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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: ‘Interfaith’ work means everyone gets a seat at the table

Aug. 17, 2020 Updated Thu., Sept. 3, 2020 at 2:16 p.m.

Tracy Simmons is an editor of Spokane Faith and Values and a lecturer of journalism at Washington State University.  (Tracy Simmons)
Tracy Simmons is an editor of Spokane Faith and Values and a lecturer of journalism at Washington State University. (Tracy Simmons)

I recently had an exchange with someone who was concerned about my approach to interfaith work.

As the executive director of SpokaneFāVS, my job is more than religion reporting. Through our journalism, commentary and the FāVS Center (our 1-year-old faith and nonfaith community center), our goal is to foster community dialogue and educate people about the beliefs that make up this great city.

One of the glorious things about Spokane is its religious diversity. Besides hundreds of Christian churches, we have two Sikh gudwaras, and strong Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i and Hindu communities – to name a few. We also have an increasing number of atheists, agnostics and nones (those with no affiliation).

To me, interfaith work means bringing all those voices to the table.

The term ‘interfaith,’ though, has become loaded because many seem to associate it only with progressives.

And that’s where the above-mentioned exchange comes in. This person couldn’t understand why we would have conservatives and/or Evangelicals sitting at our table – people who saw LGBT issues and Black Lives Matter differently than them.

On the flip side, I’ve also had people question why we have atheist writers. My argument to them is the same.

I reminded them that interfaith work (or faith and nonfaith, as I prefer) can’t be exclusive. We can’t preach inclusivity, and then leave groups out who have different views from us. (Extremists would be the exception).

FāVS has worked hard to become a gathering place for all beliefs, which of course means not everyone sees eye to eye.

And I think that’s wonderful.

It means we’re drawing people out of their echo chambers, giving them a safe space to ask questions of one another, and most importantly, the opportunity to get to know someone from a different religion.

It’s through such interactions that understanding, compassion and respect are born.

If we go into it trying to change minds, we won’t get very far. The aim has to be to listen so that we can contribute to creating a more accepting community.

In my eight years with FāVS I’ve seen interfaith friendships form, I’ve heard the passionate and difficult conversations take place and I certainly have seen people’s theological views evolve because of it; including my own.

For my personal spiritual growth, I need to read the columns by our Orthodox writer, and our mainline Christian, Evangelical, Catholic, New Thought, Buddhist, Baha’i, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, Quaker and Muslim writers. I need to engage with them through our (now virtual) events. Because I learn from them.

I’m saddened that the meaning of the term ‘interfaith’ has become muddied.

Eboo Patel, president of the Interfaith Youth Core, describes the word well.

“The ‘inter’ in interfaith stands for interaction between people who orient around religion differently. The ‘faith’ in interfaith stands for how people relate to their religious and ethical traditions. Put together, ‘interfaith’ is about how our interactions with those who are different have an impact on the way we related to our religious and ethical traditions, and how our relationships with our traditions have an impact on our interactions with those who are different from us,” Patel says.

I love this definition. There’s nothing polarizing in his words. If we start to view interfaith work this way, ponder his description and put it into practice, then all truly will be included and it can become a neutral term again.

Tracy Simmons, a longtime religion reporter, is a Washington State University lecturer and the editor of SpokaneFāVS, a website dedicated to covering faith, ethics and values in the Spokane region.

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