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Beyond the Words on a Page

Connecting Journalists and Activists

Beyond the Words on a Page

by Megan Anderson

Very few religious, much less interfaith news publications have a related social arm, an active presence in the community they address. But Spokane Faith and Values (SpokaneFāVS), a small digital interfaith news platform in Spokane, Washington is proving it can happen. SpokaneFāVS, weaving of interfaith communications with interfaith engagement, is transforming eastern Washington’s aggregate religious community.

Becoming a thriving regional interfaith publication was an achievement all by itself.

While the last economic recession was sending ripples of financial unrest and worry throughout the country, similar ripples, albeit less noticed, disrupted news about religion. The number of reporters working the religion section of newspapers took a significant downturn in 2007 and hasn’t recovered. In 2010, Debra Mason, then executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, writing for Pew Research Center, stated that 16 major print news outlets had reduced or abandoned their religion section since 2007.

Tracy Simmons – Photo:  SpokaneFāVS

Tracy Simmons – Photo: SpokaneFāVS

Tracy Simmons, a seasoned religion reporter who had worked for newspapers across America, had made the religion beat her life. Seeing religion being abandoned in print and her colleagues laid off broke her heart. These were important stories, and she was determined to tell them. The Pew Research Center article notes that parallel to the decline of religion sections in print news was a growth in online papers such as The Huffington Post. Tracy saw the incentive for digitizing religious news. Religion, presented with stunning pictures and video, lends itself well to the web.

She created Creedible, a website that covered faith and ethics news in Connecticut, where she was living at the time. Her work drew the attention of Religion News Service (RNS), one of America's top religious news organizations. She eventually sold them Creedible, and they hired her to start SpokaneFāVS, a name chosen by the board for their mission to cover faith and values and for its catchiness.

Actually Making a Difference

Spearheaded by Tracy and a host of volunteers, today SpokaneFāVS is its own nonprofit news organization. Its primary focus is providing ongoing relevant news within the religious and interfaith sphere of Spokane and eastern Washington state. At the same time, Tracy has made a point of ensuring its content is not just read, but actually makes a difference in the community.

Growing up, she had a lot of Hindu neighbors but recalls how her family made assumptions about their religious traditions and values instead of personally getting to know them. Her internal revolt against this started her on the path toward religion journalism. “I was taught they were wrong and weird. Not once did we try to understand them or their culture,” she remembers. “To me, it was our own lack of respectful curiosity that was wrong and weird, and countering that attitude was a driving force in my finding the God beat.”

Tracy knows misconceptions tear communities apart. People fear what they do not know, and they do not know what they do not encounter. To this end, she ensures that, in addition to news and commentary, SpokaneFāVS gives people opportunities to engaged with one another. “I didn’t want just a website offering the latest headlines and conversations. I wanted this to be a tool for starting offline conversations aimed at fostering understanding among people at a time when many conversations have grown so divisive.”

So in addition to reporting the news, SpokaneFāVS has community-based programs.

Photo:  SpokaneFāVS
  • The first Saturday every other month three FāVS writers and a guest panelist lead an in-person Coffee Talk around an issue in the news that has a faith or ethics angle to it. The topic is determined largely by comments from SpokaneFāVS readers.
  • Have you ever had a question about a religious tradition but chosen not to ask for fear of causing offense? SpokaneFāVS’ ASK program solves this problem by giving readers the opportunity to pose questions anonymously to their writers from different religious traditions. The answers to these questions are publicly available in the Commentary section.

  • Seeing a lack of online presence and proficiency in faith-based organizations and nonprofits, Tracy has developed Digital Media Workshops for clergy and volunteers in faith-based organizations and nonprofits. These are not offered regularly, so contact Tracy if you are interested.

  • The Community Calendar is interactive, allowing people to post their own events. It’s a great place to learn what religious and interfaith events are coming up!

Each of these programs make SpokaneFāVS stand out in online religious journalism, but a partnership makes it a pioneer in religion news.

Developing a Grassroots Connection

Meet the Neighbors visit to the Sikh Gurdwara – Photo:  Facebook

Meet the Neighbors visit to the Sikh Gurdwara – Photo: Facebook

As Tracy became more enmeshed in the Spokane community, she noticed certain people were attending the same events she was. She discovered they were part of the Spokane Interfaith Council (SIFC), founded in 1948 with the mission to create space where people from different faiths can work together to foster greater understanding and make a difference in the areas where they share common ground. Further conversation revealed that SIFC shared her desire to serve as a bridge for people to get to know each other rather than making assumptions based on media and stereotypes.

In line with this desire, SIFC’s current president, Skyler Oberst, created Meet the Neighbors, a program that brings groups to different places of worship in Spokane. It emerged from a survey conducted in 2014. Most respondents said they were interested in visiting different places of worship, but were hesitant to go alone because they didn’t want to accidently offend someone.

Group visits were an ideal solution because people can be prepped ahead of time by someone knowledgeable about the specific religion. Since the places of worship are given advanced notification of the visit, hosting adherents understand the people coming are visitors and therefore may do things incorrectly. So far they have been held at Temple Beth Shalom, Spokane Islamic Center, Sravasti Abbey, Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, a Baha’i Gathering, and with the Hindu community, since no Hindu temple has been built yet in Spokane.

Tracy came to realize SpokaneFāVS did not have the human resources to handle all the community outreach she wanted to do. Seeing the extent of SIFC’s commitment to building relationships, she knew SIFC would be an excellent partner. SIFC takes the lead in organizing the Coffee Talks and other on-the-ground events as well as reaches out into the community to draw people to them. In return, SIFC gets to operate under SpokaneFāVS’s non-profit umbrella and its programming and events budget. Additionally by organizing these events, SIFC becomes better known and is able to reach more people.

The partnership provides the knowledge and resources needed for SpokaneFāVS to evolve in a way that most benefits the community by enabling it to go into the community and listen to what people want and need. When local groups pitch ideas or request a program, a pool of volunteers with experience in interfaith is readily available to make it happen.

Model for Us All

SpokaneFāVS shows, as Tracy says, the power of collaboration: “I think collaboration is key. So many religious groups out there have similar missions – feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless, etc. – but don't work together. If you find you have shared goals, then come together and see how you can work together! That's what we did, and because we are sharing resources, we are reaching more people and achieving our goals more efficiently.”

Collaboration is essential in a globalized world that is beginning to become stressed for resources. It is also essential for any religion that wants to remain true to its foundational values. Issues such as poverty, hunger, and homelessness can only be solved through collaboration.

SpokaneFāVS models how to beautifully integrate online news and community engagement. And what Tracy and SIFC have done is not limited to small cities. Tracy originally looked at doing FāVS in Seattle, but realized it was too large an area for one person to cover. With an adequate number of volunteers, such programs and partnership can work in any size structure. This is precisely Tracy’s vision and hope: that religious news will jump off the page and engage religiously diverse communities across America because more is accomplished together than it ever is apart. So for all the religion reporters and members of interfaith councils out there, get to know the others in your area!

Header Photo: Pinterest