Bay Area Forum Links Campus Interfaith and Community Service Groups

Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism Hosts DOE Advisor on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships  

Attendees at the forum discussed ways to collaborate.Saint Mary’s College of California’s Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism hosted Ken Bedell, senior advisor for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, on February 27 for the Bay Area Forum, a conference that brought together community service organizations, interfaith school faculty, and students to discuss how to coordinate interfaith community service with organizations outside of campuses.     

Along with Bedell, the forum also brought together faculty and students from UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, University of the Pacific and Santa Clara University, and representatives from community service organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the Ecumenical Hunger Program.  

SMC Professor Barbara McGraw, founder of the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism, and her interns, in conjunction with such campus organizations as the Residence Hall Association, Mission and Ministry Center, and the Intercultural Center, are organizing the Saint Mary’s leg on the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which promotes interaction among different religious faith and non-faith communities through community service. 

Ken BedellMcGraw said that when Bedell asked the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism to host a Bay Area Forum on “what it might look like if interfaith conversations did not just take place within the campus community, but if there was a connection between college campuses and community organizations,” she happily agreed. Inviting religious chaplains from as far as Stanford University, local clergy from as near as Lafayette and community service organization representatives, McGraw and Bedell saw the forum as an opportunity for different campuses to share successes and failures in organizing the lives of college students with the needs of service organizations and as a chance to forge new relationships between different schools. 

Six speakers described their involvement with interfaith community service both on and off college campuses. Rabbi Patricia Carlin Newman, the first Jewish chaplain at Stanford, said the spirit of current interfaith community service is best expressed by Protestant minister James Cohn, who described the civil rights movement as the “church going out into the world.” In this way, “students get to practice making a difference,” Newman noted. But compassion and activism are not all that is to be gained from interreligious community service, said Byron Blad, former chaplain and associate professor of  international conflict and negotiation at Stanford, who was also a featured speaker at the forum.

“We can talk about how we all believe in compassion and healing; the difficult question [that people of different faiths must ask each other] is what are you allowed to do with what you think is evil, and why do you think it is evil,” said Blad. Not only can interreligious dialogue strengthen ties between different religious groups, but trusting relationships can develop between the groups so they can discuss topics on which they fundamentally disagree. 

Students, faculty and community service organizers sat at roundtables and discussed their personal experiences working with service groups in need of volunteers and the interaction between various religious groups. As a result, connections between leaders, faculty and students were made, and new community service paths were forged. 

By Cabrilla McGinn

View  a photo gallery of the event.

Photos by Marissa Jaskot