A Muslim “bridge builder” has started interfaith work in his basement. Now it has programs on hundreds of campuses. – Chicago Tribune

Eboo Patel began his efforts to bring people of different faiths together for dialogue and service projects in a basement office on the northwest side.

He kept his day job and piloted a practical Chrysler Cirrus sedan through the streets of Chicago, bringing high school students to meetings where they engaged in heated discussions and take-out meals for the homeless.

“I was like a Cub Scout leader,” Patel said with a chuckle.

What a difference 20 years make. Today Patel, who approaches interfaith work from a Muslim perspective, runs a nonprofit with a staff of 54, a budget of $14 million and programs on hundreds of college campuses. Interfaith America has advised presidents and helped Starbucks develop religious diversity education for employees.

And Patel, whose organization — formerly known as Interfaith Youth Core and renamed Interfaith America on Tuesday to reflect its broader goals — continues to innovate.

In his new book, “We Need To Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy,” Patel pushes for a broader view of American religious values ​​that recognizes not only Christians and Jews, but also Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians and non-believers, among others.

“We’re an organization that builds bridges and says, ‘Diversity isn’t just the differences you love,'” Patel, 46, said.

“The only way to have a healthy, religiously diverse democracy is for people who disagree on some fundamental things to work together on other fundamental things, right? a remarkable achievement in human history for people of diverse identities and divergent ideologies to build a nation together, and we believe that religion has a lot to do with that,” he said.

Patel acknowledged that religion can be weaponized, but noted that his Muslim parents earned degrees from the University of Notre Dame and DePaul University, both Catholic institutions. Her children went to Catholic kindergartens. His sister-in-law’s children went to a Jewish kindergarten.

“We in America have this remarkable civic genius where communities of a particular faith build institutions as an expression of their particular religious identity (and those institutions) serve everyone. I think he’s one of the great American geniuses ever celebrated,” Patel said.

In recognition of its organization’s expanded mission, which has included training 2,000 people to work within their diverse faith communities to advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine, the group officially announces the name change Tuesday at the University of Georgetown.

“As my Buddhist friends say, ‘Chop wood, carry water’, right? There are no shortcuts,” Patel said of his organization’s rise to power. “I am truly proud of how hard we have worked, program by program, staff member by staff member, student by student, faculty member by faculty member. »

Patel began his career in the shadows of 9/11, 2001, and became a media darling at a time when news outlets sought out moderate Muslim voices to fight a wave of prejudice and misunderstanding.

“CNN would call us all the time,” said Zeenat Rahman, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, who worked for Interfaith America from 2006 to 2011.

Patel, a Rhodes Scholar and Ph.D. in sociology of religion from Oxford University, was named one of America’s “Top Leaders” by US News & World Report in 2009. He served on the first board President Barack Obama’s Advisory on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. , and has published five books, including the award-winning autobiography, “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.”

His greatest strength is his ability to convey an inspiring vision of what’s possible, Rahman said, but he’s also a strategic thinker who can convince foundations that say, “We don’t do religion,” to come on board. and invest in its programs. .

“He could have done and been anything he wanted and he chose to do that,” Rahman said of interfaith work.

“He could have run for the Senate,” Rahman said. “He could have run for president, and I think we would have really succeeded because he has this intangible ‘I don’t know what it is, but you know it when you see it in a leader.’ Obama has it, Bill Clinton has it.

Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said he has known Patel for about 10 years and they see each other regularly at higher education events. A few years ago, Ryken invited Patel to the campus of his evangelical Christian college and interviewed him publicly about interfaith issues, Christianity and Islam.

“Eboo has a strong capacity for friendship — not just networking, but also friendship, and I think that allows him to build coalitions more strongly,” Ryken said.

Ryken said Patel’s message appeals to faith communities who hold firm to their religious beliefs, a category that includes evangelicals as well as many Muslims and Jews.

“Interfaith Youth Core does not require believers to check their religious beliefs at the door, but actually bring them into the conversation so they can be the fullness of who they are in those relationships and not have to pretend to agree on things. on which they disagree,” he said.

Ryken disagrees with Patel on big issues such as the nature of God and the path to salvation, he said, but he agrees there are still areas where they can cooperate for good. common, and that it is important to seek such cooperation.

Patel lives in Chicago with his wife, Shehnaz Mansuri, a lawyer, and their two sons, the eldest of whom is a student at Lane Tech College Prep High School.

Patel was full of his usual enthusiasm during a recent interview and, true to form, was still setting new goals. He wants the United States to fully embrace the contributions of all religions to the cultural fabric of the country, he said, a paradigm shift that would build on the progress made in the 20th century, when a nation that considered Protestant began to consider themselves Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.

“My vision is that we start calling the United States ‘Interfaith America’, not Judeo-Christian, and that will become commonplace in five or six years,” he said. “The ‘Judeo-Christians’ have done a great job, but that doesn’t include Atheists or Zoroastrians, that doesn’t include Muslims or Jains, that doesn’t include Baha’is or Buddhists. And we have to. We must. So a big part of the vision is a paradigm shift. And then I want our American civic institutions to follow this paradigm shift with real activities.

Patel wants a national day of interfaith service, an interfaith student council on every college campus, and training for nurses and doctors on how to engage their patients’ diverse religious identities.

He wants companies to follow Starbucks’ example and have religious diversity education that encourages interfaith cooperation.

This isn’t the first time interfaith leaders have attempted to broaden the nation’s understanding of its religious identity, according to Kevin M. Schultz, chair of the history department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author. of the book “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise.

In the 1920s and 1930s, people of different faiths worked together to fight a wave of Ku Klux Klan activity and anti-immigrant sentiment aimed at Catholics and Jews in southern and eastern Europe. .

“It was a big deal getting Protestants, Catholics and Jews to work together,” Schultz said, and the effort, which included forming the National Conference of Christians and Jews, had a broad impact. Presidents joined the organization’s board of directors, the group’s National Fellowship Week was widely celebrated, and members helped organize the National March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Expanding the idea of ​​fundamentally American religion was a big step forward, and remains so today, Schultz said. Still, he said, Patel is fit for the job: He’s well-connected, having worked on Obama’s interfaith efforts. He comes from a minority religion, but he is very good at talking to majority religions. And he has a vision and an optimism that Schultz finds “totally compelling.”

“If anyone is in a good position for this to happen again, it’s Eboo Patel,” Schultz said.

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