Eboo Patel is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. A native of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, he is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based which works with colleges to build and promote interfaith practice. He was named by US News and World Report as one of the world’s best leaders in 2009. In 2012, he published the book Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. Patel’s visit to Kenyon on Wednesday included a reading from his 2007 book Acts of Faith, his autobiographical account of growing up Muslim in the U.S., and a talk at Rosse Hall.
According to the Pew Research Center, young adults born between 1981 and 1996 are much less likely than older Americans to pray or attend church regularly, or to consider religion an important part of their lives. Since you work so much with college students, how do you approach that fact when you begin developing interfaith practice on a college campus?
So, secular, humanist, seeker, atheist identities are also part of America’s religious landscape — or, you can say religious identities are part of America’s secular landscape. But the fact is that these varieties of identities are being formed and are interacting with one another, and the major question that we have at IFYC is, what is the nature of relationships between people going to be like between people who orient around religion differently? So one way of orienting around religion is being an evangelical Christian. Another way of orienting around religion is being a spiritual seeker. The question is, what’s the relationship between those two communities and individuals going to look like?
Let’s talk a little more about identity. I know that you’ve spent time with a variety of different religious groups. How would you describe that spiritual journey?
I mean, when I was looking for sustainable fuel for social justice work, I found it in religious commitment, and I saw it first in other people’s religious commitment, and in religious communities and traditions that I was unfamiliar with, and I brought those eyes back to my own original tradition of Islam.
What is it like to work with the President? How would you describe the council’s vision for interfaith cooperation and practice in the U.S?
So just to be clear, it would be dramatically overstating things to say that I worked with the President. I mean, you know, I shook his hand a handful of times, we presented a report to him in a 30-minute session — I wouldn’t even call it a meeting. It wasn’t back and forth. I will say that I was in the Roosevelt Room, and I accidentally sat in his chair. That was kind of interesting. And [I] know that because somebody came around and whispered in my ear and said, you know, that’s the President’s chair. They all looked the same to me, and I said, “How do you know?” He said it’s a half-inch higher than all of the other chairs. But, you know, it’s remarkable to be in his presence in the White House.
In a particularly divisive election year on college campuses, what about the art and science of pluralism can we apply to facilitating conversations?
There’s a great line — I think it actually comes out of the Christian tradition — don’t compare your best intention to someone else’s worst action. Right? So, you know, I think Donald Trump is beyond the pale. I think that’s a pretty standard view in graduate-educated, urban, cultural progressive America, which includes college campus America. But there’s 40 percent of my fellow Americans that support them, and I’m in a political community with those people. A political community is an important and powerful thing. It means that I have agreed that whoever we may elect, I will live under that person’s rule. That’s actually a profound agreement. It requires a sympathetic understanding of your fellow citizen with whom you disagree, and the cultivation of relationships, common ground, common vision together. I don’t want to just disagree with people, and I certainly do not just want to denounce people with whom I have disagreements. I think there are higher virtues in a diverse democracy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This post has been updated to represent that Dr. Patel is a native of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and that IFYC is a Chicago-based organization.