Interns Live Their Faith Through Public Service

By J. Edward Mendez
Religion News Service
Saturday, August 12, 2006

Maggie Machledt, a recent Hope College graduate, mops floors, does clerical work and cleans bedpans, and on a recent scorching afternoon she took some residents of Joseph's House to the National Zoo.

Through this work as an intern at the community-based hospice for formerly homeless people in Northwest Washington, she says she experiences God.

"It just feels really holy being with them at that time and just seeing where God meets them," Machledt said of the dying residents.

She and her five housemates at the "Bon House," named after anti-Nazi Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have year-long Washington internships through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps.

It is one of dozens of religious organizations that seasonally turn the District into a training camp for scores of college students and recent graduates. The internship programs, crossing religious and denominational lines, teach them how public service can be an expression of their faith. Many interns get to put their faith in action -- frequenting Capitol Hill to advocate for policy that's infused with religious values.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has three such interns it calls legislative assistants. Each commits two years to working on policies related to women's issues, civil rights and religious liberty, or international issues.

Meredith Schonfeld-Hicks, 23, the UUA legislative assistant working on women's issues, helped to organize an interfaith worship service with a coalition of national religious groups concerned with reproductive health issues on International Women's Day in March. They promoted legislation that would authorize money for voluntary family planning programs in developing countries.

The spiritual nourishment of these interns is crucial enough for the UUA that it hired a minister whose sole job is to provide them pastoral support.

"She helps us answer the tough religious questions like: Is there a God? What is human nature? What is the meaning of life? What happens when I die?" Schonfeld-Hicks said.

Forty students attended this summer's Washington Seminar of Brigham Young University, a Utah school affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Students attended a political science class on Fridays and interned the rest of the week for various public offices or nonprofits. Some interned on Capitol Hill for Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) or Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism had 35 students in its summer internship program. The interns took the course "History of the American Jewish Social Justice Experience" and were placed in various internships through the Jewish Coalition for Service, a national umbrella group of Jewish volunteer programs. They kept three for their own offices.

"Working here has helped me to get a better grasp on how obvious it is that Jewish values relate to everyday life," said Wes Peskin, a junior at the University of Rhode Island who interned at the Religious Action Center office.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company