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Tips for Interfaith Organizing on College Campuses

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Last month, I wrote about The Challenges of Interfaith Dialogue. However well-intentioned, interfaith dialogue will likely fail if the conversation is inappropriate for its audience, participants feel pressured to compromise their beliefs, and if some participants attempt to proselytize. Having recently graduated from Georgetown University, I have begun to reflect on my school's interfaith efforts. Although we usually avoid the aforementioned pitfalls, interfaith organizing in the college setting faces its own share of unique challenges. Here are some tips and strategies specifically for college and university students interested in promoting interfaith cooperation on their campuses.

1. Incorporate Community Service

College students quickly tire of "kumbaya" interfaith dialogues that highlight hackneyed religious similarities such as the Golden Rule. Since community service is a shared value among virtually all universities as well as religious and spiritual traditions, mobilizing diverse students towards a common service goal can be an excellent catalyst for interfaith work. The particular service goal can be tailored to each campus's unique needs; for example, at Georgetown, community service often focuses on combating hunger and expanding educational opportunity in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the concept of acting on common values is a critical component of the Interfaith Youth Core's highly-successful Better Together Campaign. Community service is also an excellent way to promote interfaith cooperation at campuses that largely avoid difficult religious discussions, or public schools that generally leave religion in the private sphere.

2. Think Outside the Box for Campus Support

Don't give up hope if your campus lacks any organized inter-religious engagement. It is likely that you have more existing support on campus than you think. Many universities have recently begun to recognize religion/spirituality as an important component of campus diversity; for this reason, you may be able to work through diversity affairs offices that exist in virtually all colleges. Other common campus areas that can support interfaith work are theology/religious studies departments, student religious communities, social justice organizations, and atheist/agnostic/secular student groups, and residential life.

3. Advice for Small and/or Relatively Homogeneous Colleges

Promoting interfaith cooperation can be difficult for campuses that lack religious diversity. In these cases, it is helpful to engage with the surrounding community. Large cities are very likely to have a myriad of diverse faith groups interested in engaging with others. However, being near a large city isn't a necessity. You may be near religiously-diverse refugee populations (common in some areas of the Midwest) a regional religious community (such as Mennonites), or even a large public university with a greater diversity of students. If none of these are an option, just be reasonable about your expectations. Colleges that are nearly 100 percent Christian can choose to focus on ecumenical work as an alternative to interfaith work. Ecumenical engagement often involves similar ideas and principles to interfaith dialogue and service.

4. How to Gain Support from the Administration

Admittedly, this can be difficult, especially for campuses with strong religious affiliations. In these cases, it is important to build personal relationships with administrators. Highlight your interfaith group's commitment to community service, and the value of creating a welcoming environment on campus for people of all beliefs. Also, you can search for something in your school's mission statement that promotes engaging with the religious other, or a general statement of support for diversity. For example, at Georgetown, the university's Jesuit heritage promotes "inter-religious understanding" and students being "women and men for others." Referencing these Jesuit values helps our interfaith group gain legitimacy in the eyes of our administration. In general, if even one or two administrators support you, they can become your ambassadors to other university staff and point you towards other resources.

5. Develop New Leaders

All campus organizations go through frequent changes, since students will graduate every four years. In some years, your interfaith group may have many dedicated members; in other years, you may have almost none. While these inconsistencies are virtually impossible to avoid, you can minimize the challenges by developing leaders in the freshman and sophomore classes. Build personal, mentoring relationships with underclassmen and show them your passion for interfaith engagement. During my first year at Georgetown, our interfaith group was composed of many graduating seniors. I doubted that I could continue their impressive legacy, but they encouraged me to take an active role in the organization and gain leadership experience. As a result, I found new confidence in my abilities and helped grow our club from just three to over twenty members in just a few semesters.

6. Be Persistent!

Colleges are natural breeding grounds for interfaith organizing, given our millennial generation's religious diversity and our widespread commitment to community service. The interfaith movement is gaining momentum and recognition around the nation. Even if you face challenges on your campus, persevere and remember that you are helping to make the United States a more accepting and more united country.