In early February of last year, I was standing in the Oval Office with President Obama and two dozen faith-based and secular leaders who were serving on the Advisory Council for the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It was my first time meeting the president, and needless to say I was somewhat at a loss for words.
Obama started talking about the importance of building bridges of interfaith cooperation through service between diverse faith communities—and I got a literal nudge in the ribs from my friend Jim Wallis. He whispered to me, “I think he’s talking about the interfaith youth movement, Eboo.” I realized it was time to speak up.
I said, “Mr. President, I run an organization called Interfaith Youth Core. Our interfaith leaders are doing just what you describe—building interfaith cooperation through service on college campuses and in communities across the country.” The president replied, “Let’s talk more. This work is important.” I didn’t realize it then, but this support was just the beginning.
Over the last year, I worked with the Interreligious Task Force on the Faith Council to produce a set of recommendations for the president, which we formally presented in early March. The interfaith movement got another big push when the report came out, as the recommendations—seen by the White House as a road map of sorts—include quantitative and ambitious measures for scaling up interfaith service on campuses and in cities.
Perhaps most exciting is the fact that recommendations are already being implemented. In May, per one recommendation, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation co-sponsored a half-day meeting that brought together more than 120 leading academics, university presidents, chaplains, foundations, and student service organizations from across the country.
And they were all there to discuss one thing: advancing interfaith service on college and university campuses.
There’s never a shortage of requests for the White House to support a cause—so people naturally have asked the question: why interfaith and why college campuses?
It is clear in his public addresses that Obama believes in the power of people of different faiths working together to create good in our nation and world. From Obama’s inaugural address, where he called out America’s “patchwork heritage” of religious diversity that strengthens our nation, to his analysis of service as common ground between religions at the National Prayer Breakfast, to the Cairo address—where he highlighted his administration’s active commitment to building bridges of service between faiths—he continues to offer his public support for this work.
There’s a similarly mul-tifaceted answer to the “why campuses” question. First and foremost, college campuses train the next generation of leaders; students who know how to build bridges between faith communities on campus will be able to translate that skill as they become leaders in various sectors of society. Second, campuses have the resources and opportunity to advance a body of knowledge that appreciates and engages religious diversity. This can counter the well-known “clash of civilizations” theory, which suggests religions are fated to fight, as well as the “new atheist” theory that all religions are harmful to individuals and society. Third, college campuses are social laboratories that can model what “good” looks like for the rest of society, demonstrating cooperation over conflict. Rattle off major social movements of the 20th century—environmentalism, civil rights, service and volunteering—and you’ll see they all started with the vanguard of college campuses leading the way.
Everyone in the room was thrilled that, at the conclusion of the meeting, the White House committed to bring together the group again in one year to report on the achievements. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Eboo Patel is founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.