Eboo Patel Has a Dream
Through his Interfaith Youth Core, he wants to make religious understanding the keystone of the college experience
Where were the stories about the “faith heroes” he had come to admire? King. Gandhi. Dorothy Day. The ones “putting their skins on the line for social justice.” Why so much talk and so little action, his restless, twenty-something self had wondered. “And where were the young people?”
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Where were the stories about the “faith heroes” he had come to admire? King. Gandhi. Dorothy Day. The ones “putting their skins on the line for social justice.” Why so much talk and so little action, his restless, twenty-something self had wondered. “And where were the young people?”
Fast forward a dozen years. Now 37 and one of the most visible interfaith leaders in the nation, Mr. Patel himself stands at the center of that stage, preaching the value of appreciating the religions of others in a world where he knows, “all too often, people are killing each other to the soundtrack of prayer.”
As the founder and president of a national organization that promotes interreligious understanding and action on college campuses, Mr. Patel has converted those old frustrations into a burgeoning new cause, an educational movement rooted in intellectual rigor and powered by academic aspirations.
The organization, Interfaith Youth Core, has trained thousands of college students in techniques for learning about their religious differences and then finding common bonds among their faiths as they undertake projects like cleaning up a polluted river in Ohio, after-school tutoring in Minnesota, and combatting mountaintop removal by mining companies in West Virginia. The group also works with college deans to develop new courses, helps college presidents measure how receptive their campuses are to students of differing traditions, and teaches students how to handle questions about their own faiths while struggling to understand the practices of others.
Since 2010, the organization has also been a key player in President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a program that involves more than 350 colleges.
As IFYC has expanded its reach, so has Mr. Patel. His Acts of Faith (Beacon Press, 2007) has taken off as a popular campus read, and his second book, Sacred Ground (Beacon, 2012), looks like it may as well.
But in a nation still haunted by the acts of Islamist terrorists, Mr. Patel, an Ismaili Muslim son of Indian immigrants who was raised in suburban Chicago, who relishes Grateful Dead music, and who rarely passes a great coffee spot without making a stop, has a bigger goal. He and the 35-person IFYC staff are now leading the charge to bring interfaith education from “niche to norm” throughout American higher education, just as diversity training and multiculturalism are now mainstays of the college experience.
He keeps a lesson from his early interfaith experiences as his mantra: “If it’s not inspiring, no one cares.”
That’s why, in a talk at this year’s send-off luncheon for Rhodes Scholars in Washington, D.C., Mr. Patel invoked some of the documents he had contemplated when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford—among them George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I.,—and the powerful message of America’s deep history of religious tolerance that he found in them. “We’re the first nation to believe you can have diversity within a democracy,” he marveled.
It’s why, at a lecture in January at Yale University on the need to nurture interdisciplinary programs in interfaith studies, he argued that the response to the rise of “leaders who are making faith a bomb of destruction” should be more deliberate engagement over religion, not avoidance of it. “Some of the greatest interfaith leaders of the 20th century—Gandhi and King to name two obvious ones—built bridges with people of other faiths precisely because of the respective Hindu and Christian faiths,” said Mr. Patel, “not despite them.”
And it’s the reason that, on a visit to Cardinal Stritch University here this past fall to try to enlist the Franciscan Catholic college as one of IFYC’s latest major campus partners, he paused at the conclusion of a public evening talk, nodded over at visitors from the nearby Sikh temple—where in August six people were shot dead by a white supremacist—and softly reflected on the personal lessons to be learned from other religious traditions.
Right after the shootings, worshipers had rushed to the temple to fulfill the Sikh religious practice of extending hospitality to strangers. Even as some of them found their family members among the murdered, they served food and drink to journalists and first responders. “This isn’t just about reducing ugliness” in the world, said Mr. Patel, his voice choking as he looked over at Pardeep Kaleka, the grown son of one those slain. When we see that, said Mr. Patel, “we are taught something about beauty.”
Moving speeches are Eboo Patel’s stock in trade, talks that often soar with spirituality while also touching ground with historical and pop-cultural references—to a line of poetry from Rumi, the prayers of the brave New Orleans schoolgirl Ruby Bridges, or the lyrics of Ani DiFranco. He knows his gift for stirring rhetoric has helped put IFYC on the map. He and others also credit another factor, what Mr. Patel calls his “super geeky” insistence that his group’s work follow proven theories of social science.
IFYC takes a very deliberate approach. It steers clear of a pastoral role. And, to the disappointment of some more-activist theologians who otherwise admire Mr. Patel’s work, it dodges some politically tinged religious issues. “As an organization, we don’t take positions on things. We train leaders,” says Mr. Patel. “We have articulated a particular way of doing this that is civic in nature.”
The organization’s three-step approach to interfaith work—Voice, Engage, Act—is the IFYC’s way of helping students accomplish what sociologists call the “bridging of social capital,” creating a shared interest among people who typically bond within their own ethnic group or social class. That can happen naturally through community softball teams, workplaces, and volunteer activities. Through efforts like its Better Together program, where students undertake community projects, or the “speed faithing” exercises it runs at its quarterly Interfaith Leadership Institutes, IFYC intentionally trains students to create those bonds.
The approach is based in part on the work of Robert Putnam, the Harvard University political scientist, as well as social-psychology thinking on “contact theory” and ways people build tribal identities. It also relies on the thinking of scholars like Martin Marty, John Courtney Murray, and Michael Walzer, who write about societies where people have loyalties to multiple identities, and Ashutosh Varshney’s work on the power of civic networks.
Differing religious orientations are a tool for this social bridging. But Mr. Patel says religion is “not just the means to an end,” because he and others at IFYC take religious and secular identity very seriously. “This isn’t just about Buddhism and Islam,” he explains. “It’s about Buddhists and Muslims.”
To test its methods, IFYC has begun working with two professors, at North Carolina State and New York Universities, who have developed a scientific survey to help measure how colleges accommodate religion and religious diversity on their campuses. Already more than 35 colleges have distributed it, then used the findings to improve their interfaith climate.
Minnesota’s Concordia College, for one, recently agreed to recognize a group for secular students after its survey showed that 17 percent of the students at the Lutheran campus identified themselves as secular, and a third of those found the culture less than welcoming. Some students who had gone through IFYC training were among those pushing for the recognition, citing the survey.
Mr. Putnam, who studies ethnic and religious intolerance in America, says Mr. Patel’s approach, including the way “he worries about rigor” in his work, separates IFYC from other well-intentioned interfaith efforts. “It’s not just based on warm, cuddly feelings,” he says.
In his own research, Mr. Putnam has found that the more often young people from different religious backgrounds interact with one another, the more socially tolerant they become, not just of people whose faiths they’ve come to know but of people of all faiths. And with immigration bringing more people of different religions into American society, he says, organizations as sophisticated as Mr. Patel’s are all the more important. If IFYC can continue to expand, Mr. Putnam says, “it’s likely to accelerate by a decade or two the process of America coming to terms with this new form of diversity.”
He was the little Muslim kid whose parents sent him to to friends’ birthday picnics with his own pork-free hot dogs and later, an admittedly smug University of Illinois undergrad who ran a dozen campus groups and projects and would come home from Urbana-Champaign on college breaks and hammer away at his parents for their lack of consciousness about identity politics.
But Mr. Patel says he didn’t begin to form a real understanding of the power of movements, or of religiously inspired social service, until he began helping out at a Catholic Worker house near campus, and then, after he graduated, living and working at one in Chicago.
The people he met at the houses, created in the 1930s by Dorothy Day, were “more radical than the Marxist intellectuals I knew, more gentle than the social-service types I volunteered with, more intelligent than the professors who taught my classes, and more effective than the activists I protested with,” he writes in Acts of Faith. And, more to the point for a young man longing for a spiritual foundation, he marveled at the grace and conviction with which they went about their work. “They knew that God had created humanity with the hope that we would achieve the Kingdom on earth.”
Other religious inspirations soon followed. He saw his grandmother in India take in abused women because “this is what Muslims do.” He studied Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who after marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., famously declared, “I felt like my legs were praying.” And on a trip to visit with the Dalai Lama—whose brother was the friend of a priest he knew—the holy man told Mr. Patel and his Jewish buddy Kevin Coval that their idea for an Interfaith Youth Corps was “a very good project.” (In 2000, Mr. Coval founded Louder Than a Bomb, a youth poetry festival, and the two are still close friends.)
By the time Mr. Patel began his Rhodes scholarship in the fall of 1998, he was ready to make some decisions about his own faith—he says he fasted his first “real Ramadan” there—and about his life’s work. The loneliness and intensity of the Oxford experience, “a city of 10,000 people studying alone in their rooms,” fed his thinking. As he told his Rhodes successors, “I would never have decided that this is what I was going to do if I didn’t have those long silences.”
It was also during this period that he decided that his organization would be a “Core” instead of a “Corps.” He saw IFYC being not just a group of people, but “at the heart of a movement.”
Back then, Oxford acquaintances who learned he was an American would sometimes ask him if he knew Bill Clinton. Yeah, right, he’d think, that’s just the kind of social circle you mix in when your dad owns a Subway sandwich shop and your mom teaches accounting at a local community college.
Today it is not at all lost on him that as his group has grown from attracting the interest of a few college chaplains, then growing numbers of deans and college presidents, it has now earned the backing of the White House, and he has actually met the president of the United States (and Bill Clinton a few times too). Over the past year, he’s given talks at more than 50 campuses and other settings, and will be giving four commencement speeches this spring. (The honoraria go toward IFYC’s $4.5-million annual budget.)
The power of his message draws much of the public interest, but there may be more at play. Trim, with leading-man looks, a genial demeanor, and a disarming way of moving seamlessly from the Prophet Muhammad to the rapper Mos Def when talking with students, Mr. Patel presents a persona that is at once mildly hip and vaguely exotic. That’s fine with him. “Look, I’m not dumb. I know I’m a brown guy with an earring,” he says. And if that means college audiences and others are more open to him as messenger, all the better.
But college leaders who’ve worked with him see Mr. Patel as more than a guy who happens to have a timely message for an anxious age. “He’s having an enormous impact on a movement that is itself very powerful,” says Donna M. Carroll, president of Dominican University, which has worked with Mr. Patel and IFYC since 2009. “He’d die” hearing this, she adds, but “he could be the Martin Luther King of his generation.”
Dominican University, located about 10 miles from IFYC’s Chicago headquarters, is a 112-year-old Roman Catholic institution. But since the college began collaborating with IFYC, its interfaith activities are, as the arts-and-sciences dean Jeffrey Carlson describes it, pervasive. The 4,000-student institution has revised its core curriculum to incorporate readings on interfaith teachings in each of the four years (among them classics like Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ, and Diana Eck’s Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey From Bozeman to Banaras), held speed-dating-style encounters where students and community members meet for short intervals to ask each other questions about their different religions, formed a Better Together chapter to conduct service projects, and this winter even sponsored an interfaith-themed art show.
The college is considering the creation of a minor for interfaith studies in its theology department, and Dominican’s Graduate School of Social Work has just decided to include “interfaith understanding” as a formal priority in its new curriculum. Mr. Patel has spent time there as a guest lecturer and cites it as great example of an institution that has gone all-in on the IFYC model.
Ms. Carroll, the president, says the perspective has helped the college reinforce its own Catholic identity and “connects our students to the larger conversation in the world today.” It has also helped raise Dominican’s profile as the university seeks to better establish itself among Chicago colleges and as an institution that prepares “globally positioned students.”
But the interfaith efforts haven’t always gone smoothly. When Mr. Patel chose an Islamic prayer to read—in Arabic and English—as the benediction for the January 2012 commencement, Ms. Carroll says, “I got enormous positives and some surprising flak” from students and parents, some of whom found it “startling.” “But that’s part of how we prepare students for the diversity of the world in which they will live and work.”
On the drive from Chicago to Milwaukee for the two-day visit at Cardinal Stritch, Mr. Patel and his young colleague Abhishek Raman had the Dominican model in mind as he laid out his goal: signing up Stritch for a full IFYC engagement, which costs $23,500 for an evaluation of the institution’s curricular and extracurricular “interfaith assets,” the campus religious-climate survey, and consulting. The organization lives by grants, donations, and fees from colleges and students who attend its leadership institutes. As he crisscrosses the country, Mr. Patel doesn’t just “sell” the idea of interfaith, he’s also selling his organization.
And over the next 24 hours, he tried his best.
He spoke at an all-campus luncheon of faculty and staff members (hitting on the Catholic heritage of interfaith action with the story of Francis of Assisi’s peaceful pilgrimage to the Sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade). He talked strategy with campus leaders about the rationale for pursuing an interfaith agenda (noting that the future teachers and nurses the college was preparing for work in Milwaukee will need to know about Ramadan and that “just a little bacon” is still pork). He talked about IFYC’s leadership training with students from Stritch and a half-dozen other nearby colleges (urging them to join the movement that can teach them “to make religion a bridge, not a barrier or a bomb.”). And he offered a tender grace before the meal at a campus dinner preceding his public talk (citing Islam’s focus on gratitude as he celebrated the many traditions represented in the room).
Stritch embraced the message. College leaders had been interested in IFYC’s work for a while, but that intensified after the Sikh temple shootings. “There has to be more than tolerance” for different religions, said James P. Loftus, who became president in 2011. He had been looking to do more to train Stritch’s 5,000 students in interfaith leadership, particularly the 950 or so traditional-age undergraduates. “This is the kind of skill that you need to cultivate,” he says.
Mr. Loftus had a pragmatic interest as well. He sees Mr. Patel as a force, “not only in higher ed but in society,” and with 10 other colleges (including the better-known Marquette University) located within a 35-minute drive of this campus, where most students are commuters, he suspects that becoming more visible as an IFYC partner could help modest Stritch “cut our way into a very competitive marketplace.”
At a Forum on Faith and Work breakfast sponsored by Stritch, the comment was couched politely but delivered with an icy skepticism. “I’ve read two books, one of them not very friendly to your religion,” said Clarke Ross, one of about 75 local Milwaukee businesspeople who had just heard Mr. Patel talk for 20 minutes on how he admired the Prophet Muhammad as a movement builder. Mr. Ross was referring to writings by Robert Spencer, director of blog called Jihad Watch. “We’re afraid,” Mr. Ross said. “It’s based on fear of terrorism.”
Mr. Patel knows Robert Spencer’s work well and, along with many Muslim and other civil-rights groups, considers him a mouthpiece for hate speech. “Robert Spencer would fit really well in late-19th-century anti-Catholicism,” Mr. Patel responded to Mr. Ross. Lessons on anti-Catholic history feature prominently in Sacred Ground. Mr. Patel wrote it in response to the anti-Muslim furor over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, hoping to remind readers of America’s past experiences with religious intolerance and its powerful pluralistic traditions.
Mr. Patel then took the topic of the question—a version of which he hears put more archly or more delicately just about everywhere he speaks—straight on. Muslim terrorists “are terrorists,” he said. “They do not represent either a tradition or a community.”
Mr. Patel, who follows the Ismaili prayer practice of reciting the dua in the morning and at night, says he’s gotten comfortable answering the “terrorist” question because he knows the sentiment is out there. “To deny it or to understate it isn’t helping anybody.” If anything, he believes he and other prominent American Muslims need to confront the issue. “The Muslim terrorists are putting ugliness on TV, and the rest of us aren’t doing enough.” says Mr. Patel.
When he speaks out, he often makes it personal, mentioning how he and his wife, who is also Muslim, are often appalled by what they see being done in the name of Islam. They also worry that the resulting Islamaphobia could affect their two young sons. To combat anti-Islamic prejudice, he says, “One of the things Muslims have to get better at is articulating the original vision” of the faith.
For him, that means an understanding that recognizes “the most important value in Islam is mercy,” says Mr. Patel. Some Muslims see a justification for violence in their faith, but Mr. Patel, noting that “jihad doesn’t mean holy war, it means struggle,” says “the more important meaning of that word is the internal struggle with your lower self.” He takes guidance for his personal theology from authors and activists like Umar Abd Allah, a scholar in residence at the Nawawi Foundation; Khaled Abou El Fadl, a human-rights specialist at the University of California at Los Angeles law school; and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun pacifist. “There are Muslims who are going to emphasize different parts of the tradition,” says Mr. Patel. “I emphasize the parts of the tradition that emphasize peace.”
It would be easy for Mr. Patel to feel satisfied. IFYC now counts dozens of campuses embracing its programs, hundreds of would-be interfaith leaders attending its workshops, and thousands of students taking part in service programs it helps to foster. But ever since IFYC decided four years ago to focus its energies exclusively on higher education, he’s recognized that moving interfaith from “niche to norm” requires a deeper connection. “We know enough about the academy to know if it’s not in the curriculum, it’s not central.”
Thanks to a new $600,000 grant to the Council of Independent Colleges from the Henry Luce Foundation, IFYC may soon start seeing its wish come to life. The council will use the grant to train 120 professors from member colleges to teach interfaith-studies courses during the summer of 2014 and 2015. Mr. Patel and others from IFYC, along with a committee of leading professors of philosophy and religion, will help to create a model curriculum.
Colleges teach interfaith studies now, but in many cases, their efforts are “flabby,” and what you get is “an understanding of the other religions in a once-over-lightly approach,” says Richard Ekman, head of the council. The council wants courses that will integrate history, art history, philosophy, and religion, he says, and “Eboo’s on the front edge of this curve.” (In fact, interfaith studies is also the subject of his next book.)
Still, Mr. Patel’s approach to interfaith work—his caution about getting into divisive religious issues or divisive theological questions—isn’t without its critics. Paul F. Knitter, a Union Theological Seminary professor of theology, world religions, and culture, whose 1995 book One Earth Many Religions was one of Mr. Patel’s inspirations for IFYC, says some students in his “Religions in the City” class even considered Mr. Patel “naïve and politically dangerous.”
After reading Sacred Ground and hearing Mr. Patel’s three guest lectures, some of the more left-leaning among them got frustrated with his idealistic faith in the American values of democracy and equality. His approach might help create genuine religious understanding among small groups or even larger communities, wrote one student in a class paper, but “it does nothing to address what Patel says he is setting out to address—the intense and violent global struggles that are going on in the world today.”
Mr. Knitter considers Mr. Patel a close friend who is making an invaluable contribution to interreligious understanding, but takes some issue with Mr. Patel’s shying away from politically divisive issues with religious overtones. “Shared cooperation can be deepened and strengthened when you show how your religious beliefs sustain you and guide you,” says Mr. Knitter. But focusing only on the common values can make it hard to zero in on social-justice issues that matter, he says. “It distracts you from the responsibility of raising political questions.”
Mr. Patel understands the critique. He just doesn’t agree with it. “The more activisty folks want us to be more activisty,” he says. But he says that would be a distraction from his broader goal for IFYC. “We don’t want to be controversial. You don’t make something a social norm by doing the most controversial thing possible.” That doesn’t mean IFYC can’t be a vehicle for social change, he adds. After all, the Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University professors who lectured to the young Martin Luther King on Gandhi and the Buddhist principles of satyagraha weren’t necessarily controversial, he says. “But they taught King.”
Students like Kristi Del Vecchio, a senior at Concordia who has attended IFYC’s leadership programs, say they actually appreciate the apolitical, find-the-commonalities approach. “Some people think of it as a cop-out,” she says, but she finds “it allows me to see that diversity is not something that divides people.” Echoing an expression Mr. Patel often uses, she says that if you focus on the elephant in the room—the points of disagreement, like abortion—"you’re not looking at the other animals in the zoo.”
Ms. Del Vecchio, 21, was raised in Bismarck, N.D., as a Catholic but now considers herself an atheist. She says her interest in IFYC began when she took part in an interfaith panel on campus and fellow students told her that they “had never met a nice atheist.” She realized “I had the ability to change stereotypes.”
IFYC training sessions, like the one she attended in January in Atlanta, create a safe place for intellectual and personal exploration. “You are very intentionally meeting people of diverse traditions,” she says. “This is a place where you’re totally expected to ask questions like, Why do you wear that hijab?”
She learned a lot about herself, too. “It’s so personal. You need to be able to think of your own journey, your own interfaith story.”
The IFYC training in Atlanta stirred Graciela Ventura Haas, a Cardinal Stritch student, too. Not long after Mr. Patel came to her campus, she spotted a fellow student kneeling in Islamic prayer in the library. It got her thinking. “Wow, I have a place to pray, why does he have to go to a corner of the library?” A Catholic sophomore from a suburb of Portland, Ore., Ms. Haas began pressing the college to set aside a suitable prayer space for Muslims on campus. She credits IFYC. Though she probably would have noticed before attending the IFYC training, she says, now “I feel an obligation to do something,”
Ms. Haas says that being Catholic is an important part of who she is, but that she’s uncomfortable with many of the church’s teachings and doubtful about religion in general after learning the role it has played in historical atrocities.
“When Eboo came to campus I realized it’s OK to question my faith,” says Ms. Haas, who hopes to become a social worker. And with the IFYC training, she says she also learned ways to discuss her feelings about religion with her classmates and friends. “I think it’s something that’s really important to talk about.”
Mr. Loftus, Stritch’s president, says Mr. Patel and IFYC are “smart to engage with students at a time when they are saying, Hey, this is who I am and probably who I’m going to be. How am I supposed to deal with you?”
But when it came to sitting down with Mr. Patel for a wrap-up meeting at the end of the visit, the president was clearly hesitating about signing up for a full-blown engagement. It wasn’t just the money, although that wasn’t inconsequential. Mr. Loftus, who says he was trying to be “a little bit of a disrupter” as president, just wasn’t certain how prepared Stritch was—financially, academically, or extracurricularly—to make interfaith programming a major theme of the Stritch college experience. Not yet, at least.
Mr. Patel quickly put him at ease. “You probably want to have 10 more conversations with people to see how deeply this resonates around campus,” he told the president. People need to feel the connection “so it doesn’t feel like a fad.”
If Mr. Patel was disappointed, it didn’t last long. As he builds IFYC by going from campus to campus, city to city, Mr. Patel says he thinks often of the institution builders he admires, people like his hero Dorothy Day and her 53 years of “waking up in the morning, cutting carrots,” and feeding the hungry as they came.
“We’re not peddling quick fixes and magic bullets,” he says. “This religious diversity thing is going to last a long time.”
Corrections (4/29/2013, 10:17 a.m.): This article originally stated that to test its methods, IFYC had begun working with two professors at North Carolina State University who developed a scientific survey to help measure how colleges accommodate religion and religious diversity on their campuses. One of the professors is at New York University. The article also incorrectly reported on a college that recently recognized a group for secular students. It is Concordia College, in Minnesota, not Concordia University. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.