EbooEboo Patel is the Founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that “seeks to build a movement that encourages religious young people to strengthen their religious identities, foster inter-religious understanding and cooperate to serve the common good.” Eboo received his doctorate in sociology of religion as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. Since then he has been a pioneer for interfaith dialogue. He serves on the boards of International Interfaith Center, CrossCurrents Magazine, Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center as well as the Aga Khan Foundation USA. He is also a frequent contributor to On Faith forum for the Washington Post. His book “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation” is due out in July. You can find it at Beacon Press or at Amazon.

Q: First, can you tell us a little bit about the Interfaith Youth Core? What it is, and why you chose to create this organization?

A: When I was a college student in 1998, I was deeply engaged in the service learning movement that was, and still is, very prevalent on college campuses. At the same time, as a young person with strong ties to my faith, I began to get interested in interfaith work and started attending interfaith conferences. What I noticed when I was there was the prominent absence of young people at these events. I realized that there weren’t places outside of religious institutions that allowed young people to talk about their faith, in their words. Our methodology was created by combining a “shared values” approach with a service-learning methodology. We bring together young people from diverse faith traditions for service projects, asking these young people to express how the scripture, stories, rituals and heroes of their particular tradition speak to these projects. As youth articulate the impulse to service in their own tradition, they discover a corresponding impulse in those they have served with, even as they recognize the uniqueness of each tradition.

Through seven years of grassroots experience on five continents, IFYC has reached 36,000 people with its message and has had 10,300 youth participate in its programs. Our programs in Chicago have brought together thousands of people from different faiths to work on community service projects. Nationally – and increasingly internationally – we support, equip and network the leadership of a growing interfaith youth movement. We began training others in our methodology in 2003, and have since trained over 800 organizers to lead their own interfaith youth service programming in communities around the world.

Q: Why is it important to do interfaith work with young people, and what do you see as the future of interfaith work?Acts of Faith

A: The esteemed writer W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his book, The Souls of Black Folk the problem of the 20th century will be the color line. While the problem of the color line has not been fully solved, I believe that the problem of the 21st century is the faith line. This line does not separate Muslims from Christians, or Jews from Hindus, but rather religious totalitarians from pluralists. A religious totalitarian is someone who seeks to suffocate those who are different from them. Their weapons range from suicide bombs to media empires. A pluralist is someone who seeks to live with people who are different, be enriched by them, and peacefully coexist in the world together. From the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks,

We are each other’s business

We are each other’s harvest

We are each other’s magnitude and bond

Religious totalitarians have been very successful in recruiting young people to be the foot soldiers of their wars. It is imperative to give young people spaces to express and develop their faith identity outside of the church or mosque. Meaning, we have to give young people the tools they need to be successful Christians, not just in church, but in the world. We believe that IFYC’s methodology creates these spaces, and empowers young people to develop and articulate their faith identity.

Q: What are a few of the important issues that can be addressed by interfaith groups?

A: The most tangible issue that IFYC addresses are social service problems. We enable youth to serve their communities, and address pressing social issues on the ground. This has included activities such as building houses, providing homebound seniors with food packages, creating toiletry kits for homeless people, etc.

Another issue that we address is giving individuals the tools to teach them how to get along with people who are “different” from them. It can open lines of communication between communities that would not have interacted otherwise.

Q: Getting a group of people together who have differing theologies can be difficult. How do you persuade them to come to the same table?

A: There are several ways that we do this. First, storytelling is an essential element to our methodology. This means that we ask the youth who participate to speak about their faith traditions from their own experiences and motivations. We are not asking them to be experts on theology in order to participate, but rather to reflect what, in their tradition calls them do service. Secondly, part of our methodology is that these young people go out and do service work side by side and get to know each other. This allows them to build a camaraderie naturally, and calls the best of their traditions into actionable service. Lastly, prior to starting our dialogue, we always set a safe space. It is a list of rules that is agreed upon by everyone in the group, what they need in order to feel open expressing their thoughts.

Q: In conclusion, can you recount an inspirational story from your work?

A: I recently met a woman at interfaith conference in Australia, Gill Hicks. “She uses a cane,” I remember thinking to myself when she walked into the room. “Strange for a woman so young”.

I forgot about that as we got into a discussion of interfaith relations in Britain and America. I was struck by the depth of her knowledge of the Muslim community, the extent of her relationships. She spent her days meeting with Muslim leaders, and her evenings organizing programs that brought people from different ethnic groups together to build bridges.

“What’s your professional background?” I asked. “Were you trained in this?”

She laughed and said, “I’m an interior designer”.

“So how did you come to do this work?” I prodded.

“I was on the London Tube on July 7. I lost my legs on the Piccadilly line.”

I opened and closed my mouth a few times and finally stammered out, “What do you think of when you think of it now?”

“The same thing I thought of then,” she said. “How good human beings can be.”

I stared at her in disbelief.

“As I was almost bleeding to death, there were people making their way down into the tunnel, risking their lives to save me.

I heard voices around me and felt someone touching my shoulder and shouting, “Priority One.”

“I awoke in the hospital with a wristband inscribed with words, ‘One Unknown’. My medical intake sheet read, ‘Estimated Female’. And I realized that the people who saved me had no idea who I was. They were from all different backgrounds themselves, and it didn’t matter if I was richer or poorer than them, lighter or darker, if I prayed in the same way or a different way or not at all.”

Listening to her, I thought back to my own reaction to the London Tube bombing, how angry I was – how angry the whole world was. I remember the newspaper headlines of how we were all becoming more suspicious of each other, how that was a natural reaction. I remember the calls to arms, the clouds of hanging over groups that happened to share an ethnicity or religion with those four terrorists.

Who knew that there was another set of eyes on the matter? Who knew that Gill Hicks was lying in her hospital bed arguing with her fiancé about the menu for their wedding, determined to get married on the day that they had planned, resolved that this incident would only inspire her to learn more about other people, only commit her further to building bridges, to shining light, to loving fully. Who knew that one of the people who lay bleeding deep in the tunnel thought mostly of the strangers who were rescuing her rather than the strangers who had harmed her?