Speed dating is so yesterday.
“Love the idea,” says Sharon Cook of the St. Petersburg Interfaith Association. “What a great way to learn a little about a lot of religions.”
Cook, a Christian Scientist, is among several presenters taking part in Tuesday’s Speed Faithing get-together at the University of Tampa. Sponsored by the Faith, Values and Spirituality Resource Team, it’s one of several events planned for Interfaith Harmony Week.
Here’s how it works: Representatives of eight faith traditions and an atheist group will be stationed at their own tables, where they’ll talk for 15 minutes about their respective beliefs and then answer questions. Every 20 minutes, they’ll begin again, so visitors can move from table to table.
The intent is to enlighten, educate and encourage interfaith cooperation, says Lisa Ryan, a staff assistant at UT’s Wellness Center, but “not to convert.”
“You may have some curiosity about a certain religion, but you’re not comfortable learning about it in the institutional setting,” she says. “So we’re making this forum more open and informal. And, hopefully, lots of high energy.”
The concept comes out of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based initiative that brings together young people of different religious and moral traditions for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values.
Spokesman Pete De Kock says since launching the program last summer, dozens of colleges have put on Speed Faithing events. This is the first time it’s come to the Tampa area.
“It’s become one of our most popular activities,” he says. But aside from the fun factor, it has a much loftier purpose.
“Accurate knowledge leads to improved relationships,” De Kock says. “Misunderstanding and misinformation can cause such division. Ultimately, the hope is that you can create groundwork to do great things together in the community.”
Participants are encouraged to tell personal stories about their faith experience, and to steer clear of dogma and “anything academic.” They can debunk myths and talk about the shared values of their beliefs across all faith traditions.
“I remember a scholar who once said there would be no peace among the nations until there was peace among religions,” Cook says. “I think respect and understanding is so important if we want to get anything accomplished.”
In her short period of time, she’ll tell visitors to her table that Christian Science has seven names for God: life, truth, love, spirit, soul, principle and mind. She’ll talk about its emphasis on spiritual healing, as demonstrated by Christ and his apostles.
“And I’ll tell them not to confuse us with Scientology, which does happen,” Cook says.
Russell Meyer, a Lutheran and executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, says he’ll talk about how his faith teaches him about being called to “love the poor, love the other and love the earth.” He’ll stress how Christianity is “very much about relationships.”
Frank Tedesco of Largo, a former Catholic, found Buddhism in high school and never looked back. Now 66, the semi-retired college professor is the founder of True Dharma International Buddhist Mission and has practiced several different traditions.
“It’s a universal religion of love and compassion for all beings, but it doesn’t require any faith or beliefs,” Tedesco says. “What it requires is living the path.”
He’ll use his time to tell how Buddhism “prepares us to die well” and how he’s incorporated the teachings in his work as a hospice volunteer. The religion also encourages his dedication to living healthy, from daily meditation to not eating any animal products.
Though religious groups will be the most represented at Speed Faithing, Joe Reinhardt’s table could be the most popular. A member of Atheists of Florida Inc., he’s a voice for the “nones” — the fastest-growing segment among believers and secularists. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, one-fifth of the American public — and one-third of adults under 30 — are now crossing off the “none” box under religious affiliation.
Reinhardt says he plans to do some myth-busting about atheism during Speed Faithing. “I want them to know that we’re like anyone else. We care about health, education, freedom. And we care that religion isn’t mixed up with politics or forced upon anyone,” he says.