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Obama's Final Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge

500 Campuses Champion Interfaith

Obama's Final Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

“Are we laying bricks or building a cathedral?”

Eboo Patel’s question rang out in Elstad Auditorium on the final day of the Sixth Annual President’s Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge, held this year in September at Gallaudet University in Washington DC. Founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, and one of the principal architects of the Campus Challenge, Patel posed that key question to some 600 participants: students, professors, university presidents and interfaith activists from over 300 universities across America and abroad, including Jordan, Israel, Oman, England, Germany, Holland, and Kosovo.

Eboo Patel – Photo: Twitter

Eboo Patel – Photo: Twitter

This year’s conference, entitled “Where Do We Go from Here,” included 38 breakout sessions and multiple panelists and presenters.

With an interpreter signing nearby – provided by Gallaudet University, the world's only university with programs and services for the deaf and hard of hearing – Patel moderated one of the final sessions of the conference.

He began by sharing a story about three people who were occupied laying bricks.

“What are you doing?” a passerby asked the first worker. “I’m laying bricks,” he responded.

The second one said, “I’m building a wall.”

And the third one said: I’m building a cathedral.”

Building a cathedral in a democracy where people have deep disagreements and can make their ideas public is a huge challenge, Patel underscored. “It means you must have a vision of a society which includes views you are opposed to. The USA has proven to be the greatest experiment in building a healthy, religiously diverse democracy, the first country in the world to welcome people coming from all four corners of the earth, speaking different languages, representing diverse cultures, beliefs, and practices,” he said. “And all of you here today are the interfaith leaders laying the bricks for that cathedral – which is still not complete.”

Obama Champions Interfaith Academia

President Obama speaks about interfaith acts of service on hundreds of college and university campuses and his own involvement in the process. The video was taken in 2015.

President Obama created the Interfaith Campus Challenge six years ago, firmly believing that the college campuses – with their highly diverse student bodies – could cultivate the perfect environment to teach the value of developing a well-integrated and engaged society committed to community service. Since then 500 U.S. universities have been involved. Currently 12 percent of American college students who attend schools with more than 1,000 students are attending a participating school. This includes schools in 43 states, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. In 2015 the doors were opened to universities from abroad and now more than 45 countries have participated.

Partnering in this initiative are the U.S. Department of Education Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service

A workshop at this year's Campus Challenge. – Photo: Department of Education, FBNP

A workshop at this year's Campus Challenge. Photo: Department of Education, FBNP

Born in Hawaii to an African father and a white Christian mother, raised in the U.S. and Kenya and also schooled at an early age in Jakarta, Indonesia – primarily a Muslim country – Barrack Obama was keenly aware of the interfaith challenge America faced even before 9/11. A young lawyer fresh out of Harvard, Obama left a lucrative job to cut his teeth as a community-organizer among low-income Catholics and Presbyterians in Chicago while being mentored by the outspoken Jewish activist, Saul Alinsky.

Patel alluded to President Obama’s own interfaith journey in his opening remarks followed by a lively conversation with Varon Soni, Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, the first Hindu to serve as a dean of religion in America; Chris Stedman, executive director of the Yale Humanist Community at Yale; Andria Wisler, executive director of the Center of Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service at Georgetown University; and Rabbi Daniel Roth, from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Patel asked each of the panelists to identify the seminal event that led them to becoming an interfaith activist.

Andria Wisler – Photo: Georgetown University, ITEL

Andria Wisler – Photo: Georgetown University, ITEL

Andria Wisler, a professor and expert on inclusivity and cultural diversity, said her first significant interfaith experience occurred when she was 14 years old and attended a World Peace Camp in rural Maine with people from all over the world. Wisler, who also speaks German and Serbian, has been involved in multiple programs for social change in various parts of the world, including with farmers in Tanzania, youth in Turkmenistan, and teachers in Israel.

Varun Soni – Photo: University of Southern California

Varun Soni – Photo: University of Southern California

Varun Soni, a lawyer and film producer, expressed surprise at his own trajectory, which led to becoming Dean of Religion at USC. Born in India, Soni came to the U.S. with his Hindu parents in 1965, made possible by America’s important 1965 Immigration Act. His interfaith experience actually began by becoming an immigrant, he said, and he also studied briefly in a Buddhist monastery where he met H.H. the Dalai Lama. His greatest understanding of interfaith activism, however, came through stories his grandfather told him. His grandfather had grown up in India around Gandhi and witnessed the growth of Gandhi’s non-violent movement, which Soni also referred to as “an interfaith movement.”

Chris Steadman – Photo: Yale Humanists

Chris Steadman – Photo: Yale Humanists

Chris Stedman, who described himself to the audience as a “queer atheist,” grew up in a non-religious home and formally converted to Christianity at age 11. Known to be “unconventional” in his approach – immediately obvious from a red shoe on this right foot and a blue shoe on his left foot – Stedman shared that, when he was growing up, he found himself particularly drawn to Humanism. Today he is a popular cheerleader and ambassador for the non-religious community at the Yale campus, devoting his energies to helping humanists, atheists, and agnostics who need resources and support.

Rabbi Daniel Roth – Photo: g-dcast.com

Rabbi Daniel Roth – Photo: g-dcast.com

Rabbi Roth, who teaches Judaism and Conflict Resolution at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, shared an indelible memory from his early childhood that occurred the first week when he and his family arrived in Israel from New York. “That same week three people were stabbed and killed in Jerusalem,” he recalled. That was followed by a recurring dream that he had for years in which he approached a boy who was throwing stones to ask him why he was throwing the stones and to engage in dialogue with him. That dream eventually morphed into his present day involvement in interfaith dialogue and his ability “to understand two contradictory truths.” For Rabbi Roth, the goal is to build relationships first and then aim for dialogue.

Patel concluded by posing another question. “Imagine that you are in a family and one day you receive a letter from one of your ancestors saying, “You have inherited this house.” The only problem is that everyone in the world has received the same letter, he added. “Now, how are we going to all be able to live together in the World House if it belongs to all of us?”

That clearly remains as the 64 million dollar question, and one that the interfaith cathedral builders are striving to answer, as they continue to lay bricks, one by one.