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UW–Madison to participate in White House interfaith, community service challenge

September 7, 2011

Rohany Nayan knows what it’s like to feel left out because of her faith.

But Nayan, who came to the U.S. from Malaysia in 1985, says being part of Islam is to be part of a bigger community, which is why she’s been active in interfaith activities wherever she lives.

“There have been times I’ve been excluded because I’m different from other people, or because of my faith or the way I talk. I don’t like that to happen to anyone,” says Nayan, graduate fellow with the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions (LISAR) and a doctoral student in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Through interfaith activities, “you learn to value people as people.”

Interfaith activities, along with community service, will take on a greater role at UW–Madison in the year ahead. Nearly two dozen campus units and registered student organizations across UW–Madison will join together to promote interfaith understanding and cooperation along with community service throughout this academic year.

The effort is part of an initiative sponsored by the White House — the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge — which calls on higher education institutions to provide a year’s worth of interfaith and community service programming on their campuses.

“UW–Madison has long benefited from a commitment to public service and student participation in a range of faith-based activities and organizations,” says Provost Paul M. DeLuca Jr. “Bringing these two pieces of campus life together enhances students’ educational experiences and promotes greater understanding of people of different religious backgrounds. These are lessons our students can take with them for a lifetime.”

It’s up to each school to decide what form those programs will take. Nayan and Nancy Mathews, director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and a professor in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, joined representatives from 300 universities across the country at a White House kickoff session in early August.

At UW–Madison, education, community service and social justice comprise the university’s effort, which is being coordinated by LISAR with major assistance from the Morgridge Center and the Multicultural Student Center (MSC).

UW–Madison’s participation in the challenge is important because students need an opportunity to engage in a discussion about religion and understand people of different faiths, says Charles Cohen, director of LISAR, who initiated and wrote the university’s proposal.

“For all of our talk about respecting diversity on campus, religious differences are never really factored in,” Cohen says. “Navigating religious pluralism is absolutely critical for civil society.”

One of the main messages at the kickoff event was that many of the world’s conflicts are focused around religious beliefs, Mathews says.

“To be globally competent and begin focusing their efforts and careers on the world’s most pressing issues, students must be aware of the difference in beliefs and cultural differences that relate back to fundamental religious beliefs,” she says. “When we as a university talk about cultural competencies, it cannot be in a vacuum without some introduction to what world religions are about and how they shape cultures.”

The variety and scope of offerings reflects UW–Madison’s status as a leading international research university because it uses existing infrastructure and programs to bring the initiative together.

“It was really important to find existing programs we could merge together or put a slightly different twist on to leverage what we have to address this call,” Mathews says. “It’s amazing how many things are already going on and in courses already being taught.”

The MSC had already planned to make “Faith or Justice: Ironies, Inequalities and Ideologies” its programming theme for the year as a way to prompt students to think about what inspires them to do social justice work and found it dovetailed with the interfaith initiative, says MSC director Donte Hilliard, who is also trained as an interfaith minister. Some of the projects the center will sponsor include a social justice art show featuring work with religious- and faith-based subject matter and a social justice involvement fair to promote volunteerism in such work.

“If you’re going to be doing social justice work — which is high and lofty — you need to understand what motivates you to do it,” he says. “There’s some high ideal that’s informing how you move in the world. Our job is to help people unpack that no matter what it is.”

One of the major pieces of the UW–Madison effort will be the involvement of Badger Volunteers through the Morgridge Center. This year, at least four volunteer groups will be designated as “interfaith teams,” and will include students with an interest in interfaith activities. The LISAR staff will lead the interfaith teams in structured reflection exercises to help them gain personal and theological insight into their experiences.

MSC will also sponsor a Social Justice Speaker and Trainer Series, to be kicked off by Parvez Sharma, filmmaker of “A Jihad for Love.” At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, in the Armory and Gymnasium (Red Gym), Sharma will offer a documentary filmmaking workshop for students and give a public talk on the intersections of faith and justice practice.

Among the other activities planned is “Love Your Neighbor Interfaith Day of Service,” sponsored by Pres House, a campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church, and Hillel, the campus center for UW–Madison’s Jewish students. The day will offer service opportunities not only to members of both religious communities, but to the wider campus and Madison communities.

The Wisconsin Union will offer a “reflection room” in the Memorial Union, to be open during the week, for use by UW–Madison students, faculty, staff and Union members looking for a place to do unstructured meditation and reflection.

Several courses will turn their attention to interfaith discussions as well.

Additional programming by LISAR, the Multicultural Student Center, the Morgridge Center and other organizations will be planned throughout the year.

For more details about the initiative and related events, visit this site