Ashok (A.J.) Kumar doesn’t care what God you believe in, or whether you believe in a deity at all. A member of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard since 2009, the graduate student at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) says he wants to work toward a campus community that includes people from all faiths, as well as those not aligned with a religion.
“[Humanism] is about building a community within a framework of ethics that is derived from our common humanity,” he said. “What someone believes or doesn’t believe is of far less interest to me than what someone does with themselves.”
What Kumar does with himself is volunteer. That’s why he will join dozens of Harvard community members from many faiths at the Student Organization Center at Hilles on Nov. 20 to package meals for hungry Boston-area children. The interfaith community service event is organized by the Harvard Interfaith Collaborative, in conjunction with the Values in Action (VIA) program launched this fall by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.
“The definition of VIA is ‘by way of,’ or ‘through,’” said Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain. “We can accomplish multiple goals through collaborative action. Working with people from diverse backgrounds, we increase our own understanding, along with the positive relationships between different communities. It’s also an opportunity for us, as humanists and atheists, to challenge the notion that we’re unconcerned with helping others and with doing good things in the world.”
The event will take place from noon to 4 p.m. on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Chris Stedman, the organizer and interfaith community service fellow, said that participants may drop in any time during the afternoon and help for as long as they wish.
“You don’t have to commit to four hours,” he said. “We’ll have lines for people to package meals, and you can step in and out whenever you like. We’ll have volunteers there to show people what to do.”
VIA hopes to raise $5,000 to purchase food from Kids Care, a program offered by the nonprofit Outreach Inc., which provides balanced, high-nutrition meals to hungry children. Participants in the Nov. 20 event will assemble and package meals for delivery to the Interfaith Social Services and the Germantown “food shelves” in Quincy, which will in turn distribute them to needy kids.
“Kids Care delivers the food at a very decent rate,” Stedman said. “It’s only 25 cents per meal.”
The pre-Thanksgiving event will try to build on the success of the Sept. 11 interfaith service opportunity, when more than 200 students packaged 10,000 meals for hungry Boston-area kids to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Chelsea Link ’12, who organized the event with Stedman, said that this month VIA has its sights set higher.
“We were thrilled with the response to the 9/11 event,” she said. “Ticknor Lounge was absolutely packed from the very beginning to the very end of the event. We kept rotating people in and out of the assembly lines to give everybody a chance to package the food. We had people writing letters to members of Congress in support of hunger relief programs, and we still couldn’t find a job for everyone who wanted to participate. We don’t think we’ll have that problem again this month, given that we’ve more than doubled our goal to 20,000 meals.”
When volunteers take a break from packaging meals, they can participate in a dialogue about the meaning of service in the context of their faith and values. Trained facilitators will encourage reflection and help move the discussion along. Harvard Zoroastrian chaplain Daryush Mehta said the combination of dialogue and service creates opportunities for people of different faiths — or none at all — to understand each other.
“Ask Zoroastrians about their faith, and you will hear about the mantra by which we live: good thoughts, good words, good deeds,” he said. “We are involved in the Thanksgiving interfaith service project because the event embodies the Zoroastrian mantra by providing a space that integrates thought, dialogue, and active service to help the hungry. This allows us to connect with others at a deeper level.”
Outside of providing a lot of nutritious meals for hungry children, Kumar hopes that such service events have a lasting impact on the Harvard community and become a model for interfaith collaboration.
“Community service is important to me because it is action,” he said. “The more we can come together to do good, the better we can understand and respect each other.”