By Skyler Oberst and MacKenzie Bills
It’s always exhilarating to be at the Parliament for the World’s Religions. With a rich history of interfaith engagement and world class speakers, thousands of people attend the gatherings from around the world to hear how the globe can better understand how to come together and be better neighbors to one another. It serves as a great place to network and seek new friendships. It also becomes a safe refuge from the everyday derision and has the potential to seriously and methodically address serious issues that we collectively face.
And while this is always a great opportunity, patterns emerge that are easy to see ripple through the conference goers. Speaker after speaker share what they have done for the interfaith movement, or discuss only the problems that we collectively encounter, acknowledge the polarization of our communities and give a tepid call to action that may be seen as contrite or obvious.
We are constantly told that the world is in crisis and we have a role to play, yet there often is no follow up after telling us to “get involved.” After listening and participating, millenials are left pondering, “What now?.” By lamenting only on what is wrong without providing applicable solutions, leaders run the risk of abdicating their responsibility to the interfaith movement because many are left with no direction or become distracted by getting it “right” and therefore, sit idle in the details of language and inclusivity.
Since the Parliament is a main convener within the interfaith world, this can be viewed much more clearly. And while it is important for the Parliament to serve as a safe place to celebrate and engage in meaningful fellowship, the time for forming impromptu spirit circles and spending hours celebrating our commonalities is reaching its cusp. While holding hands and singing kumbaya has led us to find our spiritual sisters and brothers, many would argue that this is only the first step towards authentic and effective interfaith engagement and action. In short, let’s face it: we have moved beyond merely celebrating our commonalities because we live in a world where differences divide us rather than empower us.
At Parliament, millennials realized there is an intergenerational divergence between the viewpoint of what to do next and whose responsibility it is to do so. Many in the older generations sang kumbaya in a celebration of the interfaith movement’s development, but millennials sang and danced alongside their seniors in an act of justice. Alas, the millennials left the spirit circles unfulfilled and pondering, what is next? What more can we do?
And to be honest, we understand it. For years, conferences have been a medium for people to share ideas and share the work that they are working on in order for them to return home and work on projects together or share similar ideas. With the rise of new modes of communication and sharing information, engagement can happen much more quickly than once before. Younger generations understand this and are more than proficient in using social media, Google docs, interactive webinars to connect and share ideas virtually. These tools allow interfaithers to make a difference more efficiently and quickly, which makes conferences all the more exciting because of face to face interactions and more cumbersome because the next steps are often overlooked or unreachable because of the disconnect in approaching interfaith action.
This could be why lofty calls to action fall flat on young ears when there is little or no suggestion on how to implement lasting change. We recognize that climate change is a serious issue that needs addressing, and we also know that as people of conscience we have an obligation to act. But if the only tools we are handed by some leaders is the acoustic guitar and tambourine, then we have serious concerns about this approach.
Now, these observations aren’t pointed at a particular faith, tradition, generation, or even at the organizers of the Parliament. This is a movement-wide issue, that all of us need to address. What we are pointing out is that in every single tradition there is the temptation to focus on the low-hanging fruit of interfaith, and that is celebrating our commonalities. This is necessary, but should not take space away from the serious work desperately needed to celebrate and understand difference, at a deep level. Such as data-driven approaches to policy recommendations, workshops on the fundamentals of interfaith and nonprofit work like fundraising, establishing partnerships, financial sustainability and media training. These approaches allow us to dive deeper into our interfaith and intrafaith understanding, and allow us to develop stronger interfaith action by not only understanding our similarities but the similarities and everything in between.
If allowed to continue unchecked, the interfaith movement will unravel into to an echo chamber, where our networks become exclusive and not open to those who see the world different than our own views. Regardless of age, faith, nationality or even political persuasion, we think— we know– we can do better.
So here are a few lessons we think might help not only for the next Parliament, but will also help grassroots work throughout the movement.
Lesson One: Build Your Team
True interfaith work is not only multifaith, it’s multigenerational. It should not be a surprise, but our elders were once considered the young leaders of this project. They have weathered storms and have developed a keen sense of resilience and know how to navigate structures that seem alien to younger folks. Many of them have dedicated their lives to the movement. In our traditions and faiths, elders are treated with the utmost of respect because of their knowledge and lived experience. As young leaders, we would do well to learn at their feet.
Conversely, older leaders could learn from those decades their junior. Millennials understand how to communicate quickly, can organize across time zones, and can execute plans efficiently. Millenials have the power to mobilize and the energy to do so. If the older generations leveraged the younger generations’ energy that they have taken the time and money to invest and empower, then the interfaith movement will be able to better capture the inertia it so hopes to capitalize on.
If we truly want to build an interfaith movement that utilizes intergenerational approaches then it needs to be built on leveraging skillsets, strengths and weakness that all can bring to the table. To do that, millennials need a seat at the table– not just the kid’s table — that requires listening, patience and respect for all.
It comes down to trust, between generations to lead the movement into the future. This would include simple things like creating youth board seats on interfaith councils, inviting youth leaders to speak, and even offering leadership positions to young, qualified professionals.
Lesson Two: Civil Dialogue as the Convener
In an Huffington Post article, The Rev. Paul Brandeis states, “Interfaith dialogue is hard, but intra-faith dialogue is even harder.” When entering interfaith dialogue, one expects there will be agreement and disagreement, but not so much in the intrafaith space. Acknowledging divergences in intra- theological views requires a deeper empathy than acknowledging divergences in theological views. In other words, recognizing a different mountain is easier than acknowledging different routes up the same peak.
Similarly to creating space for intergenerational collaboration, what is also desperately needed is space for those with diverging viewpoints within faith communities. Intrafaith dialogue and understanding is a key component to true interfaith dialogue and understanding.
To illustrate this point, religious diversity is often present at large gatherings like the Parliament, but there were hardly any Evangelical Christians who were in attendance. As Brandeis points out, those that came to Parliament are already comfortable discussing interfaith ideas and perspectives. Those that feel they are constantly standing up or defending their beliefs do not feel respected in those spaces and therefore, are not necessarily supporting interfaith because they do not feel they belong. The liberal interfaith culture is becoming ever-more so exclusive to the ideas of those participating in its tie-dye spirit circles.
This leaves many fringe groups left, well, on the fringe. Because by inadvertently creating an exclusive interfaith space, interfaithers have done the one thing contradictory to their moral drive, excluding ideas, people, and movements. It has recklessly developed a segrative space and therefore, a segrative movement.
A solution to this is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. When everyone feels comfortable being in their bubbles, no one wants to be challenged or hear a differing opinion. It is apparent that for many of us we have forgotten how to disagree respectfully. We have forgotten that accepting another’s opinion does not mean watering down your own. It takes intense courage and skill to get to this level of authentic engagement, yet few of us in the movement actually get there.
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Civil dialogue challenges us to move beyond conversation to understanding, insofar as understanding each other, our ethos, and our deep spiritualities. Before we can solve problems, we need to understand each other, and by understanding and not defending or persuading one another, we can find common ground, even in areas outside of faith. Once we free ourselves to be uncomfortable and honest, we can then engage in deliberate and meaningful dialogue.
Lesson Three: Move Beyond Talking
One of the ruts interfaith work gets caught in is the lack of creativity in its dialogue and action. Often times, the so called “panel approach” is trotted out as the only way we can find common ground or discover new truths together. What may be a decent approach in some settings, these discussions rarely offer follow up for those in attendance and limits participation to the panelists– often selected for their particular spiritual path, running the risk of becoming tokenized.
It’s worth considering alternatives that enjoin intergenerational cooperation and are conducive to civil dialogue. Consider instead service projects that bring people of faith together to serve others in the community. This action has the feel of grassroots organizing as well as direct and authentic interfaith encounter when volunteers work side by side. This approach has the benefit of giving participants the space to explore faith at their own pace through conversation with one another and putting into practice their own beliefs by serving others in their community. The underlying message being that “Our respective faiths compel us to help others. We have that in common.”
There are opportunities to initiate tangible interfaith change through local governments. Local government’s sole job is to develop policies and structures that will make life easier and welcoming for its citizens. By moving interfaith conversation to interfaith action by developing interfaith councils, making sure there is religious diversity on boards, and keeping religious liberty as a relevant discussion topic at those meetings, the community will then be able to reap the rewards of an interfaith-friendly neighborhood.
Last but certainly not least, it is significant to look into our everyday lives for interfaith opportunities. Often times we look to general dialogue and then overlook our professional environments, but these are rich with interfaith moments. Whether or not it is organizing an interfaith and intrafaith holiday party, service event, or even, being cognisant of religious diversity and inclusion throughout the year, these programs can make all of the difference. Sometimes it is taking the extra minute to ask a deeper question of understanding that can build strong interfaith relationships.
There are many lessons to be learned from gatherings of interfaithers, but international opportunities like the Parliament has the power to amplify a larger movement, extending into wide opportunities for collaboration, understanding and learning. In doing so, we must leverage and capitalize on the natural momentum these gathers evoke.
When together, though, it is equally important to celebrate the movement, but reflect. It is imperative to ponder the “What now?” questions that then, answer them together. This way, we can act together and move forward together. Because interfaith will remain an idea in our minds and hearts until we commune and implement these ideas we are so fond of. This is our solicitation to the interfaith movement and its members. Together, let’s make interfaith not exclusive to the idea, but an action. A successful one at that.
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R. Skyler Oberst is an interfaith advocate in Spokane and in 2016 won Young Democrat of the Year.