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Interfaith, community service challenge lays groundwork for religious dialogue

May 25, 2012 By Stacy Forster

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s participation in a White House initiative to foster interfaith dialogue and service has built a solid foundation for an ongoing discussion on campus, organizers say.

The university this year was one of more than 250 schools across the country to take part in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a yearlong effort to prompt interfaith and community service programming on college campuses.

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Led by the Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions (LISAR), the Morgridge Center for Public Service and the Multicultural Student Center (MSC), nearly two dozen campus units and registered student organizations across UW–Madison joined together to promote the discussion.

Community service is linked to the dialogue about religion because serving others is a common thread between different faiths and offers a way for people of different backgrounds to have a positive experience together.

The project helped the university make initial gains in fostering interfaith dialogue, says Charles Cohen, professor of history and religious studies and director of LISAR, and the year was aimed at making the links between a range of campus organizations with an eye toward more concerted efforts down the road.

“Making religion a part of campus dialogue is a new enterprise, and initiating such a project on a campus this size required organizing disparate units that may not previously have been in much contact,” Cohen says. “The White House Challenge gave us a specific goal and created a focus that provided a sense of energy…we’ve taken stock of what the campus does, what it does not do and where we may go from here.”

To cap the year, the Lubar Institute brought Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based group working to build an interfaith youth movement through service, to campus to speak with students, faculty and staff at the end of April.

Prior to Patel’s visit, the university had offered a variety of activities tied to the challenge. The Multicultural Student Center explored the connections between faith and justice that culminated in a major symposium in March called “R3: Race, Religion and Representation.”

At the same time, the Morgridge Center coordinated six “interfaith teams” in its Badger Volunteers program, bringing students of different faiths together in community service. The LISAR staff led them in reflection exercises to offer personal and theological insight into their experiences.

“This was an excellent pilot year for the interfaith Badger Volunteer teams,” says Nancy Mathews, director of the Morgridge Center and a professor in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “We look forward to continuing these teams next fall and continuing to enrich the students’ experiences with this added dimension to their service work.”

There was also an academic component to the effort. One class tied to the challenge was Religious Studies 400: Basis for Dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims, offered by Ulrich Rosenhagen, faculty associate in religious studies and assistant director of LISAR.

“Twenty-first century America is very much an America of religious diversity,” Rosenhagen says. “It would be a missed opportunity if our university can’t provide the tools and knowledge for our students in the 21st century.”

Students in the class, some of whom didn’t know much about the White House Challenge when they signed up, spent half of the semester exploring religious dialogue between the faiths, then did a community service project with The Road Home, a Madison organization that helps homeless families.

Joshua Rae, a senior graduating with a degree in television and film, as well as a certificate in religious studies, signed up for the course to build on his Christian upbringing and learn more about Islam and Judaism. It taught him how important community service is for the three Abrahamic religions, and how it can give them an opportunity for interfaith dialogue, he says.

The class analyzed reasons someone might seek shelter, food or other service from a religious organization, and “interfaith dialogue has the potential to bring more people together to fight these disparities,” he says.

To sustain the progress made, Cohen says he’d not only like to see a greater discussion on campus about religion, but have it play a bigger role in the discourse on diversity.

“Many students do care about their faith, they just don’t think there are spaces to talk about it in public,” Cohen says

Damon Williams, UW–Madison’s chief diversity officer and vice provost for diversity and climate, agreed, saying Patel’s visit was relevant to discussions of diversity and inclusion in the 21st century.

“Faith is often a forgotten aspect of how we define diversity, but it should be part of that discussion, particularly as we work to create an inclusive environment, and critically as we look to expand research and scholarship into various faith-based communities and the social, economic and political dimensions of worship,” Williams says.

Mathews says she thinks the effort needs champions not only among the faculty and university administration, but among students, too.

“At a campus like ours,” she says, “the great ideas don’t always catch fire until there are students standing behind them.”