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Eboo Patel

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The President's Campus Interfaith Initiative

Posted: 03/17/2011 7:20 pm

President Obama has made interfaith cooperation a priority from the beginning -- literally. In his inaugural address, he said:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

It has been a thread through several of his other speeches.

At the National Prayer breakfast in February 2009, he said: "The particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times."

And he mentioned it again a few months later at his much talked about speech in Cairo in June 2009: "Indeed, faith should bring us together. That is why we are forging service projects in America that bring together Christians, Muslims and Jews. Around the world, we can turn dialogue into interfaith service..."

I was part of the President's inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I will never forget the moment standing in the Oval Office with President Obama in which he emphasized the importance of interfaith service and the importance of young people leading it. The Inter-Religious Cooperation task force I was on drafted a recommendation to the President to scale and strengthen interfaith initiatives on college campuses.

That recommendation is now coming to life.

The President has issued a call to college presidents, faculty, staff -- and especially students -- to lead interfaith service initiatives on their campuses.

Called the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, it involves committing to a year of interfaith service initiatives. When you watch the President's video on this program, you get a sense of his personal passion for this work. After all, as a recent college graduate, he led interfaith initiatives on the South Side of Chicago, working with diverse faith groups to strengthen that hard hit community.

We feel it happening -- that rare moment when a grassroots movement intersects with a presidential priority. There has been great interfaith work happening on college and university campuses for many years, at places like Stanford, Princeton and Brown Universities and Wellesley College.

This movement has been growing in significant ways on campuses across the country, at new places like University of South Carolina, Berea College and University of Tampa.

This is our chance to take the precious work that has been happening in these niches and make it a social norm across campuses for a majority of students.

Historic moments like this remind me of the final line of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America: "More life, the great work begins."

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