Helping young people champion religious tolerance
Eboo Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core as a way for young people to better understand and defend religious diversity.
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"They think it was easier in the '60s because racial discrimination was so obvious, how can we top that?" Goodman says. "Eboo arrives with this message that we're just starting…. He's trying to lead a social movement as opposed to a program or a project."Skip to next paragraph
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Patel, an Indian-born Muslim who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, speaks deliberately and emanates an intelligent charisma. His conversation is peppered with references to singers like Ani Difranco and poets he admires: William Stafford and William Carlos Williams.
His own journey, both to interfaith issues and to Islam, began in college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana with his commitment to social-justice issues. It dawned on him that religion was being left out of diversity discussions, even as he realized that most of his heroes – Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day – were people of faith.
The more he found out about the ways in which Day used her Catholicism to inspire her social-justice work, the more interested he became in exploring new dimensions of his own religion, which he had largely left behind.
"I reentered Islam as a young adult with the eyes of Dorothy Day," Patel says. "Dorothy Day played Virgil to my Dante, back into Islam."
Today, Patel says his interfaith work is driven by his religious identity. "This is my dominant expression of being Muslim," he says. "I pray, I fast, I do those other things, but this is where I feel like I am submitting to the will of God."
This notion that knowledge of another faith can deepen a person's commitment to his own religion, strengthening rather than diluting it, is central to the IFYC's message. Patel vigorously disputes the claim that interfaith work means a blurring of boundaries among faiths.
At the same time, he encourages people to learn something positive about other religions and to recognize commonalities – like a call to service – that appear across faiths.
After the talk at Parker, Patel heads to the University of Chicago's divinity school, where he's pushing future Christian leaders to explore interfaith issues in a course he teaches there.
Eboo's own story "makes it more powerful and tangible when he stands up and says that by engaging these other traditions you can find doorways back into your own tradition," says Kevin Boyd, director of field education and church relations for the divinity school, who invited Patel to teach the course with him.
Patel is particularly passionate about the importance of nurturing leaders through avenues like the Divinity School course, IFYC internships, and the fellowships.
"Going into the fellowship, I knew that interfaith work was meaningful to me, but leaving it, I realized it was going to be part of my work wherever it took me for the rest of my life," says Joshua Stanton, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, who was an IFYC fellow in 2007-08. Mr. Stanton went on to found the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue, an online publication that bridges peer-reviewed rigor and hip social-media networking.
The progress Patel has seen helps him remain optimistic, despite the discouraging pictures of religious extremism that emerge on the evening news. "This is a 30-year arc," he says, noting that in the past 50 years America has gone from separate drinking fountains for black people to electing a black president.
"The news is not great right now, but the bend is happening. And the reason I think the bend is happening is because of the numbers of people who are engaged in the discourse, and the numbers who are becoming leaders."