The task was simple: talk to other people at your school.
The challenge: engage in a “positive” discussion with people about a religion other than your own or people who practice no religion.
In a nation founded with religious freedom as a central tenet, understanding the roots of one’s own faith and discussing it in a non-defensive or un-offensive way can be trying for many. Yet, it’s the goal of an emerging interfaith cooperation movement around academia, one that draws upon and expands the ideals and energy of past college generations that found commonality in purpose through their respective faiths.
“This country is so divided along religious lines, yet we are the most religiously diverse country on earth,” said Mary Ellen Giess, vice president of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on getting colleges across the nation—large, small, public, private—to make “interfaith cooperation” a norm on campuses.
There is “great [religious] intolerance” in America, said Giess, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We feel it’s a national priority to bridge the religious divide.”
Indeed, the decades-old religious divide in America—marked by debates over a range of issues from slavery to interracial marriage, the role of women in the church, abortion, same-sex marriage and military service—appears to have widened in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. Islam and its practitioners have joined the list of “fears” that drive wedges between otherwise reasonable people.
Answers in youth
IFYC feels it’s making some inroads in defusing some of the raw debate and getting more youth to take a different, more open-minded approach to religion and fold some community service into their efforts.
The IFYC was founded in 2001 with a $35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Founder and president Eboo Patel has since visited hundreds of campuses and championed the concept of institutions embracing interfaith cooperation as a regular part of their existence. He got a boost in 2009 when fellow Chicagoan and newly-elected President Barack Obama appointed Patel to Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
By early 2011, IFYC was working in partnership with the White House in launching the president’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative urging institutions to commit to a year of “interfaith cooperation and community service programming on campus.”
IFYC documents say more than 400 schools responded to the White House challenge with more than 270 submitting action plans that ranged from area outreach efforts across religious lines to community service programs that gathered food for the hungry and helped Habitat for Humanity build houses.
Boosting the effort
To energize the effort, the White House scheduled an August 2011 gathering during which people interested in the new challenge could participate to exchange ideas and get a pep talk. Much to the surprise of its organizers, more than 300 people, mostly from colleges and universities across the country, showed up for the gathering at the White House and nearby George Washington University.
Among the crowd were some 50 institution presidents and chancellors, a number of student leaders and, as hoped for, people from a wide spectrum of religious faiths as well as non-believers.
Students and staff from Morehouse College and a handful of other HBCUs were among those participating and fine-tuning plans to take action. The Morehouse group had heard Patel speak earlier, got the message and started an IFYC chapter of about 14 people.
“We realized we didn’t have a lot of religious diversity” at Morehouse, said Roy Craft, executive director of chapel relations at Morehouse’s Martin Luther King International Chapel. “Atlanta is this very diverse metropolitan area that has grown up very quickly. But, it’s still traditional Bible Belt,” he said.
Craft said Morehouse students decided to make greater efforts to engage more of the 65 colleges and universities in the Atlanta area. Starting with Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, both adjacent to the Morehouse campus, the students also sought to recruit students and faculty at Emory, Georgia State and Kennesaw State universities. Eventually, an annual service day was planned with students from all participating schools pooling their energies to work on a single community service project. A key part of the outreach was to be sure people of different faiths were included without making it an outright discussion.
“You don’t tell students ‘we’re going to get together and talk about interfaith cooperation,’” said Craft. “You get together and do some community service,” he said, noting the value of helping others facilitate a constructive discussion about religious differences. “When adults get out of the way, the students know what to do,” he said.
In addition to the social benefit of understanding and respecting unfamiliar religions, Craft said gaining that knowledge and respect is essential for today’s college student to succeed after college.
“No matter what field you go into, you are going to encounter people of different faiths,” Craft said, suggesting the IFYC movement can help today’s youth better embrace the oncoming globalization of world economies. “It’s one thing to go abroad and that’s good,” he said, hastening to add most people can’t afford to. “Almost everybody can do a community service project.”
The White House has indicated it plans to ask institutions of higher learning to participate in the interfaith and community service effort for another year. Howard University in Washington, D.C., is set to host the gathering in July.
“Young people are interacting across religious lines,” said Giess. “The question is, ‘Are we helping them do that in a positive way?’ The regular discourse is so conflict-ridden,” said Giess. “We’re trying to promote religious and non-religious tolerance of all kinds. Colleges have been levers to make cooperation a norm for multiculturalism and the social change movement. Our mission is to make interfaith cooperation a norm.”