By Scott Eubanks ’10, ’08
Skyler Oberst is easy to pick out of a crowd of young professionals. It isn’t his fashionable eyeglasses, his watch and matching leather shoes, or the geometry of creases on his shirt and slacks that could only come from an ironing board. It’s something else – an unmistakable sense of purpose multiplied by passion.
Trim and bright-eyed, he looks young for a late 20-something. When asked to define his work, Oberst grinned and said, “I remind people to love their neighbor.”
This, of course, is the simple version.
“If we are truly a community,” he said, “we should try to live into that.”
The truth is, he’s been a catalyst for renewed interfaith awareness and cooperation in the Spokane community.
As an EWU alumnus, Oberst has published articles on interfaith issues in the Huffington Post, interned with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University and delivered an address on pluralism at the White House. He has also been a part of the Millennial Values project at the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University.
Currently, he is the legislative aide to Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton. He serves as the president of the Spokane Interfaith Council (SIFC), the oldest ecumenical/interfaith organization in the Inland Northwest. It is the mission of SIFC to foster greater understanding and respect among people of different faiths in Spokane. Under his leadership, SIFC pioneered the Meet the Neighbors project, a tour of Spokane’s Religious Landscape.
“If we don’t know about our neighbors, we don’t know about our community,” Oberst said.
Each month, a place of worship hosts an open house for members of the public to attend and experience a different religion and culture.
“We’re exploring faith in the Inland Northwest,” he said. “And everybody has good food.”
Prior to visiting, guests were encouraged to review a YouTube video prepared by the Spokane Interfaith Council that provides guests with information on what to expect. Hosted by Oberst, each video covers how to dress, brief interviews, an explanation of services and basic translations.
So far, the Spokane Interfaith Council has facilitated a Meet the Neighbors event at Temple Beth Shalom, the Spokane Islamic Center, the Spokane Tribe, the Sikh Temple of Spokane, Saint John’s Cathedral, the Buddhist Sravasti Abbey and a Baha’i Gathering.
“I would love to live in a town where the mosque isn’t surrounded by barbed wire,” Oberst said. “My big, hairy, audacious goal is to make Spokane a better place, not only for members of faith but for everybody.”
Oberst grew up in Vancouver, Washington. His dad was a popular basketball coach for at-risk youth, the kind of community figure where former players would eagerly introduce their kids to him in restaurants. His mother worked at a homeless shelter for 25 years.
“I grew up having my parents as these great examples of how you can give back to the community,” he said.
He moved to Spokane to attend EWU.
“Once I was plugged into the community,” he said, “I helped put together Diversity Week.”
He was part of the ASEWU, served on the President’s Committee on Diversity and worked as the special projects coordinator at the Office of Global Initiatives for the Japanese and Colombian delegation. He also founded a place for students to learn from one another and learn about themselves, the EWU Compassionate Interfaith Society.
When he first started at EWU, Oberst intended on majoring in government, but after a few quarters – being exposed to so many different ideas – he changed his mind. With the help of Dana Elder, PhD, Terry MacMullan, PhD, and Julia Smith, PhD, he created a double major in philosophy and anthropology.
“They helped me become who I am,” Oberst said. “They got together and said, ‘Let’s see how we can help you explore this more.’”
When asked about Oberst’s time at EWU, Elder said, “He shared his gift for helping others join together to do the right thing. His openness and inclusiveness drew people together, and that experience of community gave people the will and energy to act. His impact is still present in our learning community.”
Rather than dwell on his accomplishments, Oberst is busy pursuing his interfaith work: writing, speaking and traveling to places like Bosnia and Jerusalem.
“Everybody thinks they can change the world from New York, Los Angeles or Seattle, but I think I can change the world from my neighborhood. I see a renaissance coming in Spokane,” he said.
Reflecting on the work ahead, Oberst said, “The challenges in Spokane could easily be addressed if we were willing to work together. Just imagine if we all got together on homelessness or poverty.”
For such a simple message, Oberst has a lot to talk about. But it’s worth considering what he doesn’t talk about as well. Not once does he mention his own faith. He doesn’t have to. He shows it, not as a particular denomination, but as a faith in people.