Not your typical government program: Students combine faith, service
(CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)
By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was essentially speaking to the choir Sept. 24 when he stressed the importance of service to a group of 400 college students, faculty members and representatives from interfaith organizations at Washington's Georgetown University.
The group, attending a two-day national conference highlighting the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, was from a handful of organizations and more than 130 colleges.
Participants had spent time on the Georgetown campus talking about service projects they have done, potential ones they could tackle and -- as usual with this effort -- how they are learning more about each other's religious beliefs. There were sessions on student leadership, education, poverty and human trafficking, and even a speed interfaith dialogue session.
The student groups represented the nearly 300 colleges and universities -- including 25 Catholic schools -- that are participating in the initiative sponsored by President Barack Obama and the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships through the U.S. Department of Education. The program, now in its third year, challenges schools to promote interfaith dialogue on campus and student involvement in community service.
Participating student groups watch can watch webinars on service project ideas and are required to fill out forms outlining their projects. Exemplary programs are honored by the White House.
Duncan, who spoke to the group during the closing celebration of the two-day gathering, urged them to "keep finding ways to give back" after they graduate.
He explained how service projects have been close to his heart since he was young and he and his siblings helped out at the after-school program his mother started in Chicago in 1961. Sue Duncan initially set out to teach a summer Bible study class to a group of nine children ages 8 to 10, but once she found out the girls couldn't read, she changed course and started an after-school program with tutoring and extracurricular activities.
(CNS photo/Lisa Helfert, courtesy Georgetown University)
Duncan (pictured at right) said the program, which currently has about 80 students, taught him that despite obstacles of poverty, violence in communities and family dysfunction, "children have amazing potential and want to do extraordinary things."
He told the group that its efforts were similar. He said the students' work in tutoring and rebuilding homes was "giving young people without advantages the chance to do something extraordinary."
"We owe you a debt of gratitude," he added.
Bill Basl, director of AmeriCorps, who also addressed the group, similarly emphasized the importance of helping those in need. He also honed in on what the interfaith service work is about.
"You learn to have courageous conversations," he said, while putting up Sheetrock, blue tarps or tutoring a child.
Student panelists spoke of collecting food for the homeless, preparing sandbags to prevent river flooding and taking part in a candlelight vigil after the burning of a mosque last summer in Joplin, Mo.
Sara Rahim, a Muslim student at St. Louis University, said service work is a natural foundation for interfaith student groups to build on since they all agree that something has to be done to help those in need. She also emphasized that working together with students from different faith traditions has "mobilized all of us to talk about faith in public life."
For those who might have misconceptions about interfaith efforts -- thinking it is either '"Kumbaya' or watered-down faith" -- she said on the contrary it stems from faith groups that already exist on campus who are simply working together.
For some students, the experience also has made them step out and act on their faith. Aamir Hussain, a Muslim senior at Georgetown, said when he was asked to lead a prayer at an interfaith event he initially felt unqualified, but then realized if he didn't do it, it wouldn't be done, so he turned to some modern technology -- the iQuran app -- and put something together.
For him, just being at a Jesuit university has made him look into his own faith more deeply and given him a deeper appreciation of it.
Kieran Holloran, a senior at Georgetown who became involved in the interfaith initiative on campus when it started during his sophomore year, has had a similar experience.
Holloran, a Catholic from West Chester, N.Y., who attended Xavier High School in Manhattan, said he had limited exposure to people of other faiths when he was growing up.
Now, he told Catholic News Service, he is in almost constant contact with people from other faith traditions and not just during campus-sponsored projects.
He said his emerging understanding of Muslim and Jewish traditions also has helped him "better understand what it means to be Catholic." He said he has seen how the Catholic faith differs from other religions "not in a bad way" but in a way that distinguishes it from other religious practices
Holloran, studying at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, said he does not view his interfaith experience as something just for college but as something that will always stay with him.
As he put it: "It affects and influences your core and impacts your faith."