The White House initiative, first introduced in March 2011, is designed to mobilize college students of various religious backgrounds in community service around the nation. The program, according to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), also provides a major incentive for Christian schools to demonstrate reconciliation and solve challenging community problems.
“At Bluefield College, our Christ-centered mission enables us to take up the president’s challenge by reaching out to friends of different faiths who live in our community,” said Dr. Robert Shippey, vice president for academic affairs about BC’s invitation to join the president’s interfaith community service initiative. “There is an increasing awareness that we live in a world with little vision for how people in a pluralistic society can affirm their faith and yet still get along with others. Because of the authenticity of the story we have received in Christ, we have no option but to love all as God in Jesus loved us.”
Dr. Shippey was among the more than 300 college leaders, including representatives from 195 Christian colleges, invited to participate in a discussion of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge at the White House in August of this year. Designed to help launch the interfaith community service program, the discussion focused on the importance of individuals from different faiths working together to make positive impacts in their respective communities.
“This conversation was needed,” said Dr. Shippey about the White House gathering, “by those of faith about what it means to embrace fully one’s own faith tradition in a world of faith diversity. There was no funding provided. There was no big government with costly add-ons. There was simply a recognition that people of different faiths can come together to talk to each other, to learn from each other, and to work together for the common good.”
Participants of the program, like Bluefield College, have been challenged to implement service project plans in their respective communities that incorporate students from divergent religious backgrounds. Bluefield College will help organize in its local community periodic gatherings of people of different faiths to reflect on “who we are and how our own respective faiths can contribute to a more peaceful community,” said Dr. Shippey. The college will also participate in the building of a peace garden in the community where people of different faiths can gather. Exemplary projects will be recognized next summer at a White House gala.
“From evangelical, Catholic and mainline groups to Jewish organizations, Muslim and Hindu student gatherings and secular alliances, thousands of young people will be working together this school year to serve their communities,” said Joshua DuBois, special assistant to President Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “They don’t believe the same things, and they don’t have to, but they believe in making a difference for people in need.”
While the initiative does encourage cooperation between religions, it is by no means a pursuit of religious pluralism, said Sarah Shady, an interfaith service leader at Bethel University in Minnesota.
“The language of the White House has consistently reinforced that this project has nothing to do with theological pluralism, but simply shifting the religious orientation of many universities to an asset rather than a battlefront,” said Shady. “It’s really about using what almost all religions and even non-religious groups have in common — the knowledge that community service is a rich and vital experience — and standing together there.”