The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge

The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge is to advance “interfaith cooperation and community service in higher education”. On March 17, 2011, President Obama issued a challenge to college campuses, hoping to bring religious groups together to work on community projects. His reasoning is that many social issues are addressed by religious groups already – feeding the hungry, providing low-cost daycare, sheltering the homeless – and that combining efforts can only bring positive change. To his credit, President Obama used all-inclusive language, not leaving out the non-believers in our midst. The press release of the Interfaith Challenge, including video, can be found here, and the details of the challenge, including guidelines and program requirements, can be found here (.pdf).

At the end of April, the Student Activities and Leadership Programs (SALP) adviser for the religious, international, and language clubs on campus was given a packet of information about this challenge – about three weeks before the proposal was due. In that time, she teamed up with the Campus Minister and assembled a small group of members from the campus religious organizations, and they decided that they would like to proceed with the challenge; they prepared a plan and submitted it.

The PSU plan’s focus is on sustainability – economic, environmental, and social. With that in mind, the SALP leadership is hoping to piggyback on efforts by the Student Leaders for Service (SLS), who organize community service projects on campus – Viking Days, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Earth Day are all days that SLS plans activities for, and these are activities which the Interfaith organizers are hoping to join.

We can debate the merits and drawbacks of the President choosing to call upon faith-based organizations to do the work that the government arguably should be doing; however, my focus is on the formation and execution of the plan here on campus, as well as concerns I have about this initiative as it relates to PSU.

I got involved in this merely by chance. One morning early in Summer Term, I bumped into the Director of SALP in Smith near Starbucks. She gave me a heads-up that there was an interfaith group thing going on, and wanted to make sure that the non-religious didn’t get overlooked. A few emails later, and Ben and I were in her office learning more.

There was a pretty good cross-section of religious (and other miscellaneous) organization representatives in the first meeting. There were members from SLS; the Muslim Student Association; the Jewish Student Association; the UAE Student Group; the Society for Classical Languages, Literature and Culture; and an unaffiliated Buddhist student who has been involved with the running of the Quiet Meditation and Prayer Lounge. Two off-campus advisers for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Campus Minister from the Spiritual Life Center, a representative from St. James Lutheran Church on the Park Blocks, and another representative from local churches were all in attendance – interestingly, no students from Christian groups were there at all.

Overall, while I would hesitate to say that the meeting was a waste of time, I am honestly not sure precisely what we accomplished. We are going to seek out no more than three individuals from each faith/tradition/whatever to be on the “board”; that is, organizing the Interfaith thingy — (temporarily) officially, “Interfaith Service Committee”. However, we want to cap the total at 20 individuals for these positions — I’m not sure how many faiths are represented on campus, but to gather up to three individuals from all of them seems like it would mean more than 20 representatives. From here, we’re going to work on marketing, work on social media, and work on getting the word out.

When Ben and I sat in the advisers office, getting a feel for what it was she was trying to do, we had a bit of a discussion about the word “spiritual” and how it theoretically applies to nonbelievers. I think she was hoping to get our tacit approval that the word is all-encompassing and doesn’t exclude us. While I don’t remember the conversation word-for-word, I think Ben and I were in agreement that it was a word that necessarily excludes us, because it’s relying on belief in the intangible that many of us just don’t have. While we were not willing to speak for all atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, etc., I think it’s fair to say that a good portion of non-spiritual people would laugh at the contradiction. And I can’t help but reflect on this post by Ophelia Benson, back when this challenge was first laid out:

Well, just for one thing, it can’t be. An Interfaith Challenge offered by an Interfaith Office can’t be fully open to and inclusive of atheists. It rejects atheists in the very language it uses. We shouldn’t be pretending it doesn’t. We shouldn’t be pretending there is nothing exclusive or particularist or antisecular about faith-based offices and faith-based challenges in and from a branch of government. I don’t feel included in Obama’s challenge. On the contrary; I feel very pointedly and explicitly not included.

I highly recommend reading the full post – she’s far more eloquent than I am. In any case, I rather felt like that at the meeting: everyone was so careful to say “people of faith and no faith”, as explicitly and pointedly as they could. There was no outright hostility, but there was a definite feeling that I was an inconvenience. Especially since I kept bringing up issues they were hoping to gloss over, such as the idea of holding meetings in different places of worship being bandied about. Having had a fair deal of experience with churches, temples, and synagogues, I expressed my concern that there may be issues with etiquette, and I know for myself I would be uncomfortable meeting in these places to address on-campus programs. They’ll continue to be held in the Spiritual Life Center for now. Make of that what you will.

So! If you have any feedback, concerns you’d like me to bring up, or would like to get involved, let us know!


The Atheist-Agnostic Student Group Goals

Atheist-Agnostic Students is a student group at Portland State University. This group has four goals:

1. Break down the stereotypes surrounding atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other non-religious peoples, focusing on their positive content instead.
2. Raise awareness and advocate for non-religious students at PSU.
3. Promote critical thinking and questioning on campus.
4. Build a support structure and community for non-religious students.

This group is not an anti-religious, an anti-semitic or a hate group of any kind. It is not the intent of this group to ‘destroy peoples’ faiths’ or convert anyone, but we are not afraid to ask challenging and critical questions about beliefs and values.

People of all faiths, beliefs and backgrounds are welcome and encouraged to attend our events.