As I mentioned in a previous post, I am taking the Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Engagement ExCo taught by Rev. Greg McGonigle, head of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. I almost didn't take it, but I'm very glad that I did; it's been enlightening in a number of ways, and it's gotten me engaged in community service in a way I haven't been before.
For the first three years here, I thought I was too busy for volunteer work or had too awkward a schedule to fit it in. Some semesters, this was true--for most of sophomore year, my day was full of awkward twenty- or forty-minute blocks, barely long enough to work on homework but too short to just pass by making my usual rounds on the Internet (e-mail, Facebook, check webcomics, etc.). Classes and work were just spaced awkwardly. I had time, just not nice long blocks of it. But other years, I now realize, I would have had time; I was being compulsive about Leaving Enough Time For Work, which is usually good, but work can be done in compressed periods of time if you're busy enough. Betty Friedan mentioned this in reference to housecleaning in The Feminine Mystique, actually. But anyway, over the summer I started volunteering at the Ginko Gallery, cleaning litter boxes, sweeping the kittens' play area, changing their bedding, washing their food and water bowls, and feeding them nearly every day. I discovered that I really enjoy it--I like cats, and I like being useful, and I do in fact usually have the time. Now that classes have started, I'm only doing it two or three times a week, when I don't have to go to a class, but I'm also volunteering at Oberlin Community Services twice a week, as part of my Practicum in Sociology.
But that kind of community service is a little different from what we're doing in the ExCo--all I have to do is show up. The ExCo is actually organizing things. We're doing three events this semester: an Interfaith Day of Service, a multifaith Thanksgiving service, and some kind of panel discussion on religion/spirituality at Oberlin at the end of the year. Each of us taking the class signed up to help with two of these events. I chose the panel discussion and the day of service. The latter takes place this Friday.
We've found a nonprofit called Stop Hunger Now and are using them as our vehicle, as it were, for intefaith community service. They get food (fairly locally to where it's packed, to minimize the carbon costs of transportation). Groups pay for the food, twenty-five cents per meal, and pack it; Stop Hunger Now ships it to places in need, in this case, schoolchildren in Haiti.
"Interfaith," in this case, means both among people of different religions and between people who are religious and those who aren't--an important factor to consider when dealing with Oberlin students. Obies tend to be less diverse spiritually than in other respects: most people here are secular, and those that aren't seem to experience some pressure, bafflement, or dismissive attitudes from the others. (That's what the panel discussion next month is going to be about.) We're a bit concerned that atheist/agnostic Obies might be put off by the "Interfaith" label, thinking it doesn't apply to them. It does! It does! We want to engage everyone in a discussion about shared values, why they care about helping people, what gives them the warm fuzzies, etc. You don't have to be religious to care about other people.
Our packing location is the Root Room on the second floor of Carnegie, the admissions/geology building. Hopefully, at 3:30 on Friday, a small army of volunteers will appear, ready to pack food, donate to pay for it, and discuss their shared values. (With luck, some will also bring canned goods to donate for local food needs at Oberlin Community Services--need has been steadily going up.) We should be finished by 5:30.
It's not just the ExCo running this, of course--there are students from the Interfaith Student Council involved, too, and in fact they seem to be doing most of the complicated organizing. However, I've kind of unofficially taken over the task of making sure that everybody knows about the event. It's been time-consuming, but kind of fun. I think that I could do well if I went into advertising--I like coming up with ways to catch people's attention.
Primarily, I've been postering, putting up quarter-sized fliers on the insides of bathroom stalls in nearly every dorm on campus and larger ones in stairwells in the academic buildings. We want people to be exposed to this a lot, so that it sinks into the collective awareness--hence the buildings--and we want a captive audience that has enough time to read about details--hence the inside of bathroom stalls. I feel accomplished: pretty much everyone who poops on campus should know about this thing now. Putting up that many posters takes a very long time, though; I would estimate I've spent at least six hours ducking in and out of bathrooms, trying hard not to look too sketchy.
You learn a lot about the campus doing that. For instance:
- There are seven or eight dorms with basically the same floor plan: Barnard, Zeke, French House, Spanish House, German House, Third World, and I think both Lord and Saunders (which are sort of one building, but not quite).
- French House has an empty double on the second floor that has been converted into a library. Stepping into it feels like stepping through time--not far, but into an autumn of my childhood. It's pleasantly musty-smelling, with a thin coating of dust and a shelf full of VHS tapes.
- There's a lounge somewhere in the Language Maze (Spanish House, German House, and Third World) that smells like my aunt and uncle's house in Edina did when I was little.
- Russian House is actually a converted house, not a dorm , with narrow staircases, a tiny kitchen, and a clean-but-musty smell somewhere between a hotel, a hospital, and an older person's house. (This also means that I have fulfilled one of my before-graduation goals, mentioned here.)
- Barnard has this undefinable (but not unpleasant) scent that I used to associate with freshman year, when I lived there, but now primarily makes me think of two of my friends, who lived there much longer than I did.
- South is darn near un-navigable. I could never tell where I'd already been .
- Fairchild basement has wonderful murals and graffiti. There are pictures on the Fairkid Tumblr.
- Barrows, despite its reputation as a bit of a hell-hole (read: freshman dorm that's not Kahn), has some really neat murals. Why won't they let North have murals?
My postering isn't just an excuse for sight-seeing around campus, though. In addition to spreading important information about where and when the actual event is (Friday! 3:30-5:30! Root Room in Carnegie! I know you current students read this!), there have been some fundraising events to advertise. There was a benefit concert in the house of one of the Interfaith Student Council members, which was wonderful: Obies are extremely talented musicians, whether they're doing covers (often of songs by other Obies, like Josh Ritter) or songs they wrote themselves about the life of an Oberlin student: "Well, I kissed a boy / and I kissed a girl / And I kissed a tree / and an albino squirrel / But I'm not sure who I am."
I need to do another round of postering today, because this Thursday, November 15th, there's going to be a fundraiser event in the 'Sco from ten PM to one in the morning. (Volunteering there will fulfill another of my pre-grad goals!) It should be great; there will be free pizza and Panty-Hoe$, DJs who I presume are very talented.
Check back next week for a report on the event itself. Hopefully we will have raised the full $2,500 required to pay for 10,000 meals; packed them all; gathered lots of canned food for OCS; and had enlightening discussions about what motivates people of various backgrounds to help others. I'll also give my take on Oberlin's religious diversity (or lack thereof). Stay tuned!