Religion is a topic that rarely seems to unite us as Americans. However, a special speaker coming to St. Norbert College as part of the Miller Lecture Series believes that needs to change.
Eboo Patel is leading the charge in what’s being called “Interfaith Leadership in America.” He will visit St. Norbert on Thursday, February 27th to deliver a free presentation that is open to the public. St. Norbert will also announce the winners of this year’s Norman Miller Essay Contest.
Discussing religious views can be a sticky subject with friends and family – much less strangers who come from a completely different background or faith. All it takes is a scroll through your Facebook newsfeed and you’ll notice divisive comments. People spout off their opinions defending personal beliefs while often deriding the beliefs of others.
But can we all find common ground? Is it possible for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even atheists to stand side-by-side in an effort to make the world a better place?
Eboo Patel, the founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, says “Yes.”
Patel believes the concept of “people from different backgrounds working together” is something that America has always represented. He says failing to allow that sort of cooperation “violates the fundamental value of American pluralism.”
Who is Eboo Patel?
Patel grew up in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, where he was raised in a Muslim family of Indian heritage.
He recalls a conversation with his father about diversity issues like race, gender and class. Something his father said may very well have been the seed that would grow into Patel’s life mission.
“He was the one who stopped me and said, ‘Eboo! You’re forgetting a dimension of diversity that’s just as important – religious identity.'”
Another memory that inspired Patel’s convictions happened in high school. A Jewish friend of his was getting harassed by students shouting anti-Semitic insults, which were also being scrawled on the walls of the school. After graduation, that friend told Patel he felt abandoned because no one stood up to defend him.
In a piece for NPR, Patel admitted that hearing about his friend’s suffering and recognizing his own failure to act was “the most humiliating experience” of his life.
While attending college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Patel realized many of his fellow students were excluding faith in discussions about multiculturalism. He began to see an opportunity that was being missed. There is a powerful, direct connection between faith and service that can bring about positive change.
Patel says religion can be a bridge instead of a barrier.
While getting his doctorate at Oxford, Patel helped run a number of interfaith projects involving young people in South Africa, Sri Lanka and India. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and became its executive director in 2002.
Patel’s career so far includes authoring two books: Acts of Faith, an autobiography and Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America. He has contributed to the Washington Post, USA Today and has spoken at TED conferences, the Clinton Global Initiative and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. He is also a member of the President’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Watch Eboo Patel Talk About his Influences at TEDx Women
How Should We Handle Religious Diversity?
If you want to embrace religious diversity and interfaith cooperation, the first step might be realizing that your goal is not to win a debate. Patel says that social research indicates the most important factors are knowledge and relationships – IFYC takes that research to heart.
“By focusing on interfaith literacy, we expect that knowledge about a specific worldview will increase positive attitudes. The same goes for relationships – when people actually interact with someone of a different identity, their positive attitude towards the ‘other’ increases.”
In other words, you can’t have an understanding of someone else’s point of view if all you’re trying to do is convince them how much better your perspective is. When you try to determine who is right and who is wrong – it almost always ends the same way. Nobody wins.
Still, Patel does believe we should allow for the discussion of divisive issues. He feels the problem is that those issues have stolen too much of our focus. Patel uses this analogy…
“When you choose to focus on the elephant in the room, you forget about the other animals in the zoo,” he explains.
“That is to say, the elephant – political and theological divides – is important, but it is not the only animal worth viewing. Our approach to interfaith cooperation is to have students focus on other important issues like addressing hunger – areas where they can easily find common ground – rather than focus on areas of major theological or political differences.”
Interfaith leadership does not mean you need to water down your own religious beliefs. Many of us have “ultimate truths,” that we hold close to our hearts. Patel says those convictions can be shared with sensitivity, as long as we remember the goal of working together.
“Although the ultimate truth of a Christian differs from that of an atheist, we find that they can come together to serve the homeless populations in their area,” he says. “This is the spirit of interfaith cooperation: understanding that differences exist, but recognizing that they aren’t the end of the story.”
Examples of Interfaith Leadership
When we think of religion and history – we tend to think of things like the Crusades as well as bitter wars and long-lasting conflicts between people groups and entire nations.
Patel is quick to point out that it doesn’t always work that way.
One of the best examples from U.S. history can be found in the story of the great civil rights leader – Martin Luther King Jr.
King was a Baptist minister, but he never limited his alliances to his own faith.
In fact, Dr. King drew inspiration from religious leaders outside his own beliefs – like Mahatma Gandhi.
“As a Christian, King was inspired by Gandhi’s message of non-violence, and he partnered with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in powerful civil action,” says Patel. “Just as MLK chose to work closely with a Hindu and a Jew during the civil rights movement, we believe that students can work with each other across lines of religious difference to advance the common good today.”
This kind of teamwork between religions happens outside the U.S. as well. Another inspirational example of interfaith cooperation that brought about major change can be found in the African nation of Liberia.
The 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells the story of how Muslim and Christian women organized a peace movement and stood together against violence and injustice. They were able to help put an end to a 14-year civil war in Liberia and influenced the election of the country’s first female president.
How Young People Are Taking Up the Cause
For more real-life examples of interfaith cooperation at work – we can look directly at the impact of the Interfaith Youth Core.
With IFYC’s Better Together campaign, students of varying faiths are joining forces on college campuses around the country to identify social issues in their community. These student-led efforts have been tackling problems like homelessness, hunger and public health.
Patel says mobilizing the youth of America to participate in the Interfaith Leadership movement is intentional. He thinks college is the best time in life to embrace diversity and these students will ensure that religious freedom and other American values will be protected in the future.
“During their college experiences, young men and women are cultivating skills they should expect to use after graduation. Today more than ever before, in a globalized world, it is likely that students will be working with people of diverse worldviews,” says Patel. “By focusing on young people – the next generation of leaders in America – we hope to instill an ethic of interfaith cooperation into the work that they will do for the rest of their lives.”
Here in Northeast Wisconsin, high school students are also exploring interfaith cooperation.
This year, St. Norbert College’s Norman Miller Essay Contest is centered on the theme – “Overcoming Religious Prejudice in America.”
Students from around the area were asked to write about why inter-religious understanding is vital to our nation’s future and how ordinary people can overcome religious prejudice. Before his presentation, Eboo Patel will present scholarships from St. Norbert College to the three students chosen as winners.
Of course, while words and convictions are a good place to start – Patel reminds us that it won’t mean anything until it is put into practice.
“We believe that coming together is best accomplished through service work, where students not only dialogue about their values, but get to put those values into action with others. Action is key!”
If you or someone you know wants to learn more about Interfaith Leadership – make sure you attend Eboo Patel’s lecture at St. Norbert College. And if you agree with the beliefs connected to this movement – consider sharing this story on social media using the buttons below.
Why not put something positive in people’s Facebook newsfeeds instead of focusing on the things that divide us?
- What: Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding featuring Eboo Patel
- When: Thursday, February 27th, 2014 at 7:30 pm
- Where: Walter Theatre on the St. Norbert College campus
- Admission: FREE and open to the public
- Click Here for More Info from St. Norbert College
- Like Eboo Patel on Facebook
- Like Interfaith Youth Core on Facebook
- Find out more about the Norman Miller Essay Contest