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Interns Live Their Faith Through Public Service
Religious groups turn the District into a training camp for young people.

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.

At the United Methodists' General Board of Church and Society, the Ethnic Young Adult Summer Internship brought together nine students from the denomination's black, Hispanic, Asian American, Pacific Islander and Native American caucuses in Washington for the summer. They interned at social justice-oriented nonprofits and explored how intentional diversity can enhance their faith.

"Going to different Methodist churches with very different worship styles has truly [helped] me see, understand and embrace our cultural differences," Sade Young, 20, a summer intern from Los Angeles, said in a posting on the group's official blog.

Young said the program brought passion to her civic involvement.

"I've always believed in certain causes. But I would just talk about it," said Young, who interned at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Other Washington organizations with internships include the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States.

Many former interns enter career paths they see as expressions of their faith values.

"When I started looking into human rights, I was doing it in a very secular way," said Erick Veliz, who was in the Methodist program last year. "But I wondered how my activism fit my spiritual vision."

He is currently working at a nonprofit in Nashville that focuses on enforcing fair housing laws, and he volunteers as a national board member of the human rights group Amnesty International.

Megan Joiner was a legislative assistant with the Unitarian Universalist Association last year and will begin classes at Union Theological Seminary in New York City this fall.

"I know that I want to be in the pulpit, because I get to talk about the things that matter," Joiner said.

Kyle Sampson, the current chief of staff for U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, decided to pursue politics after his 1991 Brigham Young internship on Capitol Hill gave him his first close exposure to politics.

"I read The Washington Post every day that summer," Sampson said, "and I never stopped."

But a big office next to powerful people isn't going to be a part of Maggie Machledt's next steps. The Lutheran Volunteer Corps program ended yesterday, and she will begin another Washington internship that will allow her to continue working with formerly homeless people who are terminally ill.

"I learn so much from being with people who are suffering and about my own vulnerabilities," Machledt said. "I think we all heal each other that way."

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