Artist rendering of Spokane Falls, 1888 from the The Great Northwest

Interfaith work has a history in Spokane, must continue

Artist rendering of Spokane Falls, 1888 from the The Great Northwest
Artist rendering of Spokane Falls, 1888 from the The Great Northwest

Several months ago I found myself in Mayor David Condon’s office talking about Spokane’s faith community. This was a week after his “faith summit” held at Whitworth University, where the mayor sought to reach out to the faith communities and explore ways of combatting homelessness and lack of resources for impoverished inhabitants of Spokane. We began to talk about the importance of gathering the faith community together to help solve some of the city’s problems. I agreed, but pointed-out that many from Spokane’s faith community were unable to attend, as the summit was held on Yom Kippur. There ended the conversation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that exchange in recent weeks. Especially in light of hearing that Catholic Charities will see its funding cut next year. Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities recently, told me that he was at the mayor’s faith summit but is not hopeful with the call to fix problems of homelessness and poverty quickly. “These things take place every six months or so, but rarely does anything [materialize] other than talk.” For the first time ever, Catholic Charities’s House of Charity will not be receiving any government funds. “No city, county, state or federal funds,” McCann emphasized.

In light of the recent sit-lie law’s passage, and the seemingly institutional ostracizing of homeless youth downtown,I am concerned that the city leadership is more concerned with waging a war not on poverty, but on the poor themselves. What is vexing about this is that while there have been many churches in the community who are beacons of hope for the impoverished, there seems to be no movement in unified action from ALL faith communities. Given the vibrant Jewish, Sikh and otherwise non-Christian members of Spokane’s faith community—there seems to be no actual interest in a diverse approach to offering viewpoints which may be different than the established majority. These groups are not only energetic in their service to the city, but are actively working to do what they can to help others.

While this may be upsetting, it is unfortunately not surprising in our fair city. Spokane, founded in 1871 was built by Buddhist and Sikh workers who forged the railways into the city (here’s some additional info). The Inland Empire was created under the watchful eye of Jewish immigrants, present in the city for over 100 years, to say nothing of the large native populations in the area. With such a rich history of pluralism in our community, why do we need to continue interfaith work?

Specifically because of exchanges like that. In order to solve problems in our community we need to include our ALL of the community. For better or worse, we have been living with one another for quite some time. We all have a vested interest in making Spokane a better place to live for one another.

The Buddha went to the market place to be with others after enlightenment. Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount after his Transfiguration. After receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, Moses came down to be with his people. The prophet Mohamed (PBUH), after receiving revelation from on high shared these teachings with his community. The lesson seems to be clear from their lives: Once you find yourself, share it with others and make your community a better place. Interfaith work is important because it deepens our understanding of who we are as humans. It gives us a fresh perspective on what we as people hold to be important in life. These are the things I’d like to know when I’m lending a hand to be building what Dr. King called “the Beloved Community”. Interfaith matters because others matter. I am not the only person on the planet. My actions affect others, and I draw motivation and meaning from others, because I can only be fully myself with others.

Join us for our next Coffee Talk at 10 a.m., Jan. 4 at Indaba Coffee for discussion on the “Challenges and Importance of Interfaith Work in Spokane.” Oberst is a panelist. 

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    Of course there’s no movement of unified action amongst all faith communities on something like poverty or homelessness; not all faith communities agree on the solutions to these problems. I can respect efforts to start interfaith dialogue, but those efforts will fail if you fail to consider the differences among you as much as you consider the similarities.

    I might also add that the tidbit about Sikh and Buddhist workers laboring to build the railroads probably isn’t the best historical anecdote to illustrate interfaith works. Japanese, Chinese and Indian immigrants worked in grueling conditions for a pittance and were often subject to wanton violence and discrimination in the Pacific Northwest (and West Coast).

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      Hi Blaine,
      Thanks for your comment!

      I completely agree with you. Interfaith work often times is mistaken for an effort to unite the world’s traditions into one religion. That’s definitely not what I’m advocating for here, and I think most people doing interfaith work would agree. True interfaith work acknowledges the differences between religious traditions. A Buddhist’s motivation for an action may be very different from a Catholic’s. To discuss these differences is to break down those barriers we build for ourselves until all that is left is not dogma or belief, but people. “Beyond our differences,” to invoke Rumi, there is a common ground. That’s where things happen. That’s where I’d like to go.

      But you’re right to point out that we can’t get all there if we are fooling ourselves about who we are. I am glad that you took issue with Spokane’s historical past. Quite frankly, I’m upset with it, too. But this story happened in our community, and we should be able to talk about it. That’s what interfaith work is all about. Historically speaking, there have been “others” in Spokane, and they have been denied access to the common ground. We’re still seeing people denied access to the common ground today. Maybe if we are able to not only talk about these things, but to share our common interests as community members (as different as we are) and ACT on them, then maybe we can start a new chapter in Spokane’s story. One with less walls and more action.

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      There’s also a great resource called the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) which has been not only starting these conversations but acting on them, based on interfaith dialogue as well as the differences/similarities.
      I encourage you to check it out, if you’d like to see the action first-hand 🙂

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    I read this definition of “pluralism”:
    “A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious or cultural groups are actively seeking understanding across lines of difference and believe that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and that at least some truths and true values exist in other religions.”

    Do you think this definition is accurate?

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      Hmm. I don’t, actually!
      I have no interest in debating exclusive/inclusive truths (That’s SO Kantian! haha!). I’m more interested in affirming our common humanity and working towards a more perfect community.

      I actually prefer these explanations of pluralism, written by Dr. Diana Eck, the Director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University:

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        “Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments.”

        That’s well said, thanks for the link.

        I think this article adds some good points too:

        Why Interfaith Dialogue Doesn’t Work — And What We Can Do About It

        “First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences. Platitudes are set aside when, as representatives of our faith traditions, we cease to be embarrassed by the particular; when we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes — and trivializes — our discussions; and when we recognize that absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing.

        Second, interreligious exchanges become compelling when my colleagues and partners give expression to their religious passions. I am drawn in when they share with me their deepest beliefs and strangest customs, no matter how radically other they are from my own. And the sharing of religious passions should lead to passionate debate, in which we struggle with the really hard questions: What happens when conflicting beliefs lead to conflicting interests? What do we do about those areas where differences cannot be bridged and must be dealt with?”


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          Absolutely! I had the pleasure of chatting with Rabbi Yoffie a few years back. What a force for good! Thanks for adding this link. I think it adds a good resource for those who would read more on the subject here. 🙂

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