The spiritual health of our nation is measured not by the absence of problems but by the vigor with which we address them. Though many have criticized the values and standards of American youth, there are trends that suggest many of them are leading the way by helping to build communities where even “the least of these” can thrive. In a recent New York Times article, Catherine Rampell states: “Defying the narcissism stereotype, community service among young people has exploded.” And much of this explosion comes from a deep concern with faith and interfaith dialogue.
In 2002, Eboo Patel, founded the Interfaith Youth Core, a national organization which brings together youth from every background to serve people in need. Their goal is to train and support young people who will lead the way towards interfaith cooperation. Then in 2011 Patel worked with President Obama to develop the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a program in which Rhodes College has been selected to participate. The U.S. Department Education states that “the Challenge invites college and university officials from across the country to take the initiative to bring together diverse religious groups on campus for a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming. The program challenges students and administrators to serve together on projects that strengthen their communities and unite people of diverse religious backgrounds.”
Under the leadership of Chaplain Walt Tennyson, Rhodes students in the Interfaith Challenge have partnered with MIFA in activities such as an interfaith dinner for MIFAST, before which students and faculty members fasted and donated the money they would have spent on food to MIFA’s Meals on Wheels program. They have also been involved in two artistic board-up projects with MIFA’s Handyman program, held an Interfaith Refugee Thanksgiving dinner at First Baptist Church, and engaged in dialogue about a Rhodes Theater department play, “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza.”
Statistics report in a 2006 USA Today article support the idea of an “explosion” in community service:
• 61% of 13- to 15-year-olds feel personally responsible for constructive social change; and
• Volunteer involvement by college students climbed 20% between 2002 and 2005.
Our country is becoming more robust because of the spiritual health of these young people, and their health does much to revive our own.