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Leaders, educators, and college students of interfaith and community service from across the nation and from countries throughout the world are gathered at Gallaudet University for the sixth annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative started by President Barack Obama in 2011.

This well-recognized event has arrived at Gallaudet through the efforts of Dr. Kirk VanGilder and his GSR 300: “Beyond Tolerance: Interfaith and Secular Engagement” students, who for the past several years have strived to make interfaith and community service part of the culture at Gallaudet by engaging the campus community in dialogue and conducting service related to religious and secular diversity.

Their efforts have brought recognition from the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization promoting respect for religious diversity and developing relationships among people of different backgrounds. IFYC founder Eboo Patel will speak at today’s morning plenary session.

“I never thought this event would happen at Gallaudet. Now, it finally has! I am thrilled to see it go through so smoothly,” said VanGilder.

Yesterday’s schedule included an opening plenary session, “Where Do We Go From Here: Creating Safe and Supportive Educational Environments in a Global Society,” featuring representatives from the White House, Peace Corps, and Georgetown University, along with welcoming opening remarks from Gallaudet University President Roberta J. Cordano and a performance from the Gallaudet Dance Company.

“Gallaudet is a microcosm of what we see in the rest of the world,” said Cordano. “We are very rich in diversity here. Our students are from different religious backgrounds and different cultural identities. Since the beginnings of this University, Gallaudet has recognized the importance of religious life and community service, and exploration in both…We are thrilled and honored to be hosting this event here today.”

In her comments, Cordano told the story of James Cloud, 1886 & G-1889, who was confirmed as an Episcopal pastor while at Gallaudet and went on to establish the All Souls Church for the Deaf in Philadelphia, providing spiritual guidance and support for the deaf community.

“James Cloud provided the spiritual service which was not provided by mainstream religious organizations,” said Cordano.

Following an armchair conversation between Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Peace Corps director, and Tina Tchen, Office of First Lady of the White House chief of staff, the Gallaudet Dance Company performed to the Bette Midler song, “The Wind Beneath Our Wings.”

The conversation between Hessler-Radelet and Tchen focused on Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, of which Tchen is heavily involved.

“The best way to disrupt a community is to block opportunities for girls,” said Tchen. “Girl’s education is the closest thing to a golden key we have for cultural change.”

Also speaking at the plenary were Melissa Rogers, White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships executive director; Zaki Albarziniji and Chanan Weissman, both associate directors of Public Engagement with the White House; Martha Kanter, College Promise director; Tom Banchoff, Global Engagement vice president and Berkley Center director at Georgetown University; and closing remarks were given by Anna Leach, Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, U.S. Department of Education.

A powerful and humorous moment ensued when Weissman and Albarziniji took the stage. The pair took a light and entertaining approach in tackling a serious point, symbolizing how Muslim and Jewish communities can collaborate harmoniously to overcome greater issues. Weissman echoed the words of George Washington, “The United States gives to bigotry no sanction, and to persecution no assistance.” This is the de facto credo of interfaith works and community engagement.

Albarziniji passionately emphasized the need for and power of positive narratives for Muslim-Americans. “We cannot let the angriest voices be the loudest ones people hear. I reject that notion,” said Albarziniji.

Breakout sessions were held throughout campus following the plenary; nearly 40 sessions are being offered during the two-day event.

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