Interfaith conference held at GW focuses on building bridges among beliefs to spur community service.
The lighted Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre at the George Washington University revealed an audience on Tuesday that represented a kaleidoscope of different beliefs from Jewish men in yarmulkes and Muslim women in hijabs to Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Protestants and atheists.
A diverse group of more than 500 students, faculty, staff, religious leaders and higher education administrators from across the country gathered at GW for a national meeting on Monday and Tuesday as a testament to President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.
The challenge is a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service to encourage people of different faiths to collaborate on civic engagement projects—a practice known as “interfaith service.”
More than 400 colleges and universities have signed up for the challenge.
“Thank you for the leadership and the example that you’ve shown not only in your words but in your deeds,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “The fact that you have the courage and the commitment to come together to engage in difficult dialogues—whether it’s around religion or race or class or politics—meaningful conversations, and beyond that, meaningful action, is the only way we can solve our nation’s problems.”
The meetings held at GW on Monday and Tuesday provided an opportunity for interfaith service and higher education leaders to discuss strategies to improve dialogue and build educational programs and service projects for nonbelievers and those of different faiths.
“It’s often easier for people to talk about faith after they’ve gotten to know one another,” Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Neighborhood and Faith-based Partnerships, said at the opening session. “What better way to get to know one another than by building a house or serving a meal.”
GW Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Steven Lerman said that university namesake George Washington envisioned a nation that accepts all faiths and religions.
University of Notre Dame professor of political science David E. Campbell presented research from his 2013 book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Dr. Campbell and co-author Robert D. Putnam found that the relationships formed in religious communities or “social capital” between nonbelievers and believers of different faiths make people more likely to engage in community service, vote in local elections and attend public meetings.
Trishla Jain, a self-described Hindu and senior at Georgetown University, a Catholic and Jesuit institution, said that interacting with different religions as a student not only established her commitment to interfaith work, but also made her a more active member of the university community.
“We have to engage students in interfaith work because it sets the stage for your entire life,” Ms. Jain said. “It is important to go beyond tolerance and engage in our differences and our similarities.”
Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, who attended Freshman Day of Service and Convocation on Sept. 6, said that she was impressed to see the entire George Washington University freshman class taking an active role in the community.
The year 2013 marked the first year that interfaith service was deemed an official category for the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, a program started by the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2006 to highlight exemplary community service at colleges and universities.
This year also marked the inaugural President’s Award in Interfaith and Community Service, which was presented at the closing ceremony by Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, to Loras College. Loras College President James Collins accepted the award and congratulations on the honor from U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, who attended the closing ceremony. .
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, former board member and chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, congratulated the interfaith leaders for their work.
Mr. Duncan encouraged students to use service to spur action in their communities and around the world from the Middle East to Ferguson, Mo., and in his hometown of Chicago. He said that much like young people who “lived their beliefs” during the civil rights movement in America, it is up to young people today to challenge the status quo.
“You are willing to cross barriers and have honest and meaningful conversation and do meaningful work,” Mr. Duncan said. “Whether that work is in our communities, our nation and ultimately our globe, I think that is the only way.
“Thank you for setting a powerful example,” he added.