President’s Interfaith & Community Service Challenge

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight.

The theme of this week’s Interfaith Insight is simple, yet powerful. Those words—“simple, yet powerful”—were repeated throughout the President’s Interfaith & Community Service Campus Challenge Fall Gathering, held in Washington DC for the past two days. Interfaith service, they said, is simple, yet powerful.

I attended on behalf of Kaufman to explore what we could do with the nation-wide challenge for campuses to not only engage in service with their communities, but also engage with the diversity of faiths their communities represent. The Challenge is entering into its third year, and hundreds of campuses across the country are taking part. Universities and colleges commit to one community issue, like poverty, education, sustainable energy, or healthcare. Then the administrations of the schools work closely with students to create opportunities that include community service as well as reflection and interfaith dialogue. This interfaith and community service initiative is one way the US is leading the world by proving that those of varied ideologies can not only get along, but help communities thrive.

A few lessons from the conference highlighted the necessity and value of interfaith service.

First, America is the most religiously diverse country in the world. With that diversity, Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core reminded us that without effort and direction, differences could lead to cultural bubbles, barriers, or even bombs. If we’re intentional about embracing that diversity though, we will build bridges.

Secondly, as our Jewish friends celebrated Sukkah over this past weekend, Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann from Stanford University taught us why the structure is built not with solid, concrete walls, but instead with sticks and flimsy structures that leave it exposed to the world. She said the nature of the Sukkot is not to achieve peace and serenity by closing yourselves off to the world, but by being open to it and what that vision from openness can teach you.

Finally, Reverend Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Department of Education and host of the conference, highlighted the service of beingrather than the service of doing. She told a story of a young boy at church. Week after week, as much as he wanted to give to the donation basket, he had nothing to give. Until one week when he grabbed the basket, ran into the middle of the aisle, set it down, and stepped into it. The young boy said, “All I have to give is me.”

Grand Rapids, I think, can be as generous and committed as this young boy was toward serving those around you. It can start this weekend, with the first of four Interfaith Service Days hosted by Habitat for Humanity of Kent County (more info. in the link on the top-left), or at the follow-up panel on Thursday, Oct. 3 about Faith & Sustainability.

The simple, yet powerful stories and best practices I heard the past few days have made me confident that interfaith service is a simple, yet powerful way of continuing Grand Rapids’ interfaith commitment.

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My Introduction to Kaufman Interfaith Institute

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight.

It is with great pleasure to introduce myself to the Kaufman community. My name is Katie Gordon, and I will be filling the role as the Program Manager. As a graduate of Alma College, where I studied Religious Studies and Political Science, and as a former intern for the institute, I’m very excited to work toward increasing interfaith understanding in Grand Rapids and beyond.

I want to first introduce my own “interfaith story”, which stems from two trips abroad.

First, a volunteer trip to India introduced me to the transcendent beauty and significance of religion in our world. Trips to small Hindu temples in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist Temple in McLoed Ganj, the Baha’is Lotus Temple in Delhi, The Golden Temple of Sikhism in Amritsar, and Islam’s Jama Masjid in Delhi, showed me how intertwined religion is with culture and society. A sense of spirituality is omnipresent in that region of the world, and I began to see that religion is a force, both personally and socially, that cannot be separated from our current affairs.

The next year, I took a class on the History of Human Rights, a course where we traveled throughout Western Europe for one month. I once again saw how intertwined religion and history could be, not only in the holocaust of Jews and minorities, but also in the story of Andre Trocmé, a pastor from the remote French town of Le Chambon, who led his congregation to help save over 5,000 child refugees from the war (similar to the story in the upcoming GVSU presentation of Kindertransport). Religion has been a source for conflict, but has also been a positive influence toward peace. Faith is not only the beautiful temples and churches we see across the world; faith is a tool that can bring those people across the world together.

This is where my interfaith comes in. I found that I could remain engaged with these world religions by doing interfaith work. I planned guest speakers on the world faiths, I worked on committees like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Model United Nations, and I organized an Interfaith Alternative Break to Grand Rapids. Interfaith became more than an activity for me. It became a way of life.

This “way of life” is why I am so excited to continue interfaith efforts in our little part of the world, and is how I’d like to conclude this inform.

I recently read an article from the Washington Post on the changing religious landscape of the interfaith field. The writer, Michelle Boorstein, suggests that “…more than doing interfaith, many Americans are living interfaith.” In other words, our communities have become so diverse that we engage with those of other beliefs than ourselves on a daily basis. Grand Rapids is no exception. In fact, Grand Rapids’ diversity is particularly great, with a variety of churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, and much more. On the Interfaith Alternative Break that I led with Alma College, we had the privilege of learning from this community. Their openness to our curious minds and our challenging questions showed me what a unique thing Grand Rapids has going.

Last year with the 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding, the community hosted well over 300 interfaith events. Even with the official “Year” passed, the community has continued to plan many interfaith events. Grand Rapids has made interfaith a way of life.

Thank you for welcoming me into this incredible interfaith city. I look forward to working with the faith, non-faith, and inter-faith communities of West Michigan to see how far we can go with this idea that faith is both a tremendous human resource and treasure.