A Government and Economics major, Poonja first heard about the Interfaith Challenge while interning at the White House two years ago. Organized by the Obama administration, the challenge encourages universities to commit the 2011–12 academic year to interfaith community service. At Georgetown, the challenge is a joint effort by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Campus Ministry, and the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service. Poonja is one of several student leaders who are working to engage more students and programs on campus. Referring to the University’s ethos of “men and women for others,” Poonja noted, “A lot of it wasn’t reinventing the wheel, especially here.”
After interning at the White House, the U.S. State Department, and now Facebook, Poonja is interested in facilitating communication and collaboration. But it was a Theology course, “The Church in the 21st Century” taught by Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., that spurred Poonja to take part in the Interfaith Challenge. “If I hadn’t taken Father O’Brien’s class, I doubt I would have ever gotten involved in any of this,” he said.
Father O’Brien encouraged students to visit services of other faiths, taking the time to consider many religions and the role it plays in peoples’ lives. Poonja said, “I don’t think in everyday [life] we get to take the time to do that or to experience it.” He sees the Interfaith Challenge as a similar opportunity to “take all these initiatives that are happening [at Georgetown] and make sense of them together.”
Poonja believes that the focus of the challenge is not to discuss our differences, but to “allow people of different backgrounds to come together.” Poonja and the other student leaders are tapping into the student initiative at Georgetown to revamp and create new service projects. “I think there’s becoming a much larger network as we engage more groups. Putting those groups in a room together, you can come up with all these different ideas,” he said. Georgetown has held events throughout the fall semester, including interfaith roundtables, lectures, community service projects, and an essay contest.
Inspired by the spirit of the initiative, Poonja is working with the Corp to revive a Jesuit coffee hour. Previously, many of the Jesuits held office hours at an on-campus coffee shop to talk with students, and the Corp covered the cost. “Even though every door is open [in Campus Ministry], it’s not typical for a student to just walk in, especially if they don’t know someone,” he said.
He is striving to make a more comfortable environment for students who have not had the opportunity to take courses with some of the University’s Jesuit professors. He continued, “I’ve seen how much I’ve gotten out of the Jesuit education and having Jesuits in my classroom,” which has enhanced his “ability to reflect on bigger things.” With the help of Campus Ministry and the Corp, he hopes to restart the program early next semester.
Poonja is excited to see the initiative expand this spring. The Berkley Center will continue to host monthly roundtables and lectures, and Campus Ministry will also be hosting a retreat next March. One of the Alternative Spring Breaks may also focus on interfaith service. On January 21, 2012, Hoyas from all backgrounds will join together for a day of service in honor of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Students will work with local organizations at sites across Ward 7, the neighborhoods that span the eastern edge of Washington, DC.
“The challenge is going to disappear, but I think it [has] sparked a conversation,” Poonja said. He is confident that many of the projects will continue on campus, but he isn’t measuring success based on the longevity of the service initiatives. He believes that the challenge is successful, “if it becomes a part of our everyday life,” he explained.
For Poonja, his goal is to bring many different individuals together. The Interfaith Challenge is focused on community service, but he hopes that people will see the value of collaboration in both their personal and professional lives. He explained, “When real ideas get made, it’s never on your own.”
This article was written by Elizabeth Wilson and submitted by Georgetown College, a university partner in the President's Interfaith Challenge.