Elmhurst College’s tradition of interfaith cooperation and community service will shift into a higher gear this year with its participation in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a national program started by President Barack Obama.
By agreeing to participate in the Interfaith Challenge, the College plans to begin more service projects and integrate interfaith education to be more of an academic discipline as well as an extracurricular activity. Elmhurst joins an elite group of 250 colleges and universities that have accepted the President’s challenge. Next summer, the White House will recognize colleges that demonstrate the best examples of students coming together to help those in need.
Elmhurst will kick off the Interfaith Challenge on Sunday, September 11, with the Niebuhr Center’s third annual Partners for Peace event, a social justice program designed to offer service and address societal problems. This year, Elmhurst students will visit a church on Chicago’s West Side where they will distribute fresh produce, health kits and conduct health screenings. The event, “Healing Our Community,” also commemorates the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In his welcoming remarks to faculty and staff in August, President S. Alan Ray said participating in the challenge “serves our strategic goal of educating the whole student for life in a global society and of fostering student self-formation the first hallmark of the Elmhurst Experience.”
To increase awareness among students, discussion of interfaith engagement was included in this year’s orientation program for first-year students and is now woven into the First-Year Seminar program. In addition, Chaplain H. Scott Matheney will host monthly discussions for students and other participants in challenge events to reflect on their experiences. Ray will be a co-moderator of the first Chaplain’s Roundtable on September 26. Students also plan to create a web site to blog on their reflections and post videos.
Matheney said participating in the President’s challenge is in tune with the College’s core values of community, social responsibility, faith and stewardship.
“As a college, we believe our faith and our intellect are tied together and rooted not just in self- pleasure but in service that benefits society and changes people,” Matheney said. “We are looking for personal and collective transformation that will change society.”
Cooperation needed in a shrinking world
The Rev. Dr. Ronald Beauchamp, director of the Niebuhr Center, said the need for interfaith education and cooperation has increased as the world shrinks and the U.S. becomes a more diverse country that can no longer be viewed as just Christian.
“We have to prepare our students for the world,” Beauchamp said. “We have to educate our future leaders about other religious traditions and to respect them. The challenge from the President only enhanced what we’ve been doing at the College for years, and it has made us ask ourselves what more we can do.”
Matheney and Beauchamp both attended a special White House strategy meeting on August 3d with representatives of other participating colleges and universities to hear Obama administration officials discuss the importance of interfaith service and the priority of making an meaningful impact on communities with real needs.
Matheney and Beauchamp attended a White House strategy meeting on August 3 with representatives of other participating colleges and universities to hear Obama administration officials discuss the importance of interfaith service and the priority of making an meaningful impact on communities.
About 150 Elmhurst students are expected to participate in the September 11 Partners for Peace event at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. Students from The Dr. Dennis J. Patterson Center for the Health Professions, along with other volunteers, will conduct blood pressure and diabetes testing, dental and vision screening. They will also distribute health kits, as well as hundreds of pounds of fresh produce. There will be a performance by the Elmhurst College Jazz Band and a worship service commemorating those who died in the September 11 attacks.
This is the third consecutive year that Elmhurst students have visited a West Side church, but for the first time Muslim organizations from outside the College will participate. Students from the Islamic Foundation, a Muslim school in Villa Park, and members of an Albanian mosque will help provide the health screenings.
Elmhurst plans a multi-faith service project with DuPage County PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) in October to provide shelter for the homeless and an interfaith building project with the DuPage chapter of Habitat for Humanity in November. It will be the first time the DuPage Habitat organization has participated in an interfaith project. More events are planned for the fall and spring.
As part of the interfaith challenge, the Niebuhr Center is hosting a monthly Interfaith Forum for students this year with faculty facilitators of different faiths designed to provide a basic understanding of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). The purpose is to encourage students to explore their own faith traditions and those of others through selected readings and discussion.
Last year’s lecture series, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith, was intended to motivate students of different faiths, and those of no faith, to become engaged in community social service projects. Matheney said this year, the College is “moving our conversations on faith to the next level, with direct civic engagement and service to change U.S. society for the better.”