Celebrating the First Year of the White House Interfaith Service Challenge and Gearing Up for Year Two

By: Mary Grace Reich

July 13, 2012

On the afternoon of July 9 through July 10, the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge Summer Gathering convened at Howard University. A collaboration between the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Interfaith Youth Core, the meeting was attended by over 300 college president, administrators, chaplains, and students. The event was a celebration of the first year of the challenge and preparation for year two.
Addresses included a student panel, administrators panel, and individual speeches from the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the secretary for the Office of Faith and Community-Based Partnerships, Joshua Dubois, the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Wendy Spencer, and founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo Patel. The days were filled with congratulations and rallying cries for increased efforts. Colleges representatives exchanged successes, struggles, and shared values.

With words from Aamir Hussein (COL ’14) on the student panel and a shout out from CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Wendy Spencer, Georgetown was well represented at the event. While it was empowering to hear Georgetown applauded, it was most encouraging to see the involvement, big and small, from such a diverse range of college campuses across the country. Students from the University of Pennsylvania to Tennessee Technical to the Air Force Academy traveled from near and far to partake. There were plenty of achievements around the nation to celebrate as schools shared their experiences with the challenge.

I attended breakout sessions on education, human trafficking, and best practices in interfaith services. The first two provided insight into college’s individual service projects performed within the education and health sectors as part of this year’s challenge. The final one was largely a discussion among administrators of programs and strategies they had used to make interfaith service an institutional and student priority. The panels highlighted innovative projects but posed challenges: 1) how to replicate strategies between schools?; and 2) how to bridge the gap between interfaith dialogue and service? If people who happen to be of different faiths are working together is it enough to consider it an interfaith initiative? How can the interfaith element be highlighted? How can we translate the interfaith identity of a group from a mere coincidence or an afterthought to a primary priority?

The President’s Challenge is complex. Its objective is multifaceted: to bring students of different religious backgrounds together through a joint effort of service. It is not intended to be just service nor just interfaith dialogue, but interfaith action in service. At the summer gathering, representatives echoed roadblocks to the challenge that resonate with what I’ve experienced at Georgetown. Many schools have experienced too many service events and not enough participation in interfaith engagement. The event offered an opportunity for myself and my other Georgetown peers and colleagues to discuss with others, as well as amongst ourselves, solutions to these challenges.

The event was encouraging, exciting, and thought-provoking. While the questions posed are difficult to answer, the demonstration of determination across the nation to do so was uplifting. I know Georgetown is biting at the bit for year two!

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Celebrating the First Year of the White House Interfaith Service Challenge and Gearing Up for Year Two