How religious freedom opens doors to share your faith

iHOPE EMPOWERS - Blue Cord Series Episode 2

How religious freedom opens doors to share your faith

Shirin grew up with one foot in Iran and one in America. Her unique upbringing led her to advocate for religious freedom at the UN. Find out how religious freedom opens doors to share your faith. She dishes up inspiring stories of advocating for religious freedom and women's rights worldwide. And closer to home, she reveals how she practically models sharing her biblical faith for her children.

Episode Notes

Get the free e-Course on religious freedom that Shirin shared at Empowerwomen.media. 

Where did you live when you were in junior high? Shirin Taber grew up with one foot in Iran and one in America. Her unique upbringing led her to advocate for women's rights and religious freedom at the UN.

Find out how religious freedom opens doors to share your faith. Listen as Shirin dishes up inspiring stories of advocating for religious freedom worldwide. And closer to home, find out how she practically models sharing her biblical faith for her children.

if your biblical faith is important to you, friends of other faiths expect you to bring it up. Get more courage and confidence to share. Sign up for iHOPE's  eNewsletter. Text "iHOPE" to 22828 to sign up now. Or visit us online at www.iHOPEministries.org.

Episode Transcript

(KAREN) Where did you live when you were in junior high? I lived on a farm in America's Heartland and never had to worry about being associated with a terrorist state that took hostages. But today's guest did.

And before you meet her, I want to share the inspiration behind this Blue Cord podcast series. When I was in junior high, most Americans identified as Christian. Now people of many faiths live here. We can cross our streets and share the good news about Jesus, and yet we’re not. The Blue Cord is a symbolic reminder from God in Numbers, [spp-timestamp time="15:37"] - that if we love Him, we will keep His commands. I pray this podcast reminds you today to share your biblical faith because it demonstrates your love for Him.

Our guest today, Shirin Taber, grew up with one foot in Iran and one in America. Her unique upbringing led her to found, Empower Women Media and partner with the UN and faith-based organizations as an advocate for religious freedom around the world. Welcome, Shirin.

(SHIRIN TABER)  Thank You. It's great to be with you today.

(KAREN) Shirin, you and I were talking recently that when I was growing up in the cornfields of America's Heartland, my friends were all either Methodist or Baptist. Yet you were growing up in a bicultural family. Tell us about that.

(SHIRIN) Yes, that's true. I grew up in Seattle mostly, and I was born in Southern California. My origin story is that my father came to the U.S. from Iran. He was an international student. He was studying engineering at the time and wanted to work with the airlines, which was just a growing industry in the 1960s. You can imagine it was still very new and fresh for people to think about traveling, not just here in the US but across the ocean. And he wanted what many men of his generation wanted - a California blonde. And so, he met my mother in Los Angeles and somehow they forged their lives together. And it wasn't easy with my dad coming from an Iranian Muslim background and my mother coming from an Irish Catholic background.

(KAREN) Wow! So how did that impact your thoughts?

(SHIRIN) As a small child, I didn't know any better. I just thought this is my family and this is all I know. We spoke two different languages in the home. We had Iranian and American cuisine. Until I was about 10, we were traveling back and forth between both countries. My dad graduated from college and then had a very respected career in the airline industry helping Iranians and Americans.

It was when I was 10 years old that my eyes started to open and I realized, “Wow, this really is different. My dad is a completely different religion than my mom,” and it started to impact me.

(KAREN) Yes, And then the Iranian revolution happened

(SHIRIN)  Correct! in 1979, I was in junior high. it was a very scary time obviously for America because the Iranian government - actually a lot of student protestors took a large number of Americans hostage and Iran and America overnight became enemies. Prior to that, they were friends. We had American military and business people inside Iran. Iran was really kind of the jewel of the Middle East. it was a really scary time. I had felt comfortable prior to that having both nationalities. But then all of a sudden, I was associated with a terrorist state. At one point George Bush called Iran the “Axis of evil.” it was a massive identity crisis for me in junior high.

(KAREN) Especially junior high years are hard anyway, but to have this compound on top of that...

(SHIRIN) Because in junior high, you just want to fit in. You just want to feel like you're like everyone else. And so, I already looked different because I have dark eyes and dark hair, but then I didn't really look completely middle Eastern because I'm very tall. I'm 5’11”. So, I didn't fit in - in either culture.

Thankfully we had a neighbor across the street who just loved my mom and loved us. And when I was in ninth grade after the hostage crisis, our family was completely turned upside down. My dad had to flee Iran and look for employment in the U.S. It was really tough. I mean, our lives were kind of like the refugees who are coming here. And we had this lovely neighbor, Pam, who lived across the street. She was Bible-believing, going to church Wednesday nights, Sunday mornings, Sunday nights. And she loved us.

Then my mom came down with being very ill and we didn't know what it was. And so, my dad took her to urgent care and six weeks later, she passed away from cancer. Pam saw us through that. She loved us. She fed us. And then eventually she challenged me to have a personal relationship with Christ. And I was at a point in my life where even though I grew up with both traditions and cultures, I really saw my need for God. It was so natural for me to make that decision. And I had Pam there to guide me and to help me make it happen.

(KAREN) I love this picture about how she loved you, with a mother's heart at that moment, and pointed you to Christ. It was a natural thing. So then how did you become discipled?

(SHIRIN) Over time, we were motherless kids living across the street, and she had three kids of her own. My dad was coming and going, looking for employment. He was really struggling. He wasn't around much because he was a widower, and he was trying to figure out his life in a country where he wasn't really a part of the local culture. So, she just continued to have us over and feed us, and she would drive us to school and basketball practice. She bought me a dress for the dance. Through conversations, and then of course inviting us to church and youth group. she discipled me all the way through high school with her daughter.

They gave me my first Bible. They would regularly include me in family - like Christmas and holidays and really just way of life that as a young teenager. I really wanted to be a part of a family, and she made that happen. And then of course at church, there were youth group leaders that would pour into me and have conversations. And then eventually I went to the University of Washington and got involved with a student group called CRU. Other women came into my life and played a big part in discipling me, mentoring me, and helping me to become a young woman.

(KAREN) So tell me throughout this journey, what were your dad's thoughts about you pursuing the Christian faith?

(SHIRIN) My dad represented an era where faith in him was something that should impact your life in a positive way. He was never political about his Muslim faith. He was never territorial. He was delighted that we had this family that was in our lives and he's like, “Well, I see what's happening, and I'm okay with it because my kids are happy. They're safe.”

I think he ultimately respected my personal decision. Later after my dad passed away a few years ago, I wrote an article for “women in the world.” And I realized the greatest gift my dad ever gave me was religious freedom because, in his culture, oftentimes the fathers demand that not only their wives, but their children follow exactly the same faith as them and my dad gave me the autonomy and respected my individuality to make that decision myself. It was never a point of conflict. I mean, we had some interesting conversations about theology and different things, but he respected my faith. And he even told me many times throughout my life that he saw the benefits of my Christian faith and how it impacted my life in a really positive way.

(KAREN) Well, and your unique upbringing has built a foundation for what you do today. Tell us a little bit about that.

(SHIRIN) Yeah. So, I've done a lot of things over the years - working in the Christian sectors and nonprofit sectors. I worked in campus ministry for years, worked in TV broadcasting and in film and media, but more recently I'd become aware of the fact that over 80% of the world lives with religious restrictions and it's only getting worse. In fact, during COVID, we're seeing the lockdowns and, people cannot freely gather together or worship and it's happening all over the world. It's not just here in the US.

I also saw the intersection of religious freedom and women's rights that women could not truly have, their human rights until they were religiously free. So, the freedoms that we have here in the US, I saw how vital it was that we promote religious freedom around the world so that women can fully participate in life and not be held back because of religious doctrine or ideologies. So, we've started to explore that, and we are very passionate about teaching women about religious freedom and how essential it is for them to have not only women's rights but have religious freedom also, so they can live their fullest lives.

(KAREN) So Shirin, let's just unpack that a little bit because I know when you hear about religious freedom in other parts of the world, sometimes as Bible-believing Christians, we might hunker down a little bit and be concerned about that, or we might let culture intimidate us and be concerned about laws that we have here in America about religious freedoms. What are your thoughts about that?

(SHIRIN) I think when we have a correct understanding of religious freedom, there's nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it only opens doors. Religious freedom is meant to protect the individual and not religion. And you know as Christians, we know that we're not focused on religion, we're focused on a personal relationship with God. And so religious freedom should give every individual, especially women, the right to choose her faith and how she expresses it. And it doesn't allow a government or some community to come in or your employer to come in and tell you or dictate to you how to believe, or how to practice or what clothes to wear, or how to eat whatever. And so, this is essential for human freedom all over the world, and we believe that Christians need to lead by example.

So, we have to extend religious freedom to all people, to safeguard our own religious freedom, if that makes sense. Because if we don't extend that freedom to our neighbors from other countries or cultures, how can we expect them to extend it to us? And that's the problem we're seeing in the Middle East. For example, there's very little tolerance for religious freedom. Everyone's supposed to follow the majority culture, the majority religion, which is Islam. And therefore, minorities and Christians and Jews, or women or students are persecuted when they don't follow exactly as the state dictates.

So, we don't want to fall into that trap in America or in the West. I think we need to be on the front lines, educating people about the benefits of religious freedom so that we can protect the church and people of faith around the world for years to come. And we really have to be thinking long-term. We can't just think about one administration or one election. We have to be thinking about how to safeguard religious freedom for years to come so that our children and grandchildren have that freedom also.

(KAREN) Well said. And I know Sharon, you have a great free e-course on religious freedom as well. Where can people access that?

(SHIRIN)

Yeah, I'd love to encourage women to check out our website. It's called empower women media, and you can find @empowerwomen.media. You can find us on Instagram, @empower women.media, and Facebook. And if you go to our website, you'll see that there's a tab for “Live What You Believe,” the eCoursee. It’s a one-hour, free online course. You get to watch four short videos and there are some worksheets and curriculum. And then if you complete the course, you get a certificate of completion that you can share with your employer, your pastor, or community leader. Then you will have been equipped with understanding what is religious freedom and what are the benefits for peaceful and stable societies? What are the benefits for women's rights and what are the benefits of religious freedom for thriving economies?

The research shows that the countries that have the greatest religious freedom have the most thriving economies. They have the best human rights. They have more peace and stability because people are not fighting. They're not having wars about religion or conflicts about religion. So again, there's just a lot of data and research. In fact, I'm heading to DC this summer for the International Religious Freedom Summit. World leaders are coming in because they realize that a lot of the conflicts and wars in the world are related to religion.

And so, we don't want that to continue. We want to help people realize that their faith is supposed to be something that promotes love, right? The golden commandment, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Your faith should not be something that causes culture wars or wars with other countries. And so, I really think that it's a great time for Christians in America especially, and in the West to be thinking about this - how our faith can promote peace and reconciliation and forgiveness rather than culture wars.

(KAREN) Speaking of culture-wars, right now it seems like everywhere we look, and especially many women who've been part of my focus groups have been sharing how in this cancel culture they just don’t want to be politically incorrect. Sometimes that causes us not to talk about religion or, spiritual matters of the heart. What are your thoughts about that?

(SHIRIN) It's really important that we're not intimidated. There's a fine line between being respectful and thoughtful and considerate and peaceful and just shutting down and hiding your faith or your identity. We don't want anyone to ever feel like they need to hide their identity or their faith. And so, we need to remember, we can stand on the constitution and the laws of our land that protect our faith. And we live in a country that allows freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of expression. So, you have all the right in the world to express yourself. It's just HOW you do it. And I think the cancel culture is a reaction to, unfortunately, some people Christians who may have overstepped their lines in some ways. Some people out there in the culture have burned some bridges. But we can persevere and continue to promote our faith in respectful, hospitable ways.

(KAREN) You know, as you were sharing that Shirin it made me think about this moment where my husband and I took our son to go see the Rose Bowl parade on January 1st. Now I had never been before. We went early in the morning and before the parade began, there was a whole group of people coming down the road with these great big signs. And they were saying, Repent or go to hell.” And as they were going down the road with the loudspeakers, “Repent or go to hell,” people on the bleachers were shouting back at them. And I thought, “This is a perfect role model for my son of bad evangelism.”

We have this image in our mind that that's what it means to go share our faith. And if that's what that means, I certainly don't want to go do that. But when you come across an immigrant here in the United States, Shereen, they've come through a naturalization process. So, they know America has a Christian heritage. You came here from another faith, from another culture, and your neighbor came alongside you with love. So, I know you in turn have taken this back with your family. How do you role model being an authentic Christian witness to people of other faiths and cultures around you today?

(SHIRIN) That's a great question. Well, one thing I want the women listening today to realize is, if you're living in America, you have all the freedoms and all the resources to be able to live your faith authentically and freely, and you should never be afraid or embarrassed. And in fact, immigrants and internationals, and refugees who come to this country assume that you're a Christian. In fact, they might even be disappointed if you're not living your Christian life, you are kind of hiding it. That would be confusing to them.

I think it's all about our approach and realizing that people at the end of the day just want to feel loved and respected and heard and seen. And so, when you approach people with a sincere, loving heart, and you find natural opportunities to share your faith, then go for it! Look for those segues. Look for those on-ramps, look for those bridges where your conversation can share how Christ has impacted your life, or you could offer to pray for someone, or you can, share a Bible story that reminded you of some issue or crisis that, your friend may be going through.

So, live your faith the way you would with anyone, with your family, with your friends, with your neighbors. You don't need to hold back, yet be sensitive to the fact that oftentimes immigrants do feel segregated. They feel marginalized. They might feel that you're coming with an agenda. So, be careful how you communicate, but just be thoughtful. That's all we're saying. Be thoughtful and considerate, but don't feel that you need to hold back.

(KAREN)  Shirin, how does it look for you and your family in real-life practical ways? How do you share your faith and model for your family, for your kids, how to share your faith with people of other faiths and cultures?

(SHIRIN) We're very open with our children that when we have an opportunity to meet with internationals or refugees to be really thoughtful and considerate that they have come to our country, oftentimes with a lot of wounds or hurts, and they just want to feel loved. They want to feel heard. They want to feel seen. They want to share their stories. And it's important that we create that space for them to feel like they're a part of our family, our community. And then we just look for natural ways to share the gospel with them. It might be saying grace at dinner. It might be offering to pray with them. It might be thinking of a story or a book or a film that we can share with them. The most important thing is that we approach them with love and not an agenda, they can see through that. Oftentimes other cultures are very sensitive about relationships. And so, we want to make sure that we are investing deeply in the relationship as we share Christ with them.

(KAREN) I love that you said that Shirin. And I want to just stop for just a second, because sometimes when we hear that, we don't want anyone to feel like they are an agenda. We want to build an authentic relationship and have compassion and love because that's what we're called to do. And that's genuinely what we want. Yet in an effort to do that, sometimes we will build a relationship on everything, BUT Christ thinking, “I will wait until it's the right time to mention that I'm a follower of Jesus or what that means. I'll just wait until there's a right time.” And after so long of that being that way, there's never a right time. And then it just feels too awkward to bring it up.

So, I know Shirin you and I've talked about the role of the Holy Spirit when you're engaging with someone of another faith and culture and how the Holy Spirit guides you and nudges you. What have you found with that?

(SHIRIN) I agree. I mean, if you're seeking an active daily relationship with God, He will direct you, and He will give you wisdom. He will nudge you, and He'll show you what to say and what not to say.

But I want to go back to the fact that when internationals or immigrants, come to this country, they assume that you're a Christian. So, you have nothing to hide. There's no “right time” to share with them, “Oh, by the way, I'm a Christian, by the way, I go to church.”

They're just going to kind of assume it. In fact, if not, they're going to wonder, well, why not? So, I think we should just go ahead and, and be honest from the beginning. I mean, if your family goes to church on Sunday, then just say, “What are your plans this weekend? Actually, we go to church on Sunday, and we have Friday night, a small group in our home.” And, “Oh, here's a book I'm reading right now. What are you reading?” Or “Here's a film I loved. What are you watching?”

Just weave it into your conversation the same way that you would with any of your friends and even just say, “How can I pray with you? You know, I love to pray for my family and friends. Is there something I can pray for you related to work or your kids, or your health?”

And so, I guess what I'm trying to say is live your life. Like you normally would with anyone. Just because someone is of a different faith or culture, you don't have to walk on eggshells. So, I think if you're in the practice of living a dynamic Christian life, it should just be overflow - it should be an overflow into all relationships. And I think you're going to find that your internationals are actually going to be intrigued by it, and they're going to feel loved because they know you're not holding back.

(KAREN) I love it! You know, we always fear a little bit something that we've never done before. And, and so take the first step out to begin to build a relationship with someone of another faith and culture. I know the first time I did it, I thought, why did I wait so long? It wasn't anything I’d imagined in my mind. I imagined all these incredible scenarios, none of which came true. And I found my friends of another faith or culture that were especially wholehearted and very sweet and very open to conversations. And so, Shirin, I know there are stories that you have, and I'd love for you to share a story of doing this really well and doing it really poorly.

(SHIRIN) Well, I guess, I like to use word pictures the way I would describe doing it. Well, it would be almost like playing tennis with a friend. You volley back and forth. You both take turns. And when you're interacting with an international or an immigrant or someone of another faith, I think it's really important that you allow the conversation to feel like a tennis match in the sense of you're both interacting. You're both sharing. You're both asking questions and you as a Christian are not dominating the conversation.

You don't want to be so focused on getting your point across that you could hurt this other person. So, I think it's really important to always come with thoughtful questions. Like, “Tell me about your family. Were you a practicing Muslim? Were you a practicing Jew? What did that look like for you? What holidays, how do you share, how do you express your faith?”

And you may find that oftentimes they don't, as much as you thought it might just be a cultural thing. It might just be, “This is just part of my identity, but I actually don't do much at all. I'm so busy with work. I'm so stressed about paying my bills that I'm not cultivating my spiritual life. And I actually regret it. I actually am really sad that I'm not doing anything spiritual.”

S, I think if you focus on this idea of going back and forth and uncovering information and where they're at and focus on them, it will lead to some really great conversations.

On the negative side, I have the story of this guy who, saw that there was a Muslim man working as a parking attendant and he thought, “Oh, here's an opportunity to go share with someone!” And he literally went up to him and started asking him some really tough questions about Islam. And this man was very hurt because he felt that this stranger approached him and was diving into a very intense conversation and challenging his faith. So that was very inappropriate.

You have to take your time, whether you're on a plane or a train, or you're talking to a neighbor, or you meet someone, even at a party. Take your time to get to know them and make them feel like human beings. And as it's appropriate, as they ask questions of you, then you begin to share your story and your faith. So it's very possible and it can happen quickly or slowly, depending on the relationship.

But we live in a free society - in a marketplace of ideas and conversation. And so, you should never feel intimidated. But it should be done in a beautifully nuanced, I always say kind of a hospitable way that we share our faith. It’s almost like serving a beautiful healthy meal instead of just force-feeding someone and saying, “You need to eat this. You need this.” But you allow them to eat what they want at their pace at their leisure. And you trust the results.

(KAREN) Yeah. So, tell me a story about how you and your family have recently been living this out.

(SHIRIN) Well, we regularly have people over. I mean we are very hospitable. It's part of my upbringing. And so, we have people over for tea or for a barbecue. We don't go all out and make big meals cause that's just not as customary anymore. And we're working. We don't have the time. But you'd be surprised how just making a cup of tea and putting out a platter of cookies can be so heartwarming to an international that you have over.

You could sit on your patio or maybe at work, you go and get a coffee and sit at the park. But they love that - that human connection so much a part of their culture. And I think in America, a lot of ways we've lost those little niceties. we're all so busy we don't make time to just sit with someone and have a cup of coffee or inquire about their lives.

But that's what we do. we have people in our home, we don't hold back. We say grace at dinner our conversations flow naturally. We talk about current events and then we might talk about our faith or a book that we're reading. Certainly, we'll invite people to church with us. So it's just very natural. There is no formula, but we are intentional. We're not hiding our faith. We're intentional.

(KAREN) And as you were sharing that Shirin, I’m wondering where do you meet people in order to do that?

(SHIRIN) You mean like new people? How do we come across...

(KAREN) Across new people to invite over for tea or for, for a meal?

(SHIRIN) Well, my work is very international. So, I'm very blessed in that. I'm meeting internationals all the time. I work in creative fields and so I'm constantly interacting with people. During COVID we volunteered my daughter and she's nineteen. We volunteered at church at the food bank and within a few weeks, we met some refugee families. And they didn't have a car. They were riding their bikes to come to get the food. We said, “No, no let us bring the food to you!”

So, every week for about ten weeks, we would take them a big carton of food. And we built a friendship with them. And now, that family is from the Middle East. We helped them sign up for some English classes. They've come to our house for tea. They come to our house for dinner. At Christmas, our small group collected Christmas gifts. We took the gifts. At Easter, we went to Walmart and we made up little Easter baskets and took Easter baskets to them. And we told them, “This is what the meaning of Easter is.” We had that conversation. So, we just look for opportunities all year round that are natural to connect with people and to serve them.

(KAREN) You are intentional. You and your family are, I think that's the keyword for today: Intentional. And how many meals like that do you generally try to do on a monthly basis?

(SHIRIN)

I wouldn't say it's on a monthly basis. It's more when those relationships surface. So, this particular family, since last summer, we try to connect with them at least once a month. And then through my work, I'm, interacting with people all the time. So, it just depends on your season of life, you know? And your contacts. If you don't have people in your sphere of influence like a neighbor or a colleague, then maybe you will look for opportunities at church to connect with internationals through a food bank or through an English club or a mother's group or childcare group.

So, the intentional part is I think, looking at your schedule and asking yourself, “Am I meeting nonbelievers? Am I meeting non-Christians?” If not, what are some ways I can do that and put that into my schedule at least once or twice a month? Every person's situation is going to look different. My situation's unique cause I'm around internationals all the time. But if you're living somewhere where that's not normal, then you're going to probably have to look for those opportunities by volunteering you know. Maybe going into a city or going into some kind of volunteering situation where you can go and connect with people,

(KAREN) Great. Be intentional and be where people are. Go where people are. I love it. Anything else we should know Shirin?

(SHIRIN) I just want to encourage the listeners again, realize that God has given you everything. You need to live a full abundant dynamic Christian life. And it's such a gift to live in the US where we still have those freedoms. We can live our faith freely. And so don't take it for granted and realize that when people come from other countries they're coming here for that same freedom. And if they can see you living it joyfully, that they will find it very, attractive.

In fact, I met this gal from Tunisia, and she was telling me that she loved being around American women because they were so free. And I said, “Really, what do you mean by that?” She goes, “Well, I've  been to Europe and I've been all over.” And she said, “But women, American women, you can just hear it in their laugh. You can see it in their smile. They just have this freedom.”

And I thought, “Huh, that's interesting. I wonder who she met with that freedom?” But I think some of it is American culture. Maybe we are more “free?” I wonder also if she had interacted with some Christian women who found that freedom in Christ. So that's my point. People find it contagious. They're curious. They want to learn more. And so take the opportunity to share and not be afraid or intimidated.

(KAREN) Oh, thank you so much, Shirin. We have covered a lot of territory here today and this was awesome. Thank you for sharing your experiences and just really great nuggets that we can go take action on.

And so, as we close out our time together listeners, I want to leave you with one thing to be thinking about and talking about with your faith-filled friends this week, and that is this: How might you be more intentional at meeting women of other faiths and cultures? And if you're already meeting many like Shirin, how might you be more intentional about gathering together to grow your relationship and share Christ?

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