Christian colleges and universities were among the 195 higher education institutions represented Wednesday in Washington at the launch of President Obama's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

The White House initiative, first announced in March, aims to mobilize college students of various religious backgrounds for community service around the nation.

The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) said in a spring newsletter that the initiative provides a major incentive for Christian schools to demonstrate growth in the area of reconciliation and solve challenging community problems. The letter describes the initiative as both an "innovative government project" and an "excellent opportunity for Christian leadership." As of Wednesday, nine CCCU schools had signed on to participate in the interfaith service challenge: Bethel University, Bluefield College, Campbell University, George Fox University, Gordon College, Messiah College, North Park University, Trinity Christian College, and University of the Southwest.

Participants have been encouraged to submit service project plans that incorporate students from divergent religious backgrounds (the plans are to be implemented during the 2011-2012 school year). So far, nearly 250 institutions have submitted proposals for service projects ranging from daily community involvement to semiannual "service days." Exemplary projects will be recognized next summer at a White House gala.

Sarah Shady, the lead for interfaith service at Bethel University, said the school plans to expand on 20 years of connections with Muslims in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. "We will be sending student leaders to the neighborhood this fall to listen to community members and then plan several projects to meet their needs," she said. "Listening is a huge part of this initiative—actually, any kind of interreligious dialogue—especially when so many of the more established U.S. schools have operated unilaterally from a Western, Judeo-Christian service mindset in the past."

Joe Jones, provost at North Park University said his school plans to expand two existing campus-wide service opportunities to include people from different faith traditions. "The educated person of the 21st Century should have a good understanding of people of other faiths if we are called to love our neighbor and work for the common good," he said.

While acting unilaterally may bring service projects to fruition more quickly and comfortably, it doesn't challenge students to be reconcilers in society, said Susan Hasseler, service initiative lead and dean at Messiah College. "Sharing service opportunities with students at neighboring institutions will naturally expose Christian students to religious diversity and they will listen more carefully, articulate their own views more thoughtfully, find areas of common ground, and become more effective, reflective world-changers," Hasseler said.

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Hasseler said that in the coming year Messiah will promote three campus-wide community service days, add an inter-religious service component to select first-year seminar classes, and continue the dialogue that has been going on among Christian colleges for nearly a decade at the National Faith-Based Service-Learning Conference. But what is most notable about the White House program is that it "really brings the conversation about interreligious service to a national level for the first time, even though it has been occurring in all sorts of religious and even nonreligious communities for years," she said.

While the initiative does encourage cooperation between religions, it is by no means a pursuit of religious pluralism, said Shady.

"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. 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."

Joshua Dubois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said the project represents a surge of national interest in religious cooperation. "Never before in our nation have colleges, universities, community colleges and theology schools come together around the goal of interfaith cooperation for service around the nation," he said at the opening of the convention Wednesday morning.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, said the event is particularly important for religiously affiliated institutions. "We have the opportunity to show that faith can be an inspiration to service and a bridge for cooperation at a time when others see it as source of prejudice and a bomb of destruction," he said.

According to a White House press release, the initiative will, in addition to creating new opportunities for service, expand interreligious projects already underway at major institutions. The White House said higher education institutions "have often been at the forefront of solving our nation's greatest challenges" and will continue to offer essential resources for meeting community needs. In addition to the White House, the Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service will also sponsor the program.

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Related Elsewhere:

The White House has more information at its Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge site.

More articles on education and other religions are available on our topic pages.