Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel on the meaning of interfaith—and solving problems in Silicon Valley both in the long run and right now. He recently visited the Mission Campus as part of the President’s Speaker Series.
An advocate for interfaith dialogue and peace, a champion for social justice, and one very busy man on April 9. That was the day that Eboo Patel came to speak at Santa Clara University as the final guest in the 2013–14 President’s Speaker Series.
Patel founded and leads the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a nonprofit that specializes in working with colleges to promote interfaith issues. Before his speech, Patel had a full day of discussions with faculty and meetings with students planned. He also made time for Santa Clara Magazine, talking with writer Jeff Gire about why a Muslim sends his children to Catholic school and how faith can play a role in the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots of Silicon Valley.
How have you come to understand the term interfaith? How do you think society at large understands it?
One of the exciting things about being involved in interfaith work right now is that there is clearly a growth in activity. I was just in Bismarck, N.D., and there’s interfaith stuff going on there. I was in Portland, Ore., and there’s an interfaith council there. I mean, just about any city where I go, from Fargo, N.D., to outside of Seattle, there is formal interfaith stuff happening, which I find very exciting.
I think the downside is that there are a hundred different definitions of what interfaith means and half of them contradict each other. So here is my own understanding of the term interfaith cooperation. It’s how the field of interfaith is interested in how people who orient around religion differently—from secular humanists to Zoroastrians to orthodox Muslims to liberal Catholics—how all of those different orientations around religion interact with each other. And it seeks to nurture those interactions in a way that builds understanding and cooperation.
I know the Interfaith Youth Core works a lot with college campuses—why college campuses for this?
I think any good organization has to focus. You can’t be good at everything. So for us, the focus is U.S. college campuses. And that’s because of two big reasons, really.
First, we think campuses are great laboratories for interfaith cooperation—you have students from diverse backgrounds, and you have exceptional scholars and researchers. Campuses are places that appreciate diverse identities; at the same time, they seek to nurture positive relationships between those different identities. And they’re also places that think a hundred years ahead in terms of research and scholarship, so they’re great laboratories.
The second thing is that a campus is a launching pad. There’s a great line: If you want to build a great city, build a great university and wait 200 years. Right? Because that university is going to be a launching pad of the thought leaders and the political leaders, etc., for the city. I think the same is true for a movement. If you want to build a movement, to reach exceptional young people, help form and shape them into an identity and wait for them to do remarkable things.
I’m glad you said “launching pad.” How do you hope students act and interact with others after going through some of the programs and moving on to becoming adults, starting families, and becoming part of their communities?
I would say there are two big things happening with our alumni that I’m excited about. First, IFYC student trainings are very intensive. We have impacted hundreds of thousands of people in some way, shape, or form in terms of broader programs, but the group of people that we consider having been trained in a very intensive, focused, IFYC way—and that we consider part of our formal alumni network—is a lot smaller. It’s about 600 people right now.
I put those alumni into two broad categories. One is the people who are going to become interfaith professionals, the ones who are going to be the staff in university diversity departments or chaplains who focus on religious diversity. There’s going to be a set of people for whom interfaith work is their life’s work.
And then there’s a set of people who are doctors and lawyers and who work at social service organizations, and they’re going to bring a sensitivity around religious diversity and the skill set of interfaith leadership into their work.
My sense is that this is how change is made. There’s going to be a set of people who say, “Interfaith leadership is my primary vocation and I’m going to try to get a job with the Interfaith Youth Core, or I’m going to try to get a job at Santa Clara University’s chaplaincy.” And there’s going to be a set of people who say, “My job is as a doctor or a lawyer or a banker or a consultant, but I’m going to bring a sensitivity to religious diversity and the skill set of positive engagement of that religious diversity with me wherever I go.”
In an article on higher education, you said that Catholic universities can play an important role in interfaith dialogue. Could you say more about that and what your experience with Jesuit universities has been?
Sure. What I personally owe the Catholic tradition is impossible to fit into even a book. I’m in this country because of a Catholic university, the University of Notre Dame, which allowed my dad into the MBA program in the mid-1970s. My mother, my father, and my mother-in-law were all educated at Catholic schools in India. My wife and sister-in-law were both educated at a Jesuit law school, Loyola University in Chicago. My kids went to Catholic preschools. There is no doubt in my mind that they will have Catholic education at some point in their lives.
Why do I go through this? Because I think one of the great gifts of the Catholic tradition is its ability to plant its distinct seeds in any soil and flower into institutions that serve the whole society.
There is no doubt that the places where my kids went to preschool, St. Matthias and St. Ben’s, are Catholic: They have morning readings on saints, they say the Lord’s Prayer before meals, they teach the Easter story in a serious way. There’s no doubt that the University of Notre Dame is Catholic.
At the same time, both of my Muslim children felt very comfortable at their preschools. My Muslim dad felt very comfortable at the University of Notre Dame. And I think that this is not just a theology of interfaith cooperation that you see in Catholic—and especially Jesuit—institutions, it is the physical, concrete manifestation of that theology in an institution that serves a range of people. Which I find hugely inspiring and which I am genuinely grateful for.
What are you looking for in your visit to Santa Clara University?
What I am always looking for when I come to a university is the aspiration it has for being an ecology of interfaith cooperation. Just about any university, especially any religiously affiliated university in America, will tell you that interfaith cooperation is important to them and religious diversity is something they care about. But I am always interested in just how high the aspiration is. Is it good enough if there is an interfaith group with a dozen students in it? Is it good enough if there is one interfaith activity a year? Is it good enough if there’s one course that touches on religious diversity in some way, shape, or form? What’s the level of aspiration? And then, what is the integration of the programs, both cocurricular and curricular, that your students would go through to achieve that aspiration? That’s what I’m always interested in. I mean, I get to spend this terrific afternoon here, speak with your student affairs folks, speak with your faculty, and then I get to have a conversation with your student leaders. And then I get to meet personally with your president and provost and speak to your school community. So I will get visibility into multiple dimensions of the campus and be able to ask my favorite questions of folks who sit in different rooms of this house.
I think a Jesuit university has a huge role to play in an area that’s widening as much in inequality as Silicon Valley is, and I would imagine Silicon Valley, at least in the Western Hemisphere, is probably one of the top in inequality because of the astronomical wealth in the area. A colleague of mine lived here and she said that the difference between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto is the difference between California and India.
So what can a Jesuit university do and what can interfaith collaborations do? I think a Jesuit university can be three things: voice, witness, and solution. I think Pope Francis is doing an exceptional job at this. First of all, just give utterance to the problem, and then, second, be a sacred witness to the problem in the variety of ways that faith traditions encourage witness. But I think a third thing that’s important is: What do you do about it? And, of course, Jesuits, with their institution building—especially the schools—are probably the best escalators of social mobility there are, right? Especially over time. But it’s probably not enough. There has to be more, especially when you don’t have 30 years to wait. You can’t say to yourself, “Our Jesuit high school in this area is going to make X difference in 30 years,” because the next 30 years might be really, really hard.
So what does the combination of voice, witness, and solution give rise to? I think that faith traditions are very good at the voice and witness part. I think that faith traditions do a very good job with building long-term solutions in terms of the institutions they build—the libraries, the schools, the hospitals. But when there’s an acute situation, as there is now, what is a solution that can be both long-term and short-term? I think that’s an open question.
So one of the things about the faith traditions is that, broadly speaking, they have the same view of inequality—at some level it’s a bad thing, right? Human dignity deserves a basic level of sustenance. And it is an opportunity to bring different faith communities together and have a conversation, and perhaps have it in the three dimensions of voice, witness, and solution. I think, in this case, the voice part also has a lot to do with reflection: Let’s reflect on our own traditions and what they teach about radical disparities. What are the stories, what’s the scripture, what are the historical moments? What have the heroes of our traditions done? Let’s give voice to those things. Let’s be a witness to the problems we are seeing, and then let’s collectively create some solutions.
Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. He was recently appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Initiatives, where he is working to realize the president’s priority of interfaith cooperation. He is also the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.
Patel spoke at Santa Clara on Apr. 9, 2014, as part of the 2013–14 President’s Speaker Series. Watch a recording of his talk below.