Rhyme, rhythm and reasoning took center stage in Waco, Texas, on November 5.

University Baptist Church hosted the Belief and Belonging Festival, an event dedicated to bringing people together to share personal stories of finding their place in the world.

Presentations ranged from musical selections by talented artists to heartfelt speeches by respected church leaders, poets, politicians and teachers who shared their individual perspectives in their own unique way.

One of the vivid messages expressed throughout this event was the admonishment to be comfortable with who you are and not let anyone take that self-confidence away.

Author and educator Maria Humphries shared her experience of reconciling her identity as an Indigenous woman with her Christian faith. In addition to facing scrutiny from non-natives within her church, she was also misunderstood by many within her tribe because of her religion.

In the eyes of many, there was simply no way that she could claim both her tribal roots and the Christian faith. This brought feelings of isolation and self-doubt. Humphrie’s healing only began when she stopped seeing herself through the lens others used and took ownership of her identity in both her Indigenous culture and Christ.

Emem Washington shared her own story of learning how to be confident in her identity. Growing up, she was treated differently in both positive and negative ways.

While living in England, she first realized she was different when a classmate commented on her braided hairstyle, saying it looked like she had spiders on her head. When her family moved to Uganda, her new classmates were in awe of her British accent, so she was given preferential treatment.

But the teasing continued when moved to the U.S. and Washington was repeatedly teased for her skin tone by people who, ironically, looked just like her. She also began to go by the name Amy because her teachers struggled to pronounce her real name.

It wasn’t until she grew older that she began to go by her real name again, realizing that she didn’t need to change who she was to claim her place in society. She has since reclaimed her birth name, Emem, and seeks to encourage others to be true to themselves and not “blend in in order to belong.”

Other presentations centered around religious identity and how this part of our identity is shaped by American culture.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), is seeking to dismantle Christian nationalism and to uphold true religious liberty, something that she believes America has not fully done.

“Christian nationalism suggests that to be a true American, one has to be a Christian,” she said. “It gives cultural belonging to people who are white, native-born and English-speaking and implicitly creates second-class citizens status for everyone else.”

From Tyler’s perspective, America claims to uphold religious freedom but really only practices religious tolerance. This hierarchy excludes people like Saddiq Granger, whose religious upbringing was not Christian.

Granger is a violinist, poet and artisan who grew up moving around. He was born in North Philly, moved to North Africa as a child and finally settled in Texas as a young adult.

Having lived in three different communities as a Muslim, he faced certain challenges that forced him to come to terms with his religious identity. Those experiences fueled Granger’s resolve to fight for justice, and he now has a much better sense of belonging.

The sense of unity and mutual respect between presenters and participants was evident. People from different religious, economic and social backgrounds shared their stories, and they were all heard and appreciated.

From Marcus Hollingsworth’s religious journey as a neurodivergent, bisexual man to Noor Saleh’s work as a civic interfaith leader, the lived experiences of everyone was shared with equal passion and conviction.

The festival emphasized that belief and belonging are both very personal aspects of people’s lives and they should be treated as such, offering a reminder that everyone is different and should have the freedom to be true to themselves and express who they are.

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