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Interfaith Council’s ‘Meet the Neighbors’ helps people learn about diverse faiths

Skyler Oberst and many others wear Spokane Interfaith Council’s “prays well with others” T-shirt to express their commitment to dialogue, learning and action.

Skyler Oberst and Karen Armstrong
Skyler Oberst visits with Karen Armstrong at the recent Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City.     
Photo courtesy of Skyler Oberst

Recently the council received a Germanacos Fellowship grant of $5,000 to promote interfaith understanding through its new “Meet the Neighbors” project, which will provide opportunities for people to visit diverse houses of worship to learn about them and to communicate about the experiences on YouTube, Facebook and other social media.

A year and a half ago, Skyler became involved with the Spokane Interfaith Council and is now president of its board of trustees.  

The board spent a year reorganizing the council.  They worked with a consultant to bring their nonprofit status into compliance with federal and state regulations.  The Interfaith Council’s roots go back to 1948 when the Spokane Council of Churches formed.  It has had several names over the years but has kept the same nonprofit number with the state.  In about 2004, the Council of Ecumenical Ministries became the Interfaith Council.

Now the council is predominantly young people in the Millennial generation, Skyler said. 

The seven board members include an Evangelical, a Catholic, an Episcopal, a Muslim, an Atheist, a Baha’i and a Buddhist.  They seek more members, and have two candidates soon to join the board.

“The next generation is interested in interfaith dialogue, getting along and building bridges.  Including their voices is essential to helping communities understand one another in the future,” said Skyler.

Now the Interfaith Council is ready to do community outreach, focusing on religious literacy and partnering with other groups.

The council is launching its Meet the Neighbors series at 6 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 19, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th.

The other visits will be at 6 p.m., Dec. 16, at the Sikh Gurudwara; Jan. 19, at the Spokane Islamic Center; Feb. 19, at a Baha’i Gathering; March 31 at the Spokane Buddhist Temple on Perry St., and April 2 at the Buddhist Sravasti Abbey near Newport.

“People interested in visiting a mosque, gurudwara, synagogue or temple usually don’t want to go alone.  Through Meet the Neighbors, they can go with friends to hear about Jewish, Sikh, Islamic, Baha’i and Buddhist faiths, and to make friends,” Skyler said.

The Germanacos project includes creating a series of three-minute YouTube videos on how to visit local houses of worship, including virtual tours, brief histories and interviews with leaders. 

Skyler believes that presenting accurate, respectful information on religious traditions can build interfaith understanding.

Growing up in Portland, Ore., he came to Cheney and earned two bachelors degrees in 2012 at Eastern Washington University (EWU) in anthropology and philosophy with an emphasis on religion and history.

Several years ago after witnessing a Muslim student falling victim to an act of hate, he said his “true calling emerged.”

He changed his major and helped found the Compassionate Interfaith Society at EWU.  He sought to address religious intolerance by establishing ongoing conversations that could change hearts and minds.

The Compassionate Interfaith Society drew about 20 participants from 15 faith groups for interfaith dialogue and service.

In church shopping, he found that truth is everywhere. 

“God is not concerned with which pew we sit in, but with what we do with our lives,” said Skyler, who joined the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John last spring.

While at EWU, he worked two years with the Office of Global Initiatives, developing international student events.

Through involvement with Interfaith Youth Core training at different universities, he spoke at the White House on interfaith work on college campuses, contributed to the Millennial Values Project at Georgetown University and spent several months as a research associate mapping the religious landscape of the Inland Northwest with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University.

After graduating, he decided to stay in Spokane while others went to Boston or Los Angeles to change the world. 

“I decided I could start in my neighborhood to help make the world a better place,” said Skyler, legislative assistant for City Councilwoman Karen Stratton.

Last spring, Episcopal Bishop James Waggoner, Jr., invited him to speak on interreligious training for clergy in June at the national Episcopal Convention in Salt Lake City.

Skyler said the Interfaith Council also is a voice of compassion when a faith is attacked.

• He spoke last year when the community rallied at the synagogue after a swastika was painted on the building. 

• In July, someone spray painted “Death to Islam” on the outside wall of the Bosnia Herzegovenia Heritage Association in Spokane while people inside were saying Ramadan prayers.  The Interfaith Council along with many local religious leaders spoke out.

• When Knox Presbyterian was robbed, the Interfaith Council raised $1,500 to replace a computer and printer through a Go-Fund-Me appeal.

“It is important that our community leaders have accurate, respectful information about those they represent.  We need to meet with elected officials and community leaders to remind them that the people they represent and advocate for are very diverse,” he said.

He is helping the City Council recruit people from Spokane’s diverse faiths to pray at meetings.

In 2013, Skyler was an ambassador from the Inland Northwest to the Parliament of World Religions.  From Oct. 15 to 19, he took a delegation of nearly 40 from Gonzaga University, Spokane FAVS (Faith and Values) and other area groups to the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City.

The Parliament started in 1896 after Swami Vivakananda visited the Chicago World’s Fair and proposed a gathering for the world’s religions. World religious leaders, Nobel laureates and heads of state were among thousands who gathered to hear speakers, panels and lectures, and join in workshops on climate and environmental issues, war, violence and hate speech, and economic inequity.

“How do we help people of different religious paths to agree?  We get people together, because we all call the Inland Northwest our home.  We may not agree on a specific doctrine or creed, but our commitment to our community, our love for this area and a hope for a better tomorrow are enough to start conversations,” he said.

“The 2015 Parliament of World’s Religions was an amazing gathering. I’m proud to say as the Inland Northwest’s ambassador to the parliament, that we had the second largest regional delegation,” said Skyler

“There were more than 50 religious traditions represented, and each brought with them a unique perspective, a willingness to learn and a resolve to make a better tomorrow,” he said.

Karen Armstrong, British author and creator of the Charter for Compassion, told participants during the final banquet, “As we leave this parliament, we should be prepared for action.”

Skyler said that Spokane’s delegation heard this loud and clear.

“We are coming home after having learned from one another with a renewed commitment to make Spokane a better place through our own faiths and our shared humanity,” he said.

For information, call 360-989-8217, email r.s.oberst@gmail.com or visit spokaneifc.org.





Copyright © November 2015 - The Fig Tree