Campus initiative prompts interfaith discussions, service projects

WASHINGTON - Aamir Hussain, a Muslim student at Georgetown University in Washington, gets the importance of interfaith work.

During a symposium at a chapel on campus, Hussain said he enjoyed working side by side with students of different faiths in service projects and participating in round-table discussions with them. He also said the experience had the unexpected bonus of strengthening his own faith.

"I will continue to pursue these works," he said at the April 25 gathering, adding that he has "grown as a Muslim in this experience."

The sophomore government major was one of a few dozen students attending a ceremony marking the end of the university's participation in a national project called the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

The initiative is sponsored by President Barack Obama and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships through the U.S. Department of Education. It invited universities to develop one-year programs where students worked with local religious groups and other organizations to tackle specific community challenges.

About 25 Catholic colleges and universities were among nearly 300 participating colleges. This summer the White House will honor the exemplary programs in the initiative.

"As a Catholic and Jesuit university, the pursuit of interfaith understanding is deeply rooted in Georgetown's tradition," said Georgetown President John DeGioia during the ceremony. "This year President Obama's challenge has given us the opportunity to renew and strengthen our commitment to this essential aspect of our mission."

The small number of participants at the final gathering may have been indicative of the work that still needs to be done on the interfaith front, but leaders urged students not to be discouraged and to maintain their passion for the venture.

Keynote speaker Eboo Patel told the students not to think there are "too few involved" but instead to challenge the participants who are involved to "spread the message" of the importance of interfaith efforts.

"Be thrilled to preach to the choir," said Patel, who is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues. He called on the students to be leaders in the movement to break down barriers of religious intolerance and prejudice.

"If you're not going to do it, who is?" he asked.

Patel said the work they have already been doing "gives us all hope."

"It is inspiring to come to a campus that is continuing to model what interfaith cooperation can and should look like," he added.

One interfaith effort this year at Georgetown even went a step above involving its own students by involving a rival school in a cause. The university partnered with Syracuse University in New York to raise money and collect canned foods for a local food bank when the two played against each other at Georgetown.

Student organizers spoke during halftime at the Feb. 8 game and spoke about how their faith motivated their involvement in the Can it! effort, which collected more than 2,500 cans of food and raised awareness about hunger.

Hussain, the university's student interfaith council president, wrote in the student newspaper that the goal of the food drive was to "increase awareness and mobilize support for the fight against hunger by harnessing each university's enthusiasm for both basketball and community service."

"By integrating their passions for social justice into the much-anticipated basketball game members of both universities want to show the nation that they are, truly, better together," Hussain wrote. "Georgetown and Syracuse, while starkly different universities in many other respects, are united by their commitment to interfaith dialogue and community service."

Other colleges in the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge and their efforts included: Vincentian-run DePaul University in Chicago and its yearlong community service project to address violence against young people, and Dominican University, just outside Chicago, and its work with refugee families.

DePaul University, working with the Chicago Public Schools Service Learning Office and other community groups, sponsored a peace rally and a symposium to bring together local community leaders and organizations along with families who experienced the loss of loved ones because of violence.

Students at Dominican University worked during the year with a local refugee support agency to help newly arrived refugee families. They also collaborated with local partners to combat hunger by community gardening and volunteering at a local food pantry.

Dominican's students also proved that it did not take elaborate programs to get to know more about each other's beliefs.

During one event called "speed faithing," students and faculty members from a variety of faiths sat down with one another for five-minute conversations about what they believe.

Student Brad London, writing about the experience in a blog on the university's website, said the evening's success was evident in the conversations that continued after it was over.

He said people who had been "unfamiliar or doubtful of interfaith cooperation, were now pros in meaningful interfaith conversation" and that alone was a "huge step in eliminating misconceptions and skepticism."

It also was a good indication that interfaith efforts on campus would continue to grow.

Or as he put it: "Large scale interfaith cooperation is a vast reality in the near future."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970