Reflecting on the Second President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge

By: Joelle Rebeiz

October 1, 2013

On Monday, September 24th, over 400 delegates from around the world convened at Georgetown University, to answer the call posed by the Second President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge: to come together with those of different faiths and tackle a wide range of national obstacles as a community. The program featured sessions about everything from disaster preparedness, to veterans and military families, to human trafficking—each with a focus on how faith and interreligious dialogue furthers the work being done in those fields.
Since his inauguration, President Obama has emphasized interfaith cooperation and community service as an important means to building understanding between different communities, bridging the gaps caused by cultural divide, and effectively contributing to the common good. As he explained at the launch of the Interfaith Challenge, “I know that as we go forward, it’s going to take all of us: Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer, to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. As a Christian committed to the church while serving my community, I know that an act of service can unite people of all faiths—and even no faith—around a common purpose of helping those in need.”

I had the distinct pleasure of helping out as the Department of Education and the Berkley Center, in partnership with the Center for Social Justice, Interfaith Youth Core, and the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships put the president’s message into action, with the organization of the Campus Challenge National Convention.

The schedule of events was modeled after the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which puts strong emphasis on targeting a core set of national issues to bring about the most focused and effective results. As such, the conference – which broadly aimed to advance interfaith service and engagement—outlined issue area with defined goals, such as domestic poverty and economic opportunity, energy and the environment, engaging community interfaith partners, and evaluating interfaith engagement. Students—myself included—were able to profit from a unique breakout session hosted by Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, about student leadership. Drawing on his own expertise and his accomplished panel of students, Mr. Patel highlighted the growing ubiquity of the concept of “interfaith service,” paying special attention to the role of students in shaping that trajectory.

Among the many guests included Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Dr. Martha Kanter, Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education; Reverend Brenda Girton- Mitchell, Director of the Center for Faith-based Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Education; and Arne Duncan, Secretary of the Department of Education. Each professed their deep gratitude for the work being done in interfaith service and offered their optimistic thoughts about he future of such work.

Throughout the week, I was extremely lucky to meet a wide variety of participants that had travelled to Georgetown from places far and wide. Each of them had been drawn to the conference for different reasons, and I was struck by both their passion and enthusiasm for interfaith work. Every interreligious introduction, cross-cultural interaction, and interfaith discussion I had during the conference exemplified the invaluable worth of pluralistic dialogue in our global community.

While the conference as a whole was a great success, what resonated most with me is the message that the most important measure of achievement will come from turning the many discussions into active engagement and practical action. We all play a role—whether we are religious or not. And, as many pointed out, there is still a lot of work to be done in breaking down walls, and bridging divides. The conference provided us with the tools to make that happen, but more importantly, the many speakers empowered us to put those tools into action. Now more than ever I’m excited to see where my interfaith work at the Berkley Center takes me.

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Reflecting on the Second President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge