Brigham Young University–Hawaii students made a significant impact at the 30th Annual International Center for Law and Religion Symposium held in Provo, Utah, earlier this month. The event marked a momentous milestone for the attending students of BYU–Hawaii and the world’s efforts to safeguard religious freedoms worldwide.
Professors Rand Blimes, Aaron Shumway, David Whippy, Jennifer Kajiyama, and administrative assistant Patiola Thompson-Beatty, as board members of the Religious Freedom and Human Dignity Initiative at BYU–Hawaii, brought six students to the International Law and Religion Symposium. The BYU–Hawaii students in attendance were Lindokuhle Mbuli from Eswatini, Riji Levaci from Fiji, Vilai Ilolahia from Tonga, Cynthia Uvang from Malaysia, Jennly Vidal from the Philippines, and Hannah Harding from the United States. These students successfully represented BYU–Hawaii with eloquence and thoughtfulness by posing insightful questions, considerate behavior, and aiding the attendees, leaving a lasting impression on delegates from around the world.
A Union for Religious Freedom
Speaking about the event, Professor Kajiyama, assistant professor in the Faculty of Business & Government, was humbled by the dedication of world leaders to promoting religious freedom. Professor Kajiyama noted there were about "100 scholars, diplomats, judges, and government, civic and religious leaders from over 65 countries." She added that since the inception of the Symposium 30 years ago, "More than 1,300 government, academic, and religious leaders and visitors from over 138 countries participated in the event to discuss religious freedom principles and explore mechanics to implement these principles better."
The event aims to promote understanding and collaboration on matters related to religion and its intersection with the legal and political landscape. Because it provides opportunities for participants to share their insights, the students of BYU–Hawaii were able to do this by meeting with ambassadors, judges, religious law experts, peacebuilding practitioners, and special liaisons on religion from various state and international governments.
Vilai Ilolahia, a junior and political science major from Tonga, was able to connect with Lord Fatafehi Fakafanua, the Speaker of the Tongan Legislative Assembly. Ilolahia was able to gain valuable experience from the connection. “I felt my personal identity reestablished as he affirmed to me the importance of free worship for all,” Ilolahia said. “Promoting religious freedom helped reinforce my own values as a Tongan and as a Latter-day Saint. It’s so much better for this world to allow me to have the freedom to express my beliefs.”
Lindokuhle Mbuli, a junior and biochemistry major from Eswatini, says attending that event sparked an awakening inside him and revitalized his purpose as a BYUH student. “I realized I do not have to be a political science major or study law to be involved in advocating for human rights and human dignity around the world,” Mbuli says. “Religious freedom is something that each and every person can be involved with and advocate for. It’s displayed here on the BYUH campus as students come from different countries and backgrounds. Advocating for this will enable students to have the zeal to go back to their home countries and build relationships.”
Mbuli also adds that advocating for this cause will enable more peace in the world as it unifies an individual’s rights and their respect for the rights of their fellow brothers and sisters around the world.
The Worldwide Influence of Students
For Professor Kajiyama, the highlight was watching the BYUH students shine during the event. According to her, the participating students were “articulate, thoughtful in their questions, considerate, and helpful.” Dozens of meaningful experiences were created during the event, and a few of the students shared those experiences:
Jennly Vidal, a sophomore and political science major from the Philippines, had an uplifting experience with Jose Reyes Jr., former Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, Jose Reyes Jr. Reyes and his wife were exceptionally mindful of the BYUH students, particularly Vidal whom they lovingly reached out to and made sure she met the right people at the symposium and sat with her during sessions and meals, and Vidal even made copies of his speech for all the BYUH students in attendance.
“He and his wife were very down-to-earth people, which surprised me,” Vidal stated. “He taught me a very valuable lesson by telling me that I could be of service anytime and anywhere. I was worried that I might have a hard time practicing law in the Philippines, but he was very helpful in giving me advice and recommending to me some good law schools found in the country.”
Hannah Harding, a sophomore and double major of political science and peacebuilding from Provo, Utah, also had a unique experience through a conversation with the delegate of Kenya, Reverend Father Joseph Mutie.
“We were talking about how religious freedom was like in his country,” Harding said, “He spoke about the importance of justice for the religious minorities in Kenya and how it was important that those rights were protected. It continued that way until he curiously asked, ‘What was that thing that looked like the Bible that I saw in my hotel room?’” Harding then realized that Rev. Father Mutie was referring to the Book of Mormon. Mutie then asked, “Do you let other people read that book?” and Harding replied with a yes, offering him a copy if he wanted one. Mutie proceeded to ask for a copy, and Harding was able to provide him with one.
“He was here in Utah to learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and decide how much support he was going to give to the missionaries since the Church was being formed in Kenya.” Harding reflects. “He was a person who had a huge influence on the lives of the people of the Church in Kenya, and I was able to give a Book of Mormon to him. It was unbelievable.”
These powerful exchanges and shared experiences are a testament to the influence of BYUH students who are able to impact individuals around the world, leaving a mark of understanding, connection, and goodwill.
“Go Ye Therefore, And Teach All Nations”
As the conference drew to a close, it wasn't just the legal and political discussions that left a lasting impact on the attendees; it was also the profound spiritual experiences that enriched the hearts and minds of the participating students.
Mbuli reflected on the event, stating, “Here in BYU–Hawaii, I’m here to advocate for everyone and ‘go forth and serve.’ The conversations that I had during the conference is just another step to being a disciple of Jesus Christ and building the gospel. I feel like encountering all those leaders advocating religious freedom is preparing me to go forth to the world and build new relationships by being a better leader and moving Jesus Christ’s plans forward.”
Ilolahia, who was converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints two years ago, emphasized the importance of worshipping freely. “Making sure that people can worship Christ the way they want is important. The leaders of countries in that conference as well as me personally, felt we were aligned with the spirit of Christ. Jesus Christ built bridges and connections, and I feel like I should too.”
Vidal also shared her perspective, saying, “Being in that conference, I feel like I was sharing the light of Jesus Christ to other people, enabling other people to gain that light by being able to practice their own religion freely. It fulfills the eleventh Article of Faith, which says, ‘We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience and allow all men the same privilege.’ That was resonating in my mind throughout the conference, and I felt blessed because if God allows me to have religious freedom, everyone else should too.”
Harding echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the unity that encompassed everyone during the event: “Talking to other people who were also seeking God in their own way was interesting. There were a lot of things in that event that could’ve divided all of us, but the one thing that united all of us was that we were dedicating our lives to something greater and something that mattered to all of us: that we were all just seeking God. Even though everyone there was walking their own paths in life, what mattered was that we were there, and we were furthering the work of the Lord.”
In their dedicated pursuit of religious freedom and their commitment to be disciples of Jesus Christ, these students exemplify the timeless directive of the Savior: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations," as they strive to spread the light of Christ through the promotion of the principles of free worship everywhere.