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Front Line Faith

By Jon Reidel Article published November 5, 2003

Erica Hurwitz
Lecturer Erica Hurwitz has managed to overcome the challenging task of incorporating service-learning into her Religion in America course. (Photo: Adam Riesner/UVM Medical Photography)

Long before the September announcement by President Daniel Mark Fogel of the new Office for Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning, Religion Lecturer Erica Hurwitz was thinking of ways to incorporate elements of service-learning into her classes.

Having served as a faculty fellow in service-learning in the spring of 2003, that wouldn’t seem like a very difficult task for Hurwitz, or for other faculty familiar with the popular concept. But depending on one’s field of expertise, finding ways to include a service-learning component is more challenging than it might initially seem.

Try Hurwitz’s area of American religion for example. Given the contentious issues surrounding the use of religion in public education, on top of the already challenging charge of developing service-learning partnerships with community organizations, one could argue that Hurwitz faced the toughest challenge on campus.

“With all the legal mandates against it, I’m trying to be very careful not to step over the line by requiring students to do something that’s considered religious service as opposed to service-learning,” Hurwitz says.

Hurwitz came up with a project for her Religion in America course that sends students to area churches to find out what types of outreach programs they have in place to help local residents. From those visits, students compile a directory of services offered by each religious organization and give them to other religious outreach programs and the Vermont Department of Prevention, Assistance, Transition, and Health Access.

Hurwitz says she wants students to get a feel for “how religion works on the ground in America” and how the faith of individual church members intersects with their activism. The findings by students have varied greatly with some discovering churches that offer a wide range of community services, while others focus more on supporting causes in different parts of the world.

Faith and action
Seniors Nicole Buckland and Elizabeth Clifford went to St. Paul’s Cathedral on Cherry Street in Burlington. Buckland says she was given an extensive list of the different organizations the Episcopal Church supports financially or through volunteer work. She was surprised to hear about the many ways parishioners choose to show their faith through activism. One woman, for example, set up a fund for needy people to use coupons for gas or groceries. Another woman opened a religious bookstore in the church that offers literature from all faiths.

“I think they saw it as part of her faith,” Buckland says. “I can see how those services benefit people. My impression of St. Paul’s is that they really seem committed to finding the root of the cause of the problem and then finding ways to affect issues like hunger. Rather than just giving out food, they seem more concerned with finding ways to eradicate hunger.”

The second part of Hurwitz’ service-learning project has students interviewing members of faith communities and gathering stories that illustrate the connection in Burlington between faith and activism. These stories will eventually become part of the Vermont Folklife Archives in Middlebury. “Each project complements the other,” Hurwitz says. “One uses oral histories as service-learning, and the other helps people become more aware of services that are available to the public.”

Buckland says she’s always been aware that churches play a key role in providing services to communities, but had no idea to the extent.

“I don’t think people realize how big it really is,” Buckland says. “This project has made me realize that church outreach is a huge part of society. There are so many places that it crops up that people don’t realize. In no way did I feel like they pushed religion through their religious activism. Each person internalized religion differently and chose their own way to put it back into society.”