By Jennifer Colosimo
For the past 17 years, CBF field personnel Shane McNary and his wife, Dianne, have lived more than 5,000 miles away from home ministering to the Roma people in Slovakia and Czechia. From teaching English and serving children to spearheading missions teams to helping the poor and starting churches, they’ve worked to encourage local believers and make a difference for this large minority facing multi-faceted forms of discrimination; but their impact also includes an effort that reaches beyond those borders.
Amid his work with the Roma population, McNary began serving in 2013 as an advocate for freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths. In this role, he represents the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) at the United Nations in Geneva and serves as chair of the European Baptist Federation’s (EBF) Freedom & Justice Commission.
Under these titles, McNary’s work includes gathering research on cultures, religions and ways of life in the surrounding countries (and continents) where he lives and works. He submits that research to the United Nations via partnerships with the EBF, BWA and in conjunction with 21 Wilberforce, an initiative named for 19th-century British parliamentarian William Wilberforce who led the movement to end slave trade.
21 Wilberforce aims to empower people of faith to expand the freedom of religion, belief and conscience. Their shared goal is to effect change in the decisions being made about refugees seeking asylum, on the rights of minority religious groups, advocating for education for women and girls who are part of religious minorities, and more.
He’s a leader in those efforts across Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia; but McNary is most proud of the way he’s been able to share what he does with the next generation. A year ago, CBF’s student missions program, Student.Go, sent the latest group of interns to work with the McNarys in Slovakia. The McNarys have worked with interns for years, but, of course, this time, by “sent” it meant students in the United States would work virtually with Shane from behind their computer screens. Anyone with Covid-conversation fatigue might let out a subconscious sigh about that, but McNary will stop you short.
“I can’t say enough about the way Taisha Seabolt runs the Student.Go program, and the way she is able to fulfill my requests,” McNary said of CBF’s Global Missions Personnel and Training Manager. “With what I was looking for this time, I thought that maybe she would be able to find someone who, in some way, was interested in these subject matters. I had written a request looking for one person to study Nigeria and another African country, and wanted them to have contextual knowledge of the area.
“Whether that meant they had lived there for a period of time, or had done African Studies in school, something—I just was hoping for someone with an understanding of the area,” he added. “But then we got Sylvester, who is amazing and is actually from Kenya.”
Sylvester Ngonga is a native Kenyan studying for his Master of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity, and gave what McNary called a unique, empathetic, and first-hand perspective for the research he was doing.
“I have gained a lot of knowledge pertaining to religious literacy and human rights through this internship,” Ngonga said. “I hope that my research findings about the state of freedom of religion and belief in Nigeria and Kenya will contribute to human rights advocacy and the realization of freedom of religion or beliefs in these countries.”
In fact, Ngonga’s research on Nigeria and their freedom of religion or belief (referred to as FORB) will be shared with 21 Wilberforce to provide the initiative with background information and outreach advocacy efforts related to religious freedom on behalf of BWA.
“I intend to incorporate the experience, knowledge and skills gathered in this internship into my future professional development goals. As a budding missiologist, I am focused on global missions, and this position offered me the chance to research matters related to [that].”
Cayden Norman was another pleasant surprise for McNary. An International Studies student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she was looking for opportunities to further develop her research and writing skills. This internship would help fine-tune her experience on the political and legal aspects of her major—not to mention it was in a field she was eager to learn more about.
“I really hope that my research can be used as a tool for policymakers, activists and organizations involved in protecting religious freedom,” said Norman, who worked on research surrounding Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Syria. “I think I was able to obtain enough information to provide a helpful suggestion for what I believe the governments of these countries need to do moving forward.”
The information she gathered on Syria will update information for the BWA and, if approved by the people of Syria, will be used in EBF’s formal report to the United Nations. Both interns’ research will contribute to the growing library that allows 21 Wilberforce to disseminate clear, fresh information about what the FORB situations are in each of the countries they studied. It’s also used as background info for additional research, including where it intersects with the UN’s sustainable development goals for each country.
“One of the things with my work that I’m often involved in is teaching others,” McNary said. “I am helping others find out what in the world God wants them to do when they ‘grow up.’ I’ve been able to help these interns discern if this type of work—research and human rights work—is what God is calling them to do. I get to see them grow, to see them experience something and move forward with it.”
With exceptional student help, he’s also able to cover more ground, gather more research and leverage a new, fresh perspective that often comes with younger eyes, minds and hearts.
“They’re life-giving to me,” McNary said. “It’s about their interest and their questions—it brought me joy to be able to teach and interact with these young spirits and to see them interact with something new and apply it right away in research. “As Baptists, freedom of religion or belief for all goes back to our beginning,” McNary added. “That’s the deepest root of our Baptist story. It’s an understanding of who we have been; and to be able to see a new generation take that historical mantle and move it forward is wonderful. For me, my greatest joy is connecting these young folks with CBF and seeing it as a place where they might be able to live out their missional calling one day—whether it’s in freedom of religion and belief and human rights advocacy, or not at all. At least they know what they’re capable of as a part of it.”
And that’s something that’s life-giving on a much bigger scale.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read online and subscribe at www.cbf.net/fellowship.