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Beyond Potlucks and Panels: Interfaith Dialogue for a Digital Era

Posted by Rev. Liddy Barlow and Rabbi Ron Symons on February 8, 2021


February 1, 2021

One by one the Zoom boxes appear on the screen. A retired Jewish radiologist in suburban Pittsburgh. A self-described “Jew-Bu” in Brooklyn, combining the Judaism of her upbringing with a Buddhist meditation practice. A college professor who has practiced the Baha’i faith since her teens. A lapsed Catholic exploring phenomenological philosophy on the side. Joining us from their own living rooms, tonight this diverse group finds itself on a single virtual sofa: Sofa Spirituality.

We’ve led robust interfaith programs together in Southwest Pennsylvania for years, but the pandemic presented a new question: how to build interfaith understanding and real person-to-person connection in the digital space? Sofa Spirituality is our response. Supported by the Russell Berrie Foundation, we developed a simple model: 45-minute dialogues among small groups in real time, discussing short pre-recorded video interviews with diverse spiritual leaders. Each dialogue begins with a practice or idea specific to a particular religious tradition, then draws out unexpected connections and fascinating differences across our spiritual landscape.

As the program begins, we welcome the group, share a simple covenant of expectations, and invite the participants to introduce themselves to one another, naming the spiritual influences that help define them. Then, we ask them to imagine a big sectional sofa, an overflowing bowl of popcorn, drinks in hand. “As we watch this video together, pretend we’re all in the same room,” we say. “Use the chat box to share your impressions and reflections, just as if we were watching a movie together in shared space.”

We share the screen and press play. Ron’s interview with Bhante Pemaratana, the winsome Sri Lankan abbot of the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center, begins. “What have you brought to share with us?” Ron asks, and Bhante Pema shows us his meditation bell, the “singing bowl” that signals the beginning and end of a meditation session in his faith community. The abbot goes on to talk about the power of sound to resonate across individual souls, and how we all are joined together through its reverberations. Ron asks him about entering and sending rituals in Buddhism and shares his own similar practices within Judaism.

The video ends, and Liddy puts a question on the screen. “We could start our dialogue here,” she says: “How does your tradition enter and exit sacred time?” Then she flips to the next slide, which shows three more questions. “Or, we could start with one of these: What role does sound play in your own spiritual practice? How has your community modified your gatherings during covid? How do you prepare your mind to participate in spiritual practice? Or, we can begin with something else that captured your attention in the interview. It’s up to you.”

There’s a split second of silence as the group gathers their thoughts, and then the conversation begins. We hear about ringing bells at Catholic altars; we learn about words of welcome that greet Jewish worshipers; we wonder together about how sound waves interact with our bodies and spirits. The Pittsburgh radiologist says, “I miss going to temple physically, arriving fifteen minutes early, wrapping myself in my tallit (prayer shawl), and just sitting there with mantras moving through my body. Covid has taken this away from me.”

We don’t imagine Sofa Spirituality as a World Religions 101 class, although learning more about other faith traditions is always a worthy side effect. Instead, our greatest hope is that the participants in our dialogues will deepen their connection to their own faith tradition, in community with others: catching sight of the shared values that undergird the beautiful diversity of our beliefs and practices. It’s happened dozens of times: a Jew digs deep in her spiritual well with the help of a Hindu lay leader; a Catholic better understands the role of scripture in a Mass with gratitude to a Protestant neighbor; a person who identifies as “spiritual but not religious” better understands religious garb as a result of an interview with an imam.

As our project has grown, we’ve continued to offer public dialogues at 5 p.m. on Thursdays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, free and available to all with sign-ups on our website. We’ve also recognized the potential for Sofa Spirituality as a customized tool within specific communities, such as a house of worship, a neighborhood interfaith ministerium, a confirmation class or a community relations council. Working with partner organizations across the country, we’re customizing dialogues that can enhance existing relationships and build new ones, reinvigorating interfaith conversation. Once, interfaith dialogue happened at potlucks in church basements or in panel discussions among experts; now it can take place on a 21st century platform, with no prior expertise required.

Whether in public dialogues or customized programs, Sofa Spirituality seeks to address spiritual isolation, a problem exacerbated by this moment’s pandemics of covid, injustice, and polarization. Spiritual isolation harms the individual spirit, divides our communities, alienates religious traditions from one another, and disconnects us from the Divine. Our interviews and dialogues, and the insights and relationships they foster, rebuild connection that heals our souls and our neighborhoods.

As the dialogue comes to an end, we invite participants to share a word or two in the chat naming what they hope to take away from our time together. Forty-five minutes after signing on, they share words of gratitude and connection. “Sound is not something outside of me, it runs through me in spiritual ways,” the Baha’i professor offers. “There are many ways to join a sacred space,” writes the Jew-Bu from Brooklyn. And then the radiologist says, “I love the use of sound to enter and exit sacred time. I’m going to try to do that more. I can chant in my tallit even from home.”

There’s room on the sofa for everyone – for you and your community too. We hope you’ll join us at Sofa Spirituality.

Rabbi Ron Symons ([email protected]) is the founding director of the Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, where he serves as Senior Director of Jewish Life. Rabbi Symons was ordained by Hebrew Union College and has served synagogues and Jewish schools in Pittsburgh, New York, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Israel.

Rev. Liddy Barlow ([email protected]) is the first woman to be installed as Executive Minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, an organization that brings together diverse Christians in Greater Pittsburgh for the common good. Rev. Barlow attended Mount Holyoke College and Andover Newton Theological School, and has served the United Church of Christ in local churches, regional committees, and national vision teams.

Together, Ron and Liddy work to build relationships among interfaith spiritual leaders and to connect communities of faith to today’s most pressing issues, as they seek to “redefine neighbor from a geographic term to a moral concept.”

Learn more about Sofa Spirituality and register for public dialogues at, and reach out directly to Ron and Liddy to plan customized dialogues for your community.

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