By Rev. Bud Heckman
AMERICAN ACADEMIC INTERFAITH GOES GLOBAL
President Obama welcomes 600 students and academics to his Fifth Challenge Gathering, two days of working together for a healthy interfaith culture.
The administration of President Barack Obama has generously fostered interfaith cooperation, especially through the inclusionary language of public speeches and gestures and the day-to-day work of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the 14 agencies with faith-based offices.
The recently renewed President’s Advisory Council (overseeing Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships), now headed by Jennifer Butler of Faith and Public Life; the recommendations of the former Interreligious Cooperation Task Force; and the consolidated and vastly enlarged Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department, all contribute to the ongoing success of the United States Government in its interface with religious and interreligious partners for our shared interest in the common good.
But practical efforts like the ongoing program partnership with the White House through its Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships represent the shining star. This was originally seeded by Interfaith Youth Core but now is owned by many organizations. More than 400 colleges and universities represented by three million students have become involved in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge Gathering, going into its fifth year.
This year’s attendance at the Challenge Gathering drew nearly 600 participants, greatly aided by the internationalizing effort to include 64 participants from 35 countries with special funding help from International Shinto Foundation and KAICIID Dialogue Centre and organizing assistance from Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and Hartford Seminary, as well as the El-Hibri Foundation, Howard University, and Georgetown University, which served as special meeting hosts.
International Higher Education Invited In
The new internationalizing effort of the Challenge Gathering was called the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum (IHEILF) and held on September 9, 2015. It then joined in with President Obama’s Fifth Challenge Gathering on September 10-11, 2015. It was designed to connect and advance models of interfaith understanding and cooperation globally in higher education institutions. It is a natural next stage of development in one of the President’s legacies, the Campus Challenge Gathering.
IHEILF convened three cohorts of leading international representatives who are advancing interfaith and community service in institutions of higher education for a process of mutual learning, including: a university cohort with Georgetown and college and university partnerships; a seminary cohort with Hartford Seminary and religious leadership formation or seminary partners; and a special multi-regional cohort with the State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program. They made presentations amidst the normally domestic-focused Fifth Challenge Gathering, including focusing on interfaith cooperation in regions of conflict and highlighting the role of reciprocal engagements with U.S. institutions, as two examples.
The goals of the Gathering and IHEILF were four-fold:
- Celebrate the accomplishments of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge and provide inspiration and resources to assist participating colleges and universities.
- Provide resources and encouragement to U.S. colleges and universities to include a global dimension to their programs of interfaith/community service.
- Share with education leaders from around the world the model of the Campus Challenge and to dialogue on models appropriate in other global contexts.
- Put interfaith/service work with students into the context of a post-9/11 world.
The Administration is looking for ways to further enhance the impact of the Challenge Gathering in 2016, the final year of the President’s second term, and asking participants to imagine together its long-term ownership and legacy of impact.
Go here for a moving personal story, “Embracing the ‘Other,’” about attending this year’s Challenge. It was written by Dr. Amineh Hoti, an academic from FC College in Lahore, Pakistan, one of the international guests at this year’s gathering. For a student’s response that dives deep into the subject of religion and the public sphere, go here for Shayna Solomon’s “Reconciling Public Religion and Difference through the President's Interfaith Service Campus Challenge.”