Faith 101: Interfaith Initiatives on Campuses around the Country Promote Religious Tolerance

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The task was simple: talk to other people at your school. [paragraph] The challenge: engage in a 'positive' discussion with people about a religion other than your own or people who practice no religion. In a nation founded with religious freedom as a central tenet, understanding the roots of one's own faith and discussing it in a non-defensive or unoffensive way can be trying for many. Yet, it's the goal of an emerging interfaith cooperation movement around academia, one that draws upon and expands the ideals and energy of past college generations that found commonality in purpose through their respective faiths.

"This country is so divided along religious lines, yet we are the most religiously diverse country on earth," said Mary Ellen Giess, vice president of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on getting colleges across the nation--large, small, public, private--to make "interfaith cooperation" a norm on campuses.

There is "great [religious] intolerance" in America, said Giess, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We feel it's a national priority to bridge the religious divide."

Indeed, the decades-old religious divide in America--marked by debates over a range of issues from slavery to interracial marriage, the role of women in the church, abortion, same-sex marriage and military service--appears to have widened in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. Islam and its practitioners have joined the list of "fears" that drive wedges between otherwise reasonable people.

Answers in youth

IFYC feels it's making some inroads in defusing some of the raw debate and getting more youth to take a different, more open-minded approach to religion and fold some community service into their efforts.

IFYC was founded in 2001 with a $35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Eboo Patel, IFYC's founder and president has since visited hundreds of campuses and championed the concept of institutions embracing interfaith cooperation as a regular part of their existence. He got a boost in 2009 when fellow Chicagoan and newly-elected President Barack Obama appointed Patel to Obama's inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

By early 2011, IFYC was working in partnership with the White House in launching the president's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative urging institutions to commit to a year of "interfaith cooperation and community service programming on campus."

IFYC documents say more than 400 schools responded to the White House challenge with more than 270 submitting action plans that ranged from area outreach efforts across religious lines to community service programs that gathered food for the hungry and helped Habitat for Humanity build houses.

Boosting the effort

To energize the effort, the White House scheduled an August 2011 gathering during which people interested in the new challenge could participate to exchange ideas and get a pep talk. Much to the surprise of the gathering's organizers, more than 300 people, mostly from colleges and universities across the country, showed up for the gathering at the White House and nearby George Washington University. …