The White House recently recognized Elmhurst College for the powerful ways in which it used community service, education and discussion to foster interfaith understanding as part of a nationwide campaign.
A delegation from Elmhurst flew to Washington, D.C., last month to join several hundred other college presidents, administrators, chaplains, students and others at a conference that celebrated the first year of President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which was initiated last fall to promote cooperation among faiths.
At the conference, White House officials described participation in the inaugural Challenge as tremendous, with 270 colleges and universities across the country taking part. During his opening remarks, Interfaith Youth Core founder and President Eboo Patel “named Elmhurst among a few colleges that were major contributors toward making the year so successful,” said Elmhurst College Chaplain H. Scott Matheney, who attended the gathering with the Rev. Ron Beauchamp, director of the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action, and Spiritual Life Council President Colin Ashwood.
Since his inauguration, President Obama has emphasized interfaith cooperation and service as important ways to build understanding among communities and contribute to the common good. For the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, he called on colleges and universities to commit to advancing interfaith and community service initiatives during the 2011-2012 academic year.
Elmhurst answered the Challenge by bringing together Elmhurst students, faculty and staff, as well as students, leaders and community members from area religious and interfaith organizations, to undertake a number of large and small projects. These ranged from sharing free health screenings, fresh produce and prayer with residents of Chicago’s struggling West Side during the Partners for Peace event, to helping Habitat for Humanity build homes for low-income families in the suburbs.
At the D.C. conference, participants learned not only about how other schools took up the Challenge, but also how they could more effectively advance interfaith work going forward. Elmhurst College contributed meaningfully to the event.
Matheney spoke on a panel that discussed best practices for implementing interfaith service projects. He described how the College’s projects came together, as well as how participants then would share and reflect on their experiences during monthly Chaplain’s Roundtable Dinners, which were open to the entire campus community. The dinners drew faculty, staff and students from a variety of faiths and from none.
During his remarks at the end of the conference, Joshua DuBois, special assistant to President Obama, praised Elmhurst student and interfaith intern Kaiser Aslam. Aslam led Elmhurst’s Muslim student organization and helped to manage an interfaith website during the President’s Challenge projects, while also traveling the country extensively as national coordinator of Young Muslims, a nationwide network of Islamic youth groups.
“Our campus was very well represented,” said Beauchamp, who said other attendees were eager to learn more about the work of the Niebuhr Center and the Partners for Peace event. “It was very encouraging,” he said. “I came home feeling like we were ahead of the curve in terms of the work we’re doing. The Challenge enhanced that work because it got the College to raise the bar, to reach out further and with greater purpose.”
In addition to the Partners for Peace and Habitat for Humanity projects, the College engaged the community at large in interfaith issues through its highly regarded religious lecture series. Last year’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Lecture, Abraham Joshua Heschel Lecture, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali Lecture, Holocaust Guestship and Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life saw record attendance, with several thousand people from all over the Chicago area coming to campus to hear prominent religious scholars and public intellectuals speak on issues ranging from “Religion, Democracy and Civic Engagement” to “Islam and Peace Today.”
For the campus community, the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action held a series of Interfaith Forums— monthly luncheon discussions designed to provide a basic understanding of the Abrahamic faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Topics included “Doctrine of God,” “Revelation and Prophecy” and “My Religion in a Multi-Religious World.” These presentations were followed by small-group discussions hosted by the student-led Spiritual Life Council.
As a culminating event for the Challenge, in May the Niebuhr Center held an Interfaith Symposium that explored how interfaith cooperation can be advanced on campus, regionally and globally. In addition to the campus community, the leaders of nearly 100 Chicago-area seminaries, religious schools and places of worship were invited to attend. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, president of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago, reminded the crowd why the President’s Challenge, and all that it inspired, matters. “Interreligious dialogue is about taking this huge opportunity we have to come together and work for justice and peace,” he said. “Acting together, religious organizations can have all the say in the world.”
Matheney agreed, noting that by participating in the Challenge, “we have a joined an elite league of 270 colleges and universities in the nation that are using the building blocks of our faith, in many traditions, to build bridges across lines of division and to nurture our college communities to serve the common good.”