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Interfaith in Cyberspace

By Andrew Kille


It all began for me in the early 1990s with a simple posting on an e-mail group list – a list of holy days during the coming month observed by different religious groups from Adventists to Zoroastrians. That monthly listing brought together two great interests of mine, interreligious dialogue and the emerging power of electronic communication.

Since my seminary days twenty years earlier I had been involved first in Jewish-Christian dialogue and then more broadly with religious leaders representing the spectrum of traditions that make up northern California’s Silicon Valley. One project of the local office of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) was to create a calendar of religious observances to help businesses and schools respect the religious obligations of their people as they scheduled events for the year. The calendar had previously been available only in a printed edition.

Living in Silicon Valley made it difficult not to be excited by the technological revolution bursting around us. I discovered that with the right equipment, software, and some perseverance, I could connect to individuals and resources through my telephone line. I encountered a strange new set of computer tools: e-mail, BBS (bulletin boards), FTP (file transfer protocol), Archie, Telnet, and Gopher.

The Graduate Theological Union library

The Graduate Theological Union library

Early online connections were heavily weighted to the technical, and e-mail was still unfamiliar to many people. But I began to discover people, groups, and organizations that shared my interests and concerns. As a student in the doctoral program at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), I wanted to explore the new possibilities that were opening up. So, I created GTU-LIST, an e-mail group for students, faculty, staff and friends of the GTU. (GTU-LIST is still operating, thirty years later.)

Traffic on the list was light at first, and so, just to prime the pump, I began to post the NCCJ Religious Observances calendar to the list, a month at a time. I wasn’t sure anybody was paying attention, but from time to time I would get a message thanking me for including some lesser-known group on the list, or, if I was late posting for the month, asking me if I had forgotten. Clearly there was an interest in knowing what brothers and sisters in other communities were celebrating.

The original logo for the World Wide Web was designed by computer scientist Robert Cailliau. In 1990, Cailliau, with Ted Berners-Lee, proposed using “hypertext” links to empower computer communications.

The original logo for the World Wide Web was designed by computer scientist Robert Cailliau. In 1990, Cailliau, with Ted Berners-Lee, proposed using “hypertext” links to empower computer communications.

In those days, before the World Wide Web, locating resources online was very much a hit-or-miss effort. The Internet was like an enormous library without a card catalog. You would wander about, looking for something useful. Sometimes, if you asked if anyone knew of such-and-such a resource, someone could tell you where to look. Sometimes as you were looking for something else, you would run across a bit of information you knew a friend was looking for, and you could pass along its location.

One vital function in those days involved compiling lists of useful information and where to find it, like Patrick Durusau’s High Places in Cyberspace. Still, even equipped with directions, making the connections to people and resources was not for the faint-hearted or the computer shy.

Birth of the World Wide Web

Then came the World Wide Web, which made it much easier to connect to files and archives around the world, followed by search engines like Go.com, Lycos, and Alta Vista that worked like card catalogs. More and more people began to use e-mail and web browsers, gradually becoming more comfortable with the online world.

I began Interfaith Space in 2002. I chose the name thinking that I would be working in three kinds of spaces—physical space where people might gather, the “conversational” space that is created between people in dialogue, and cyberspace. I soon realized that cyberspace was where work was needed, finding ways to connect people and groups that were already doing great work but who did not know about each other. Interfaith Space’s calendar of events and monthly e-mail newsletter serve to share interreligious efforts across the community, and the listing of religious observances for each month remains a key feature.

The Presidio Chapel in San Francisco, home of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.

The Presidio Chapel in San Francisco, home of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.

In 2007, Rev. Paul Chaffee asked me if I would take over as editor of Bay Area Interfaith Connect(BAIC), the monthly e-newsletter of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. The newsletter includes a dynamic calendar of events, along with notes on resources both online and offline. I soon realized that items that were no longer “news” were still of interest long afterwards, and began adding them to the “Interfaith Links Library” on the ICP website. Over time, that collection of links has grown greatly, and offers a wealth of books, conferences, and online organizations, archives, podcasts, documents and more.

BAIC was created around a unique database system hosted at Interspirit.net, which was ahead of its time by offering creative networking capabilities for online newsletters, e-mail communications, forums, and more. Interspirit represented a move toward what is known as “Web 2.0”; making communication online not just one-way, from provider to consumer, but of engaging users in activity and conversation with the host and one another. Computer-enabled communications are steadily becoming more common and accessible, and people are discovering every day how easily accessible tools like blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest and more can be used to connect with others, and to communicate and celebrate their common interests.

Still Changing

We are in the midst of a major shift in how people connect with one another. People of my generation had to adapt to new technologies and develop unfamiliar skills in order to take part in the online world. The generation that is now entering adulthood does not remember a time before computers. They are comfortable with the technologies, tools, and systems that enable them to stay in touch with the things that matter to them.

Donald Tapscott writes in Grown Up Digital (2009) that members of the Net generation “prize freedom and freedom of choice. They want to customize things, make them their own. They’re natural collaborators, who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture. They’ll scrutinize you and your organization. They insist on integrity. They want to have fun, even at work and at school. Speed is normal. Innovation is part of life.” (p. 7)

Freedom, collaboration, conversation, integrity, and fun. Aren’t those the things we value in interreligious relationships? Who knows where it all may lead?