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Waiting for Obama: CIRCLE goes to the White House

Whte House

by Jennifer Peace, managing director, Center for Interreligious Leadership Education (CIRCLE)

Jennifer Peace

Along with CIRCLE Co-Directors Prof. Gregory Mobley of Andover Newton and Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College, Jennifer Peace (left, at the White House) was invited to share ideas at a half-day interfaith conference at the White House on June 7.

The conference brought together 120 religious leaders, students, educators, and administrators from across the country and across the religious spectrum.

The meeting focused on strategies for promoting interfaith cooperation on college, university and seminary campuses, a policy goal of the Obama Administration. But there were a few snags getting in the gates, as Dr. Peace relates below.

Stopped at the Gates

June 7, 2010: I was pulled out of line just as I was about to enter through the Southwest Appointment Gate of the White House.

“I knew it!” I thought to myself. “I knew I would come all the way to DC for an interfaith gathering and somehow miss the opportunity to get in the door!”

If you ever find yourself in this situation, let me just tell you, it is useless to argue with White House guards. “You’re not in the system,” they patiently repeated as I tried, with increasing frustration, to convince them that I had an invitation.

A conference on interfaith cooperation on campus

My colleagues Rabbi Or Rose and Rev. Greg Mobley were safely waiting on the other side of the security gate. We had traveled together from Boston to attend a half-day conference about interfaith cooperation on campuses.

Convened by the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, this was a rare opportunity to raise the profile of the programs we ran through the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) at Andover Newton and Hebrew College.

The head of the Faith-based council, Josh DuBois, would be listening to us, taking notes, and potentially passing on suggestions to the President during one of his regular briefings.

Interfaith on the sidewalk

As I started to imagine spending my day sight-seeing rather than trying to get the ear of the President, I looked around at the other renegades who had been stopped at the gate.

Stranded with me was a Hindu engineer from Duke, a Christian chaplin from the University of Pennsylvania, a young Muslim woman from the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in Chicago (she was one of the event organizers who sent a steady stream of text messages to help secure our passage), and a Jewish director of Hillel from Harvard.

Heck, we could have the conference right here on the sidewalk we decided as we each mentally rummaged through our political past to see if we could find some rational for our current status.

Hope in the words of the President

President Obama

We were all here in the hope that the inaugural words of our President were not idle rhetoric but a faithful pledge to promote bridge-building across religious boundaries rather than allowing old stereotypes to go unchallenged.

Obama stood before the nation and said, “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”

He could have been speaking about this cheerful crew waiting patiently on his doorstep.

Why we were there

We were here because we hoped that this might be a “kairos moment” for interfaith understanding and cooperation in the US - A moment to redouble the effort of moving away from hostility or even shallow tolerance to an active appreciation for religious pluralism and Obama’s vision of the positive power of our patchwork heritage.

We were here to join with others from campuses across the country, who were interested in educating creative young leaders with a taste for service and for working together across differences to solve problems facing all our communities.

The path clears

Just as we began to imagine the outlines of our mini sidewalk conference, our clearance was granted and we were graciously ushered in to take our place among the assembled students, deans, religious leaders, non-believers, activists, administrators and idealists.

I realized that regardless of the presentations, brainstorming, networking, or strategic planning, that might follow, the real power of this gathering was not what we might do together here but the fact that we were gathering here with the blessing of the White House. Not idle rhetoric, this day was a living testament to the strength that comes from embracing the remarkable diversity Obama held up to us to admire.

Inside the conference

To read about what happened at the White House conference once we actually got inside, click here and read Stephen Prothero’s CNN blog.

Or click here to read the summary posted by the White house Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

To learn more about how you can become involved in CIRCLE’s student programming and joint courses at Andover Newton and Hebrew College, visit our webpage or review the requirements for becoming a 2010-2011 CIRCLE Fellow.