The entire community at Ricks Institute gathered in the school’s auditorium at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2016.

It was the first day of the 2016-17 academic year for the K-12 Baptist boarding school in Liberia.

It was my responsibility as the principal and chief administrative officer to set the pace for the new school year for all, especially for new students and staff. I used the assembly to outline our expectations and standards for the year.

Each staff member also had an opportunity for self-introduction. As the microphone was passed on from one staff to the next, the microphone was handed to Mohammed Sarnor, a teacher, to introduce himself.

He is one of the longest serving and committed staff at Ricks, teaching mathematics and physics.

What sets Sarnor apart from most of our staff is that he is a quiet, practicing Muslim who prays five times daily and follows the religious regiments of his faith.

He only mentioned his teaching role, so I paused to emphasize that our community values and respects diversity and to underscore our commitment to religious liberty, religious rights and religious tolerance.

Highlighting our stance on religious liberty was necessary for several reasons:

1. In our context as a Christian school – established in 1887 by the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention in the center of several Muslim villages – we have embraced students from diverse persuasions, including the Islamic faith.

In Rick’s early years, the Arabic language was taught as a subject matter as a means of reaching out to Islamic students.

The respect and tolerance of the Islamic faith at Ricks have created an impressive, admirable and respectful culture between the school and the area villages.

In many instances, without any coercion, Muslim village students who came to attend Ricks would convert to Christianity. They were not expelled from their Muslim families.

Clearly, religious tolerance and rights are not about strategies for forceful conversion or evangelization. The key to religious tolerance and rights are respecting and living in harmony and peace as human beings, regardless of one’s faith practice.

Hence, our faith and learning community needed to be reminded of the significance of respect for all regardless of differences in religious beliefs and practices.

As a school surrounded by predominately Muslim villages and one with Muslim students, a Christian school like Ricks cannot shy away from the practice of religious rights and tolerance.

While we remain true and firm in our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and his teaching, we must learn, engage and respect all regardless of their beliefs.

2. Our community needs this reminder to draw its attention to the national debate in Liberia over whether or not the legislation should define us as a “Christian nation.”

While there are many, especially Christians, who think that Liberia should be labeled in its constitution as a Christian state, the emerging debate threatens religious liberty, religious rights and religious tolerance.

I do not think that Liberia should be legislated as a “Christian state.” This label has the propensity to undermine our relationships as Liberians and human beings.

I do not believe that the state should do my work as a Christian. After all, if we are totally convinced to have a positive impact in Liberia, we must strive to become the “light” and “salt” in Liberia (Matthew 5:13-16); we must be intentional about “making disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), including Liberia.

As Baptist Christians, we believe in religious liberty and rights for all, even non-Christians. This practice has remained part of our DNA as Baptists. It is a major nucleus of our history and praxis since our inception.

Religious intolerance continues to destroy lives and threatens human security in our contemporary world.

Without religious tolerance and respect among religious groups, others often see themselves as objects of hate, harassment, discrimination and assault. This kind of societal ambiance is characterized by fear and uncertainty.

Each day, we hear about threats, pains and sufferings caused by religious intolerance, and attacks by so-called extremist groups.

It may appear to be so far away from us, but, in reality, it is so near since these awful experiences are affecting human beings.

At least for these reasons, among so many that could be outlined, our communities of faith need to understand the utmost need of respect, tolerance and living peaceably with all people.

Mohammed Sarnor is an honest, humble, selfless and gifted teacher. Living on the school campus with his family, Sarnor offers to all at Ricks a sharp onus for relevant conversation on religious rights, tolerance and respect.

Olu Menjay is principal of Liberia’s Ricks Institute as well as assistant professor at the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is currently serving as a second-term president of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention. You can follow him on Twitter @omenjay.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.

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