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Interfaith enthusiast spreads opportunities to understand diverse faiths

Skyler Oberst connects local and global interfaith involvement.

Referring to the Spokane Interfaith Council, Skyler Oberst cupped his hands as if holding a small plant ready to grow and bloom.

The council, he said, is re-emerging as an independent nonprofit corporation.

Originally it grew out of the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries and underwent a period with volunteer leaders and losing its nonprofit status.

Skyler began to volunteer with and became president of the Interfaith Council in 2015, bringing his commitment to interfaith interaction.

The council began to offer educational events, particularly “Meet the Neighbors” gatherings with the Sikh Temple, the Spokane Islamic Center, Temple Beth Shalom, the Spokane Buddhist Church, the Buddhist Sravasti Abbey, Bethel African American Episcopal Church, the Spokane Tribe and St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral.

More than 600 came to the Spokane Islamic Center last spring, and recently many gathered at the new Sikh Temple Gurdwara Shree Guru Nanak Darbar in Spokane Valley. 

The next Meet the Neighbors is at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 7, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th, a second visit there to learn more about the Jewish faith.

Skyler, who grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Portland, now belongs to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John.

“The cathedral and Episcopal Diocese of Spokane understand, as U.S. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said recently, that God said for us to love all, so ‘love all, y’all.’ Our diocese is committed to serve and walk with people of other faiths,” Skyler said.

“Faith can change how we relate to others, inviting us to meet and love others,” he said.

At Eastern Washington University, Skyler studied anthropology and philosophy with a focus on religion, graduating in 2012.  On that campus, he helped start an interfaith student organization.

In 2011, he did an internship with Harvard Divinity School’s Pluralism Project in Boston and studied millennial values at Georgetown University. When he returned to finish at EWU, he worked two years at its Office for Global Initiatives.

Since 2013, he has worked as the legislative assistant and policy analyst for Spokane City Council member Karen Stratton.

Skyler and travel group

Skyler also participated in the North American Interfaith Network and in the 2016 Parliament of World Religions.

After assuming leadership of the Interfaith Council, he learned in a survey of members that they wanted interfaith encounters, so he explored ways to do that.

From the Pluralism Project, he knew about the Odyssey Network (interfaith broadcasting) and the World Religions of Greater Boston, but he did not know how to guide interfaith encounters.

Realizing people did not know how to visit a mosque, he made a video to introduce people to the Spokane Islamic Center and provide sensitivity for a visit.

“I work with a community to have them tell their own story.  My role is as an advocate and ally,” Skyler said.

He has since produced videos to introduce faiths in Spokane before Meet the Neighbor visits.  Each video is an introductory presentation, giving background on the faith, its history in Spokane, asking questions and giving answers, introducing food and other cultural aspects.

Before a visit to a faith community, a video is available for people to view through Facebook and YouTube, using social media to reach millennials and others.

“Each community hosts a gathering and tells its story,” he said.

Last spring, the Spokane Hindu Society, for example, had an afternoon event that included chants, drumming, a Hindu ceremony, a children’s presentation, a Powerpoint on Hinduism, and a time for food and fellowship.

Skyler invites guests to mingle with members of the faith community and make at least one new friend.

Hoping others will replicate this model across the United States, he has the videos archived with the State Department.

He also worked a bit with a Department of Justice and White House-initiated project, “Know Your Neighbor,” for national groups interested in multi-faith encounters on a grassroots level.

“I’m honored that our program is an example for others,” he said.

“I see the Spokane Interfaith Council connecting with the World Council of Churches, National Buddhist Council, National Council of Churches, Interfaith Youth Core, United Religions Initiative and more,” he said.

“I hope to build better understanding.  I love meeting neighbors, hearing stories, exploring the faith communities in Spokane,” he said.  “I love learning that the Sikh and Buddhist communities have been in Spokane more than 100 years.  They have shaped Spokane’s history and will shape its future.”

Skyler believes people are reconnecting with spiritual elements of life.

“It’s not important where we sit on Sunday but what we do with our faith on week days,” he said.  “St. Francis said faith is not about words but about putting our faith into practice.”

“It’s easy in Spokane to be siloed in our congregations or nonprofits,” he said.

Skyler also keeps learning through travels. In the past year, he met with leaders in Israel and Palestine last October; did research on indigenous Afro-Caribbean faith traditions during a visit to Havana, Cuba, last January/February, and gave a presentation on Meet the Neighbors at the G20 Interfaith Summit during the G20 meeting of world leaders at Potsdam, Germany, in June.

He will visit Capetown, South Africa, in December to learn about apartheid and how to keep literal and figurative walls from being built.

His experience of walls dividing people in places like Israel/Palestine, Berlin and Havana confirms his desire to build community in Spokane, noting that “we can help build community before walls are constructed.

“Walls limit our ability to work as good neighbors,” he said.  “In some places with walls, people do not meet their neighbors.  If we are to have a healthy community, we need to meet our neighbors, to break bread, to meet people with no fixed agenda, to tell and hear stories, and to create the stories we want for our future.

“There is power in sharing stories,” he said.

As a next-generation interfaith leader, Skyler is also helping plan the Parliament of World Religions, which will be Nov. 1 to 8, 2018, in Toronto.

“I see a shift in how interfaith work is done, moving from celebrating to community building,” he said.  “We need to work with neighbors if we are to brighten our tomorrow.

 “I am curious about our brothers and sisters across the world and different ways they do things,” he said.  “I want to develop tools to build community and test ideas.

 “Given the rise of hate, interfaith, multi-faith and pluralism work needs to be done with discipline, so stories empower and compel,” he said.  “The larger interfaith movement needs to avoid tokenism.”

“The Interfaith Council’s work ebbs and flows, sensitive to community needs and its own capacity to promote religious literacy and interreligious engagement,” Skyler said, reminding himself and others that “the arc of history bends to justice, but it’s not a straight line.”

“We are called to heal a broken world,” he said.

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