President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge launches at Georgetown

The kickoff symposium luncheon for the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge took place today at 12:00 p.m. in Copley Formal Lounge, officially announcing and recognizing Georgetown as one of 278 universities nationwide that has heeded to Barack Obama’s call for American institutions of higher learning to devote their resources to promoting harmony and justice in their own communities and beyond.

The Challenge, as explained in its brochure, calls for universities to “commit to a year of interfaith and community service programming on campus.” And although its title specifically refers to tolerance and community between those with differing religious beliefs, the Georgetown community plans to focus its resources on, according to a brochure from the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, “combating domestic poverty and improving educational opportunity.”

“This issue [of education] is especially salient to us at Georgetown,” Aamir Hussain (COL ’14), a member of the Georgetown Challenge Student Task Force, said during his speech at the luncheon. “While the institutions of higher education are among the best in the nation, the public school system is one of the worst.”

The idea of education as a core component of community service as well as being closely related to interfaith understanding was one that was shared and discussed by most of the 7 guest speakers at the luncheon. Among them were two representatives from the Department of Education, Director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Reverend Brenda Girton-Mitchell and Methodist Minister and Senior Advisor of FBNP Ken Bedell.

In conjunction with its goals regarding interfaith dialogue and expansion of education, various groups and clubs around campus have signed on as partners for the Challenge, and many had representatives attending the luncheon. Among these groups are the education-based, such as D.C. Reads and GUMSHOE, the University’s only tutoring group focused on math and science, the service-oriented, such as Prison Outreach and GU Habitat for Humanity, and faith groups including the Knights of Columbus and the Jewish Student Association.

Thomas Banchoff, Director of the Berkley Center, highlighted in his speech that the key to creating a community of interfaith understanding is to find common ground in community service.

“If you look at it at a theological level, there are some real differences in the way people think about god or gods, or his or her, or their plan for humanity,” he said. “And so it’s important to move beyond that, to try and find a common ground, and ethics is kind of a bridge.” He went on to say that interfaith understanding and service is at the core of the University’s Jesuit heritage.

After the speakers were finished, the luncheon concluded with table discussions among those in attendance, including students, members of campus ministry, religious leaders of varying faiths, and representatives from the administration. Each attendee was given a sheet with “kick-off discussion questions” to aid participants, including such questions as “Why do you think that it is important to link interfaith dialogue and community service?”

With the program officially launching at Georgetown, the September calendar is already stacked with over a dozen events in conjunction with the University’s goals. These include a September 11 Interfaith Memorial Service on Healy Lawn, and the September installation of a Monthly Dialogue and Service Roundtable on September 27. In addition to these events, Bedell announced that a “secret” Facebook group and email listserv where participants can safely discuss their ideas are also in the works.

“[The Challenge] is an opportunity for us all to grow together and learn from each other,” he said.

Photo from the Challenge’s Facebook page.

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