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As the White House launches a program to lend support to interfaith service initiatives on college campuses, the religious community at Penn is experimenting with its own interfaith program.

Last week, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships started the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, inviting colleges to commit to a year of interfaith collaboration programming.

According to College junior Maria Bellantoni, the chairwoman of Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters — Penn’s student-run interfaith group — the University already has a strong commitment to service and interfaith dialogue. PRISM intends to participate further in the President’s challenge through CHORDS, PRISM’s service program, she added.

The Office of the Chaplain — in conjunction with the Greenfield Intercultural Center — also launched a pilot program last month called, “I Believe: Faith, Service and Intercommunity Dialogue.”

Led by Associate Chaplain Stephen Kocher and associate director of the GIC Fatimah Muhammad, the program consists of a series of discussion-based classes that focus on interfaith community building, religious identity, diversity and spiritual practices.

While the program is still in its formative stages, Muhammad and Kocher hope that it will eventually become a credit-bearing course.

The program, Kocher said, seeks to create a safe environment for members to “share deeply” about their religious beliefs.

Essentially, “we’re looking to communicate and collaborate across differences,” he said.

“We’re really looking to deepen the understanding of what interfaith community building looks like,” Muhammad said. The program hopes to shift the campus from one that is “multifaith” to one that has a sense of community between religious groups, she added.

“It’s one thing to have interfaith dialogue, but its another thing to intentionally build communities with people who think differently than you do,” Kocher said.

Devoting an entire semester to this sort of dialogue as opposed to a single event or collaborative project, he added, will better serve to effectively create a sense of interfaith community.

Wharton junior and Vice President of the Muslim Student Association Faizan Khan agreed, stressing the importance of spending time with students from different religious backgrounds.

Last year, Khan participated in an interfaith service retreat to New Orleans.

After a week of shared experiences, “it makes it easier to start dialoguing about religion,” Khan said.

“You often share a lot more than you thought,” he said, adding that people can discover “common themes” with others previously thought unique to their own religious community.

Service is a great way to foster interfaith dialogue, Bellantoni said.

Most religions “tend to agree that service is good,” she said. “[It’s] a way to open the door to more sensitive topics.”

Bellantoni also said it was validating to see the White House acknowledge the importance of interfaith dialogue and service on college campuses, which is something PRISM is already a huge proponent of.

College is a really “formative” time for a lot of people, Bellantoni said. For many students, this may be the only time in their lives that they spend living in a “diverse environment.”

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