BELLEVILLE - Juniata College students are finding common ground for faith in the Belleville soil.
Under a pristine sky, a handful of the young adults spent a Friday afternoon on a local farm, planting onions, potatoes and garlic for people in need.
Amid shovels and dirty hands, conversations between students began to spring up: What's your name? Where are you from? What are your aspirations?
Sentinel photos by MICAIAH WISE BILGER
Juniata College students plant onions, potatoes and garlic on April 13 in Belleville during a field trip with the Planting Seeds program. The national initiative encourages student groups to pursue service projects and interfaith dialogue.
These conversations are exactly what organizers of the service day hoped would happen.
Grace Fala, a professor at Juniata College, and alumnus Lauren Seganos initiated the Planting Seeds program in response to President Barack Obama's Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.
Created by the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the programs challenges colleges across the country to create service programs that have the ability to build social capital, strengthen social cohesion and address social problems.
Juniata College is one of about 150 in the U.S. participating in the program, said Seganos, an AmeriCorps employee and interfaith coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Campus Ministry Office.
Planting Seeds, however, is the Huntingdon college's own unique program.
Seganos and Fala, who lives in Belleville, decided to create an opportunity for students to harvest crops, glean produce after harvest and perform various other agricultural jobs in the Big Valley, and at the same time learn about different religious practices and beliefs.
"Service to others and to the earth is an issue that weaves through many faith traditions - Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity," Fala said.
Seganos added they hope that by initiating conversations between faith groups, there will be less religious conflict and violence in the world.
"The project also is an opportunity to learn about religious communities (the students) haven't been exposed to," Seganos said. "A lot of Juniata students in our community are very interested in sustainable agriculture, organic farming and healthy eating, so it seemed that a service project based on the local farm community was a natural idea."
Through Fala's connections, she set up the first project last fall at two farms in Belleville. The students met several Amish families and helped harvest apples in one family's orchard.
The second Planting Seeds outing came on a recent Friday in April. A small group of college students planted crops in a donated field. In the fall, Seganos said, they will bring a team to harvest the crops and prepare them to be donated to a food bank or shelter.
After planting, Seganos led the students in a reflective session in a small chapel on Fala's farm. Together the students read texts about the shared religious value of caring for the earth, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hindu, Islam and Native American.
Olekander Kuzin, a student from the Ukraine, said he felt a greater appreciation and connection to the food and products he uses.
"People from the city don't know this life," Kuzin said. "It's just a chicken on the table prepared."
As the conversations grew, so did more questions and observations about different faiths.
Seganos shared that she grew up in a Christian community, but her church never really discussed environmental issues.
Kaleem Ahmed, a student from Pakistan, said he was curious about the Christian perspective of women covering their heads.
Throughout the day, too, Fala peppered the group with her knowledge about the local Amish culture.
The white-top Amish buggies represent a very conservative culture that uses oil lamps in place of battery-powered ones, which are used by the black- and orange-top buggy orders, Fala said.
Taressa King, who plans to graduate from Juniata in May, said Fala's openness to different faiths and her compassion for others left a strong impression on her.
King said the interfaith and service experiences that Fala has initiated left her feeling like a "starry-eyed child taking in wisdom and beauty."
Through Planting Seeds, Fala and Seganos said they hope the students "walk away a little more inspired."
"Every word, every thought is a seed planted," Fala said. "We have to watch how it grows. All you need to start communicating is something in common."