WASHINGTON (ABP) – About 200 representatives from college, university and theology school campuses visited the White House Aug. 3 to kick off a year-long program of interfaith community service.
Announced in March, the President’s Interfaith and Community Campus Challenge invited institutions of higher learning to commit to a year of interfaith and community service programming on campus.
Led by the White House and supported by the Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the “interfaith service” initiative aims to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.
“This is truly a historic occasion,” Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said at the kick-off ceremony timed with the beginning of a new school year. “Never before in the history of our nation have colleges, universities, community colleges and theology schools come together around the goal of interfaith cooperation for service around the nation.”
White House officials said the response from institutions of higher learning exceeded their expectation. Not knowing how many schools would accept the challenge, administration officials said they would have considered 100 a success. So far, more than 240 have submitted interfaith-service proposals addressing needs ranging from human trafficking to feeding the hungry to going green.
Gardner-Webb University, a historically Baptist school in Boiling Springs, N.C., took the challenge by committing to continue and expand its partnership with the Cleveland County Potato Project, a local charity that grows white and sweet potatoes that are given to people in need.
Gardner-Webb also plans to work with the Cleveland County Interfaith Alliance to aid the homeless and team up with Rachel’s Challenge, a national outreach organization focusing on anti-violence and anti-bullying in middle and high schools.
“At Gardner-Webb we take community service in the broadest sense of the term — local, state, nationally and then worldwide,” said Tracy Jessup, vice president for Christian service and minister to the university. “I think this is an opportunity for other people to see that, and even though this is an interfaith campus challenge regarding community service, we can work along side people of different faiths without compromising our beliefs as a Christian university. We can recognize common goals in terms of helping those within our community.”
Other projects adopted by schools include disaster relief, assistance to military families and fostering economic opportunity.
“We have been very impressed by the creative and innovative approaches,” Robert Velasco, acting CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said in an Aug. 2 telephone press briefing.
Jessup said he first learned about the President’s Interfaith and Community Campus Challenge in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Later he saw a press release from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities that endorsed the initiative as “an excellent opportunity for Christ-centered colleges and universities to lead the way in implementing innovative and effective interfaith solutions to community problems.”
Gardner-Webb’s delegation to the White House kickoff event included President Frank Bonner, one of 32 institutional presidents or chancellors in attendance.
After the session at the White House, delegates moved to George Washington University for a day of events including opportunities for attendees to hear from one another.
“One of the biggest benefits we’ll get from this event is the sharing of ideas,” said Gardner-Webb delegate Stephanie Richey, coordinator for community engagement. “We will be able to hear and see what other colleges and universities are doing, and we’ll be able to share our resources with them too.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.