When you think of Seattle University's distinguishing characteristics, interfaith dialogue and community service are right up there near the top of the list with academic excellence. So when Barack Obama launched the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge in 2011, SU seemed a logical participant, and over the past academic year the university proved itself more than up for the challenge.
Last week SU hosted a meeting with Joshua DuBois, head of the Obama Administration's Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which is spearheading the Interfaith Challenge. DuBois commended SU and the other Seattle-area universities represented at the meeting for helping to get the effort going. He said, "There is a growing understanding of the need for pluralism because of this challenge," and credited SU and the other participants with being "the central part of a movement that's happening across the country."
Erin Beary Andersenof Campus Ministry is pictured here with Joshua DuBois of the Obama administration during his visit to campus last week.
It was up to each participating college and university to devise an initiative that combines interfaith dialogue with service. SU chose to link its effort with the Youth Initiative by placing a group of students in a variety of yearlong service activities within the Bailey Gatzert neighborhood. About 30 students, including about a dozen "regulars," participated throughout the year, contributing an estimated 800 hours of service as tutors and mentors to the youth of the neighborhood. Once a month, the students gathered for reflection dinners at which they explored the connection between their service experiences and interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Speakers of various faith traditions were brought in to enrich the conversations.
SU's effort was led by the Office of Campus Ministry, particularly Erin Beary Andersen, associate director and multifaith minister, and intern Whitney Broetje, a recent graduate of the Student Development Administration program.
Asked to describe the program's impact, Beary Andersen said, "The President's Challenge has helped us elevate the university's ongoing commitment to interfaith dialogue. Students began to gain a language around faith and justice and began to articulate, either philosophically or theologically, the correlation between values and the service they were doing."
One of the participating students, Ada Rinne, affirms that. "Going into the President's Challenge, I expected to grow in my understanding of how different faith traditions approach issues of service and social justice. What I did not expect was a deepening of my own beliefs and convictions. The group provided a space for learning and reflection in which my own understanding of my values deepened and evolved.
"In discussing service in connection to faith, I found that the foundational university value of 'a faith that does justice' clicked in my own experience. My volunteer work and my faith life were no longer compartmentalized, but became deeply and inextricably connected. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to meet such a wonderful group of people with whom to reflect on these issues of service, social justice and religion."
Another participating student, Brooke Burns, says, "(T)he President's Interfaith Challenge really helped me understand that to truly engage with any community means sticking around, staying committed and being genuinely open to the new experience and new perspective that each community brings. As a result of my experiences this year, I feel challenged to return to the Gatzert community as a volunteer in the years to come."
Beary Andersen sees the initiative as having a wider benefit, too. Seattle University will continue the initiative next year. "We always intended for this to be a longterm commitment," Beary Andersen says. Having recently moved into the associate director role, Beary Andersen will hand the reins of the Interfaith Challenge to Rev. Tad Monroe who joins Campus Ministry staff this summer as ecumenical and multifaith minister. (Monroe comes to SU from Urban Grace in Tacoma, where he had been serving as pastor.)