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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 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.”

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