Three years ago I had a vision for what Interfaith Week might be. It was a grand vision. And because my background is in marketing, media and events, that vision included lots of complicated moving parts. It included big corporate sponsors like Best Buy and ValPak and Dex Imaging and Bloomin’ Brands — local companies that could get behind the cause of tolerance and peace and pluralism. Community-based companies that could afford to cut checks so that we might get the message out to as many people as possible using billboards, print, radio, and TV.
The vision included bringing famed keynote speakers to town like Karen Armstrong, Krista Tippett, Richard Rohr, Eboo Patel and the Dalai Lama. I imagined that we would screen documentary films and enjoy music and dance performances from well-known artists and musicians. My vision was that we would put on a show — because that’s what I knew and that’s what I’m good at.
What actually happened is that we opened up the programming to the community itself. And I never could have predicted the outcome. Proposals began to come in from faith communities willing to collaborate with one another to create something really special and unprecedented — not from the top down, but from the ground up.
What Interfaith Week has actually become is greater than I could ever have hoped.
This year, our opening ceremony was hosted by St. Mary our Lady of Grace Catholic Church and featured calls to prayer from Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim communities from all around the bay. Hearing Imam Azhar Subedar singing the Arabic call of the Muezzin in that sanctuary was simply sublime. And hearing Frank Tedesco talk about the lack of theology in Buddhist traditions in the hallowed halls of Catholicism was unforgettable.
This year, over shared meals all across this area and over the past seven days I have seen faith leaders and communities come together to plant the seeds of relationship, and enter into dialogue, in order to find solutions together. These solutions look like cooperative service projects and community cleanups, increased collaboration with city government, inter-congregational visits and sister community programs, increased religious literacy among neighborhoods, more support and programming for our youth and our children, and a concerted effort to focus on nonviolent language and demonstration.
What I have seen this year is not merely a show put on for the public. What I have seen, and continue to see every year, is the actual work of interfaith dialogue and bridge-building being done in our city. This year’s event saw an increase in geographical participation as well, taking us across the bridge to Tampa and north to Clearwater. This means not that there’s more work to do, but that there are more people willing to do it.
If the purpose of this week is to get together in a safe collaborative and educational place in order to talk about our faith and beliefs, then here’s what I believe — I believe that as the future of Interfaith Week and the work you all are doing unfolds, so unfolds the future of religion itself.
The more we spread the word that the world’s wisdom traditions are not boxes in which anyone squarely fits, the more we embrace the rich diverse spectrum within each of these faiths — whether they are paths up the same mountain, or plotted points on a topographical treasure map that we are exploring together, or the many colors of the rainbow that mix and bleed together as one. The more we teach that our neighbor is not a cardboard cut out (or a label), the more we succeed in enriching and adding depth and vibrance to the lives of our community, our family, and ourselves.
The more we approach each other as mirrors unto each other, and realize that the light we bring to each moment illuminates the world, the sooner we will find the top of that mountain, and the “X” that marks the spot on that treasure map, and the pure light at the center or source of that rainbow.
The sooner we approach not only our neighbor, but every human being on this planet — regardless of ability or color or gender or age or faith — with the spirit of the golden rule, the sooner we will achieve peace.
St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes encouraged us all this week to add a word to our vocabulary. Yes, what we are trying to accomplish is tolerance and cooperation and coexistence and pluralism, but why not lead with “love?” Love with a capital L. Love that knows no boundaries or exception. Love, by any means necessary.
Next year, I hope that I can rely on you to make Interfaith Week even bigger and better, deeper and more meaningful, more far-reaching than it was this year. We need more faith communities connected to one another — not necessarily to preach the same message, not necessarily to move in the same direction, but to enter into a symbiotic relationship, an ecosystem. A relationship that continues to unfold and deepen and become more complex.
That is the goal because that is what life does.
I want to thank this year’s planning committee: Jan Magray (chair), Soledad Loba, Susan Meyers, Frank Tedesco, Maria Pierre and J.C. Pritchett.
I also want to thank this year’s sponsors and supporters: Viggiano and Company, Eckerd College Center for Spiritual Life, Global Lifestyle Realty, Jonathan Greye, Esperanza Hope Interfaith, and Unitarian Universalists of St. Pete.
I want to thank all of those who volunteered; who opened their doors to host the events; who donated, prepared and served food; who attended all of the events they could; and those who suddenly found themselves at an Interfaith Week event, not knowing what Interfaith Week was or why they should care.
One young lady in particular came up to me after the closing ceremony and said, “I didn’t know ‘interfaith’ was a thing. I always knew in my heart that there was unity in our diversity, but I didn’t have a name for it until now.”
I hope that in the coming year, we all step forward into this ecosystem, toward one another, in a big way. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make the outcome of Interfaith Week something that happens every day?”
On behalf of the planning committee, we want to hear from you. And we will consider every voice when programming next year’s event. If you’d like to be on the planning committee for next year, let me know. If you need to think about it, sleep on it, or pray on it, then do so. But eventually, we want you in the room with us.
The interfaith and intrareligious dialogue, and the relationships it gives rise to, are too important to our community to leave any perspective behind. We need you as a voice. We need you as a member.
Joran Oppelt, President
St. Petersburg Interfaith Association
P.S. If you’re interested in officially joining and becoming a supporter of the St. Petersburg Interfaith Association, download our membership application here.