Interfaith ties locally and globally enrich face-to-face and on Internet
Skyler Oberst, who founded the Meet the Neighbors programs for interfaith understanding in Spokane, filled a year off with global travel, interfaith encounters and networking with young people.
He attended the Parliament of World Religions from Nov. 1 to 7 in Toronto. Several others from Spokane also attended—Jane Simmons, Hank and Joan Boeckling of Unity Spiritual Center, and Emily Geddes of Spokane FAVs, which covers religion news online.
With the Next Generation Task Force, he helped plan the 2018 gathering. Three years ago, he recruited, trained and led a group of 200 from Spokane to the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. About 8,000 attended this year, and 10,000 in 2015.
Skyler found the Parliament of World Religions to be "a beautiful oasis for a week of interfaith cooperation, celebration and learning."
During this year's Parliament, he led a workshop on the "Meet the Neighbors" approach to building interfaith understanding by having people visit different faith communities, experience worship rites, learn about the faiths and meet with people. In addition, he led a workshop on use of social media as a tool for interfaith engagement.
Two things stood out to him at the Parliament this year.
One was the number of young people attending. Skyler was charged to involve youth. During the Next Generation plenary on the last day, leaders passed the baton to the next generation," he said.
Second, the Parliament is traditionally a place where people seek like-minded individuals. Interfaith leaders celebrate and network, train to develop sustainable programs and "build a scaffold for interfaith work on the local level," Skyler said.
Young people attended Parliament sessions during the day and then continued to work by meeting across the street at night to share ideas, connect with people and network on resources.
"Young people use technology and opportunities to be in a room together to discuss issues," he said. "I also look forward to connecting with them between Parliaments, which are held every few years," said Skyler, who now describes himself as an "older millennial."
"Interfaith work sets the table for honoring neighbors and exploring compassion. The Gospel is to be lived. I try and fail every day," said Skyler, who attends the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John.
At the Parliament, people of faith across the range of world religions come—not only the major world religions, but also Pantheons—who worship Egyptian gods—and Zoroastrians, one of the world's first monotheistic religions. Many share their worship rites and invite others to observe or participate, he said.
"The Parliament is not only an academic gathering. It's also a place of worship and resources, devotionals, observing and participation," said Skyler.
"While it's in vogue for young people to do interfaith work and while young people are ready to do it, the Parliament of World Religions is also a place for intergenerational encounters," he said. "We do not want to miss the wisdom of true interfaith work that is intergenerational."
In 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair, the first Parliament of World Religions was held to create global dialogue among faiths. A featured speaker and organizer was Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk.
The next one was not until 1993, also in Chicago, followed by a Parliament of World Religions in 1999 at Capetown, South Africa, led by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It has been held every few years since—2004 in Barcelona, 2009 in Melbourne, 2015 in Salt Lake City and 2018 in Toronto.
While it is called Parliament, it's not about delegates but is open to everyone, Skyler said.
"At plenaries, there may be a few resolutions or position papers that go to the board to be read and approved to be taken as living breathing challenges for people to discern and affirm in their lives and actions," he said.
One 2018 resolution was on the environment and one, directed at divisive leadership, called for civility in honoring the stranger, he said.
"We are to understand our obligations as people together so we ensure all have access to resources," said Skyler. "The faith community can't defer its obligation and sacred duty to be responsible."
Skyler has spent the last several years working as the assistant to City Council member Karen Stratton. In December, he began as director of development at Excelsior.
With the success of the Meet the Neighbors program he began traveling extensively on invitation to speak internationally about using technology and social media to bring people of faith together.
He began his year off spending June 15 to 17 at the 2017 Group of 20 (G20) Interfaith Summit in Potsdam, Germany, on "Religion, Sustainable Development and the Refugee Crisis."
In September, he participated in the 2018 G20 Interfaith Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on "Building Consensus for Fair and Sustainable Development: Religious Contributions for a Dignified Future."
Related to the Potsdam G20, he visited Sweden, Iceland and the Netherlands, celebrating his 30th birthday at the Amsterdam airport. Enroute to the Buenos Aires G20, he visited Istanbul and Santiago.
To keep him traveling and connecting online, Skyler received a 2018-19 State of Formation Voices of Renewal Fellowship from Boston University School of Theology and Hebrew College, a program to empower young faith leaders to develop new ideas for interfaith conversations using technology.
On contract with the Tony Blair Institute for Interfaith Dialogue, he will work with the Generation Global Project to facilitate conversations among middle school, high school and college students on contemporary faith and life issues.
Skyler is assigned to student cohorts with schools in Pacific Rim countries. He will facilitate monthly online conversations on technology and education.
In February, he will visit Jordan, and Israel-Palestine.
"Global travel is an important way to meet people and see the world from different vantage points. I converse every day online with friends I make," he said.
"Technology at its best is a tool to bring people together. I like to use the Internet to get people off the Internet. It's crucial in today's world and must be applied to faith communities. Most people want to meet, not just sit behind a screen and communicate through a keyboard," Skyler said. "For some, however, it's easier to send an idea on the Internet than to take a plate of cookies across the street to a family of another faith or political party. Encountering the other opens new ways of living and calls us to find ways to be involved, breaking down barriers in our corner of the world," he said.
On interfaith work in Spokane, Skyler said that the Interfaith Council he coordinated is continuing to evolve with the needs of the community, but "interfaith work is not going away."
As more people are involved, he expects a new model to emerge.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2019