wouldn’t God create a place and space for all of God’s children? I believe God does, again and again. God makes space for all. Some might respond with “Well, that’s sweet honey, but you’re a pastor, you grew up in an affluent neighborhood, you are acceptable to my religious palate.” To that I respond, “That may be true, but just like those you condemn, I am an egregious and consistent sinner-A sinning, broken, beloved child of God.”

What does this have to do with religious freedom?

To understand that all are precious and created in the image of God, imperfectly perfect, broken and beloved, is to understand that we are all deeply loved. This is the heart of the Gospel, to be loved and love others in return. This is the heart of my understanding of faith, and it is an understanding that frees both me, and those I disagree with, to live fully in relationship with God, and with one another.

My freedoms, though they have always been afforded to me, are not threatened by offering them to others. In fact, my freedoms are enhanced when more get to live fully into the life God creates for all of us.

To say that my freedom (or anyone else’s freedom) can only come at the expense of the freedom of another (and for reasons as base and offensive as their God created sexuality) is not religious, it is discrimination. It is not true to the message of Jesus Christ, it is not true to the call of the Great Commission. It simply cannot stand against the steadfast love and grace of God.

My freedoms have never been questioned, but I have seen the freedoms and rights of people I love be called into questioned, challenged and denied- all in the name of God that they worship with me on Sunday mornings. Their freedoms are denied for the sake of the preservation of “purity” or “sanctity”…of what? Where does God say “I love all of you…except”…or where does the Bible say that Christ died for all, “except?” When did the religious right become the end all-be all in the interpretation of the love of God? How long will we all be held captive by fear, when grace has been so clearly offered? How long will we all be held captive by language of “us” and “them”? How long will we believe that fear- based lie that “my” rights will be fundamentally threatened if we extend rights to all?

God chose an un-wed woman to birth the Son of God, Savior of the World. God worked through the “least of these,” the “marginalized,” the “unclean,” the “diseased”…all those who had no freedom.

God used all kinds of people to show that freedom would be, and is, offered to all. And in the loosening or breaking the bonds for one, all experience freedom in deeper, more authentic ways. There is freedom enough for all of us, God is big enough, powerful enough, and sovereign enough to ensure that.

Maybe I missed the boat, maybe there is something I have failed to understand. But in my experience, my studies, and in all of my relationships, I have come to understand that freedom cannot exist for me, unless it exists for all.

We belong to one another, regardless if we agree with one another, regardless if we have had shared experiences. We belong to one another- in love, in grace, and in the peace that passes understanding. We belong to one another, and our freedoms are bound together. It is easy to think my freedom and your freedom are not connected- but each time an unarmed child is killed, each time a family is denied rights because it isn’t “traditional,” each time anyone is told they are less-than, or unworthy of the love of God, the earth cries out, God surely shakes God’s head wondering “when will they understand?”

Christ was sent to offer freedom to all, collectively and completely. Each time we deny freedom to another, we deny the power of the Risen Lord- and we choose to stay captive in death rather than embrace the freedom offered in new life. As a leader of faith, “a professional Christian,” I am keenly aware that I have no idea what it is to be denied rights or freedoms, especially in the name of God. However, I am also aware that had God decided differently, the narrative of my life could have been very different. I could have been more marginalized, I could have been seen as less than for things that were and are beyond my control. Because of that, I cannot minister authentically without taking up the cause of those on the fringes-and I cannot minister effectively unless I am seeking to pursue freedom for those who are currently bound by discriminatory theology or laws. I have a responsibility to help people, on all sides of the argument, embrace and claim the freedom that God offers. But, because we live in a world that denies people things that we do not have the power to grant in the first place, I am also convicted that I have a role to speak up, and out, for those who are being discriminated against…all while trying to keep folks reconciled to the idea that we belong to one another, and to God.

We don’t belong to one another because we are members of any church, or social group, or denomination. We belong to one another because we have been united in, and adopted by, Christ. End of story.

Until we understand that our call is to love God, and to love one another, and until we begin to live in such a way that honors the bonds we have in Christ, then none of us will be free-spiritually, congressionally, federally, nationally…none of us will be free. The longer that those of us with privilege and voice fail to offer (and fight for) freedom, compassion, and dignity to all with the understanding that our freedoms are enhanced in the offering, then we will all remain captive.

Rev. Pepa Paniagua

Rev. Pepa Paniagua is a PCUSA pastor in North Texas. She was raised in the Bay Area of California, and is finding ways to blend her California roots into her Texas living! She is a 2005 graduate of Whitman College where she received a double major in Religious Studies and Gender Studies, and received her Master of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2008.

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