Eboo Patel begins a speech to high-schoolers by recalling his own diverse group of high school friends, which included a south Indian Hindu, a Cuban Jew, a Nigerian Evangelical, a Mormon, a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, and Mr. Patel himself, a Muslim.
But rather than being a story about the power of diversity, the anecdote is one about missed opportunities: Patel and his friends never broached the subject of their different faiths with one another, and when his Jewish friend became the target of school bullies, Patel remained silent. "I aided and abetted by my silence," he tells several hundred students at Chicago's prestigious Francis Parker School.
His message is clear: It's not enough to be tolerant and accepting. Religious pluralism – which Patel sees as the key diversity issue of the 21st century, the equivalent of the racial questions that shaped the 20th century – demands that people push back against intolerance and stand up as leaders.
That's the philosophy of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the group that Patel founded a decade ago in an effort to increase awareness of interfaith issues and to empower young people in particular to be leaders in the field. (The name uses "core" not "corps" to indicate it's at the center of a larger movement.)
The alternative, he believes, is to cede the pulpit – and the influence – to extremists.
"My theory is that 99 percent of the world inclines toward tolerance and cooperation," Patel says. "The problem is that 99 percent of that 99 percent aren't leading in that direction. And too many of the 1 percent who are opposed to pluralism are leaders…. We're happy to be accused of preaching to the choir, if part of what we do is get the choir to sing."
And people are listening. The IFYC has grown from a scrappy operation run out of a Chicago basement at a time when few young people were a part of the interfaith movement, to a major organization that last year worked with students on about 60 college campuses, sponsored 50 interfaith fellows in the United States and abroad, and hosted its sixth interfaith youth conference at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Patel is a member of President Obama's 25-member faith advisory council, and IFYC is partnering with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London to sponsor 30 international fellows. In December, Patel won the 2010 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his autobiography, "Acts of Faith."
"We used to have to do a lot of telling people why this issue is important," Patel says. "We have to do zero convincing about that now."
Part of that, of course, comes from the growing awareness of religious-based conflict and violence around the world.
"He's saying, 'The way in which we understand our civilization is at risk.' The fact that the extremists are the only ones in this conversation means that the moderates have lost, because they're not even participating," says Adam Goodman, director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern.
Mr. Goodman, who works with student leaders on a variety of issues, says that part of what grabs students' attention is that Patel approaches diversity – a subject they've grown up with in a racial context – in a fresh way.
"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."
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."