Hoya Paxa

Sandals and Saris: Fitting in at the President's Interfaith and Community Challenge

It’s always a bit difficult to walk into a room of suits with sandals on.
There I was, standing in The George Washington University, wearing jeans, an untucked button down, and my worn pair of Birkenstocks in a crowd of well-dressed professionals, young and old. The occasion? The Fourth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge (PIFCSC).

When President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, he immediately began work to highlight the importance of interfaith dialogue in bringing about interpersonal understanding and the common good. Furthermore, the benefits of this understanding were not limited to religious sectors, but were also felt in the field of education. So, through the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the administration launched the PIFCSC to the connect students, faculty, and staff of various universities working on  interfaith issues to other people doing similar work in their communities.

Needless to say, I didn’t feel much like a legitimate part of this remarkable gathering. Though my last few months with the Berkley Center have been filled with various interfaith encounters and intense research on interfaith work, I still feel that my actual experience organizing and doing interfaith service has been incredibly limited.

I entered the initial plenary session, titled “Power of Interfaith Work,” surrounded by true leaders in the field. The panel was filled with lifelong leaders in the field, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists. Even those who surrounded me in the audience, including a group of students from Georgia fighting intolerance in their community, were far more impressive than I could ever hope to be.

I sunk into my seat, a little discouraged, wondering what I could possibly contribute to the discussion and work of these great minds, wondering whether I even belonged in this room of interfaith superstars. But of course, that all changed as soon as they started talking.

You see, the unique thing about interfaith work, is that regardless of your level of experience, regardless of your level of understanding, you have something unique inside of you to contribute. As my friend Trishla Jain, a current senior in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, put it while seated in the center of a panel of adults 10 and 20 years her senior, interfaith service is something incredibly natural and enriching to the human experience, which only requires your willingness to invest yourself to reap its benefits.

Each panelist, including politicians, professors, directors, and CEOs, emphasized this same point. As long as we are willing to hear the voices of those around us and share the voice that lies within us, we are a valuable addition to any Interfaith encounter. It doesn’t matter whether we’re wearing a suit, a hijab, or even a simple pair of sandals.

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