Although he just turned 21, Skyler Oberst is well-known in the Inland and Pacific Northwest interfaith community. Oberst co-founded the Compassionate Interfaith Society (CIS) and Friends of Compassion (FOC), served as Youth Scholar with the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN), attended the Interfaith Youth Core’s Leadership Institute, and interned with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. This energetic young leader has been a guest on the Revolutionary Spirituality radio program, won two Student Excellence Awards, delivered an address at the White House, and published articles alongside Eboo Patel at IFYC.org.
Oberst’s journey into interfaith work began on a cold winter day in 2008 during his freshman year at Eastern Washington University (EWU). “It was one of those days in February when it’s overcast, it’s been overcast for like six months now, a lot of snow on the ground, and it was just a really down day,” Oberst remembers. As he walked to class, Oberst encountered a flyer posted on a tree. The flyer displayed the Golden Rule from the sacred texts of three different religious traditions. “…I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Oberst explains. His excitement bubbled over into his philosophy of religion class where he mentioned the flyer for discussion; however, to his disappointment, the topic was met with disinterest. Students did not appear enthused by a discussion of scripture from the Qur’an in particular. After class, Oberst went to search for the flyer—only to find it had been ripped into tiny pieces.
Oberst knew that Muslim students at EWU were being harassed on campus; off-campus, he knew that the building project for a local mosque was met with resistance. The young man’s first thought was to act: “‘I really [have] got to do something’ – not only as a Christian, but also as someone who needs to speak up for the rights of everybody.” After picking up most of the flyer’s remnants, Oberst brought the pieces to his professor, and said, “‘Look, you saw this flyer as well. Look what happened. We need to do something.’”
Inspired by this experience, Oberst founded EWU’s Compassionate Interfaith Society. Under his leadership, CIS has emerged as a well-respected campus organization for interfaith dialogue, diversity, and service. In addition to weekly discussions on challenging interfaith topics, CIS students have hosted visitors such as Geshe Thupten Phelgye (the peace emissary to the Dalai Lama), Buddhist monks from Sravasti Abbey, and Maasai warriors from Kenya. They have also managed two successful protests against religious fundamentalists in the Spokane area, including the Westboro Baptist Church. CIS incorporates interfaith service projects into their programming, including gardening at the local Buddhist abbey, scrubbing graffiti off the walls of the local mosque, volunteering at soup kitchens, or raking leaves at the local park.
Simultaneously, Oberst became a founding board member and leader of the Spokane, Washington-based interfaith organization Friends of Compassion. FOC began simply, with one meeting, one conversation, and one goal: to successfully host the Dalai Lama in Spokane. Today, FOC has re-imagined its focus, positioning itself as a cooperative civic engagement society, bringing people of different walks of life together to discuss challenging topics and engage with local issues. FOC holds regular meetings and events that draw anywhere between fifty and three hundred local citizens. Some FOC sessions revolve around public discussions in the style of the world-famous TED Conference, in which a local expert shares his or her ideas for improved engagement on a certain topic. Other sessions are more service-oriented, such as a debate regarding Spokane’s justice system, incarceration levels, and homelessness in the city. “Friends of Compassion is about compassionate solutions to local problems,” Oberst explains.
Oberst’s encounter with the presence and challenge of religious diversity on campus is not an uncommon experience for students across the country. However, Oberst’s response—to strive for creating a space for intentional engagement with this diversity—is at once innovative and necessary. He and his colleagues are part of a growing movement. Oberst’s engagement with national level resources through the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) link the Compassionate Interfaith Society and Friends of Compassion to the larger interfaith movement. As a city relatively new to the interfaith scene, Spokane has much to offer and to learn from these networks.
What began as a chance encounter on a cold day in February continues to bloom into a passion for Oberst. “After taking that philosophy of religion class, and reading the sacred texts of these other religions, you begin to draw parallels and similarities,” he explains. His intellectual curiosity and penchant for encouraging connections led him to study Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, and bring these traditions into conversation with his own Christian identity. His desire to approach the interfaith movement holistically, that is, to bring together intellect, compassion, and action to create change is the reason Skyler Oberst stands as both a compelling and inspiring leader for activists of any age.