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Character Clearinghouse

Florida State University

Reflections from Eboo Patel, Interfaith Youth Core

2012 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker

Eboo PatelEboo Patel is author of Acts of Faith and a regular contributor to the Washington Post, USA Today, and CNN.  He served on President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.

Title: President and Founder Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC)


In the early 2000s, a family friend who was a student at the University of Illinois visited me at the Interfaith Youth Core offices on the near north side of Chicago. I got the scoop on my old coffee and pizza haunts down in Champaign-Urbana, and then I asked about the campus activist scene. “It’s all about identity,” she told me. “Same as when I was in college,” I retorted. “What’s the latest?”

She told me about how different student groups were bringing in fiery speakers who they knew would make inflammatory statements and offend other groups. Those groups would respond by bringing in their own fiery and offensive speakers, continuing the cycle. There were demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, ugly and accusatory OpEds and letters were flying back and forth in The Daily Illini; students from different groups were chalking the quad with demeaning slurs directed at one another. It had gotten so heated that worried parents were calling university administrators who, frankly, didn’t know what to do. It sounded uglier than any of the ethnic or racial tensions I witnessed when I was a student there in the early 1990s. I wondered if something had gone awry with the Asian-American activist movement. “Who are the groups involved?” I asked, a little nervous to hear the response. The answer could not have surprised me more: “Mostly Jews and Muslims,” she said. “It’s stuff related to the Middle East.” The headlines in world affairs were starting to draw the fault lines on college campuses.

As I talked with my contacts down in Champaign, I realized that campus politics related to the Middle East was just one religious tension point among many. After George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in the 2000 election, which the dominant media narrative credited to the resurgent power of Evangelicals in America, Christians on campus felt harassed in classrooms and residence halls. Mel Gibson’s filmThe Passion of the Christ had deeply offended Jewish groups, who pointed out that the characters who sent Jesus to the cross looked like Jews out of some early 20th century anti-semite’s imagination. And, of course, the shadow of 9/11 loomed over everything. Muslim students felt immediately marked and explicitly labeled, like they wore a scarlet letter E, for Enemy.

I remember sitting in the student center of a midsize college in a midsize midwestern city making final preparations for a talk I was giving there and looking up to see a woman wearing a headscarf walk by a flat screen playing cable news. I saw a couple of students sitting at a table, finishing dinner, watching a story about Muslim terrorism. There were the stock images of angry Muslims with beards pumping their fists and burning American flags, and the newscaster said something about an emerging pattern of female suicide bombers. One of the students nodded in the direction of the unsuspecting Muslim woman, pointed to the television and said to his friend, “Maybe they’re related.” They both laughed and went back to their dinner.

I was furious. I got up, all ready to give them a piece of my mind on discrimination. And then I caught myself. That was me, in high school, when it came to race. What set me straight was college.

What did those students at that Midwestern college see when they looked at that Muslim woman? What do many people see when they look at Evangelicals or Mormons or Buddhists or Catholics or Jews or Buddhists or atheists for that matter? Where do they get that information? Do they have knowledge or relationships that challenge the stereotypes presented by Hollywood or the evening news? And what is their campus doing to advance an alternative narrative, teach an accurate knowledge-base, create spaces for meaningful relationships, offer opportunities for leadership, provide a model for the rest of the society, on interfaith issues.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a small group of college professors and campus chaplains started to give voice to this agenda. Harvard professor Diana Eck wrote in Encountering God that religion was the missing word in the diversity discussion. Sandy and Helen Astin at UCLA published research suggesting that undergrads came to college seeking conversations about religion and spirituality and that they were frequently disappointed at the lack of them. Chaplains like Janet Cooper Nelson at Brown University started co-curricular programs that filled this gap. These Multifaith Councils and Interfaith Discussion Dinners became the place that interested undergrads came to talk about their religious identities and spiritual journeys. Victor Kazanjian, the chaplain at Wellesley, not only started programs on his own campus but a national network called Education as Transformation, which published resources and organized conferences on religious diversity and spirituality.

Important as these programs were, they tended to be at private schools on the East Coast, the type of college that could afford to hire part-time Hindu and Buddhist leaders to pastor to a few dozen religious minority students. The programs occupied an important niche—interested students at elite schools. The big question for interfaith cooperation in higher ed is how to go from niche to norm, just like the multicultural movement did. From private institutions on the coasts to public universities in the Midwest, from the small group of students who actively seek out such programs to part of the orientation for incoming freshman and the required training for resident advisors. To go from niche to norm, you’d need everyone from Presidents to professors to chaplains to students to view this work as a high priority, something not just to be talked about but acted upon, and not just to be done but to be done well. One of the victories of the multicultural movement was to make it standard practice for campuses to survey their students on attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors related to race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Why not administer a religious diversity survey asking the same questions about Muslims, Mormons, Evangelicals, and atheists? Today, a student can major in sociology and get a concentration in race, class, and gender. Why not have the possibility of majoring in religion and taking a sequence of courses that would qualify for a concentration in interfaith leadership? Without a doubt, the external impetus exists. If the Rodney King incident and its aftermath raised the volume on race relations in our society, prompting campuses to take on the challenge, certainly 9/11 and its various effects have had a similar impact when it comes to interfaith issues.

Every year colleges inject a stream of impassioned, idealistic new leaders into our nation, itching to take on our country’s toughest challenges. They bring with them the knowledge and relationships, the attitudes and skills they learned on campus. Those of us who went to college in the 1990s could easily be called the Multicultural Leadership Generation. After we graduated, we started diversity groups in our cities and our companies, and pushed Hollywood and major retailers to diversify representation. We wanted to bring our values to the highest stage possible, so when Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States of America, we worked day and night to help elect a man who combined genes from Kenya and Kansas, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, who worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and was the first black President of the Harvard Law Review.

What if colleges took religious diversity as seriously as they took other identity issues? What if recruiting a religiously diverse student body, creating a welcoming environment for people of different faith and philosophical perspectives, offering classes in interfaith studies and co-curricular opportunities for interfaith community and leadership became the norm? What if university presidents expected their graduates to acquire interfaith literacy, experience interfaith community, and have opportunities to run interfaith programs during their four years on campus? What impact might an interfaith leadership generation have on America over the course of the next generation?

There is certainly no lack of interest among students. Every year we raise the number of students we expect at our Interfaith Leadership Institutes, and every year we still find ourselves scrambling at the last minute to accommodate all the interest. For all the mistakes we’ve made at the Interfaith Youth Core, our basic instinct was right on. Young people don’t like to have their own faiths or the faiths of their friends maligned. They don’t view people from different faiths in an inevitable clash of civilizations. They desperately want a vocabulary that helps them stay grounded in their own tradition and relate positively to those from other traditions. The more they see religious bomb-throwers, the more committed they are to being interfaith bridge-builders.

Meet Greg Damhorst. Greg grew up in Elgin, a middle class suburb about forty miles northwest of Chicago. The Evangelical church he attended was right next to his diverse high school, and because of the way the roads were configured, parking at the church was easier than parking at the school. This concerned some church members who felt the church was private property that should only be used by church members. A group showed up one morning and strung a rope across the entrance. If you were a member of the church, they lowered the rope and let you in. If you weren’t, well then you had to turn around and find a different place to park.

Greg is the type of guy for whom ropes across his church parking lot raise deep theological questions. One of Greg’s high school friends was a young man from a Hindu background, and Greg couldn’t help but think about him every time he parked at church and walked across the lot to school. Was this how Christians were supposed to invite people to Jesus? It felt a little like a Jesus toll, put the right coins in, and the gate would lift. What if someone said yes they were interested in the church but only because they wanted to park in the lot? What if someone else who truly could be seeking Jesus was turned off by the rope?

Greg brought these questions with him to the University of Illinois. He believed deeply in his faith, indeed believed it was the only way to God. He also believed that the best way to express his faith, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, was to be in right relationship with the world, including people of other faiths. Right relationship meant respect, understanding, and cooperation. So in addition to being part of an Evangelical Christian association, Greg joined the Interfaith in Action student group (set up by a group of Illinois students who spent a summer interning at the Interfaith Youth Core), and quickly became a leader in its weekly shared values discussion and its annual Day of Interfaith Service. On a good day, twenty students came to the discussion. Interfaith in Action could expect a hundred and twenty or so for the annual service day, where Interfaith in Action leaders organized students into religiously diverse groups for a day of volunteering and then facilitated small group discussions about the shared value of service across faiths.

The numbers remained modest for several years, but the network of relationships that Interfaith in Action cultivated were increasingly impressive. Directors of local social service agencies came to respect Greg and his colleagues, and rely on the annual volunteer day. Campus officials, including the Chancellor, came to know about Greg’s work. The leaders of various religious student organizations encouraged their members to participate in the discussions and the days of service, resulting in markedly lower tension between religious communities across the campus. Personally, Greg felt fulfilled. The model of discussing shared values like mercy and compassion with people of different traditions and applying those values in interfaith service projects, allowed him to speak openly about his Christian inspiration while also listening respectfully to others.

In January of 2010, a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving a million homeless. Greg and the Executive Committee of Interfaith in Action (which included a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Humanist) started to organize. They found the most practical way they could help: packing nutritious, dry-goods meals. They set a goal: the University of Illinois and the Champaign-Urbana community would pack a million meals for Haiti in a weekend. Directors of local social service agencies helped them find a space large enough for the event. One helped them get a federal grant to pay for the food and materials. They mobilized their network among student and community religious communities. They pasted butcher people on a wall so that people could write what inspired them to serve. In a twelve hour period, over five thousand people packaged over a million meals for Haiti. Hundreds took the time to leave a quote about service from their tradition on the wall.

I was floored when I heard about this. I excitedly told Greg that he was putting all the theories into practice – bringing diverse people together in common projects, bridging social capital, turning diversity into pluralism, creating networks of engagement, working the interfaith triangle. Greg stopped me. He was happy about all that, but he had done this in the name of a different philosopher. Greg quoted him: “I was hungry and you brought me something to eat.”

This issue is personal for students. And when something becomes personal for students, it quickly becomes personal for faculty, staff, and administrators across college campuses.

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