An Effort to Foster Tolerance in Religion
June 13, 2011
An Effort to Foster Tolerance in Religion
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN (NYTimes)
CHICAGO — For a guy who is only 35 and lives in a walk-up apartment,
Eboo Patel has already racked up some impressive accomplishments.
A Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in the sociology of religion from
Oxford University, he has four honorary degrees. His autobiography is
required freshman reading on 11 college campuses. He runs a nonprofit
organization — the Interfaith Youth Core — with 31 employees and a
budget of $4 million. And he was tapped by the White House as a key
architect of an initiative announced in April by President Obama.
Mr. Patel got there by identifying a sticky problem in American civic
life and proposing a concrete solution. The problem? Increased
religious diversity is causing increasing religious conflict. And too
often, religious extremists are driving events.
He figured that if Muslim radicals and extremists of other religions
were recruiting young people, then those who believe in religious
tolerance should also enlist the youth.
Interfaith activism could be a cause on college campuses, he argued,
as much "a norm" as the environmental or women's rights movements, as
ambitious as Teach for America. The crucial ingredient was to gather
students of different religions together not just to talk, he said,
but to work together to feed the hungry, tutor children or build
"Interfaith cooperation should be more than five people in a book
club," Mr. Patel said, navigating his compact car to a panel
discussion at Elmhurst College just west of downtown Chicago, while
answering questions and dictating e-mails to an aide. "You need a
critical mass of interfaith leaders who know how to build
relationships across religious divides, and see it as a lifelong
Until Mr. Patel came along, the interfaith movement in the United
States was largely the province of elders and clergy members hosting
dialogues and, yes, book clubs — and drafting documents that had
little impact at the grass roots.
Meanwhile at the grass roots, inter-religious friction was sparking
regularly over public school holidays, zoning permits for houses of
worship and religious garb in the workplace. At many universities,
there is open hostility over the Israeli occupation of Palestinian
territories and the failure to find a peaceful solution.
Mr. Patel, who is Muslim, is not saying that his plan will solve all
those conflicts, just that the focus should be on what he calls "the
American project." Immigrants across the generations brought their
faiths, their biases and their beefs and "built a new pattern of
relationships" over here, he said, pointing out that English
Protestants and Irish Catholics eventually overcame their enmity on
"When I go to a campus where the Muslim Student Association and the
Hillel are not talking to each other," he said (referring to the
national Jewish student group) this spring in a lecture at Columbia
University, "my question to them is, 'Who did you feed in Ramallah by
not talking to Hillel? Who did you keep safe in the south of Israel by
not talking to the M.S.A.?' "
There are many interfaith groups, but none like Mr. Patel's, where
youthful idealism and spiritual searching have been channeled by pro
bono consultants from McKinsey & Company into strategic plans,
templates and spreadsheets. The offices take up a whole floor in a
handsomely renovated industrial building. On one end is a small prayer
room. On the other is a bulletin board where the manager of foundation
development tracks grant applications worth millions of dollars.
At a staff meeting, which started and ended on time, two senior
leaders in T-shirts emblazoned "Better Together" walked everybody
through a PowerPoint presentation of the group's recent expansion.
By the end of the school year in June 2010, the Youth Core had trained
18 "interfaith fellows" who each recruited about 40 students on their
campuses. By this June, the Youth Core had trained leaders on 97
campuses, who engaged an average of 100 students, for a total of
10,000 participants — more than 10 times over the previous year. The
leaders are undergraduates, religious and nonreligious, who attended
summer training sessions led by Youth Core staff members, and then
returned to their campuses to organize interfaith events and community
service projects using the upbeat slogan, "Better Together."
The meeting ended when the vice president for strategy and operations,
Gabe Hakim, a former McKinsey analyst who wears a "What Would Jesus
Do" bracelet, recited his signature send-off: "Let's go make it a
Mr. Patel responded with his signature meeting closer, "Rock on."
Mr. Patel started the Youth Core in 2002 with a Jewish friend, a
$35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and one full-time paid staff
member, April Mendez, an evangelical Christian who still works with
the organization as vice president for leadership.
Mr. Patel's parents were Indian immigrants from the Ismaili Shiite
sect (led by the imam Aga Khan IV), which is known for its
philanthropic work. But Mr. Patel spent his days at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and afterward running away from his own
roots, searching for spiritual identity and purpose.
He read Dorothy Day and lived in Catholic Worker houses, volunteered
in a homeless shelter run by evangelical Christians in Atlanta,
practiced Buddhist meditation and made a pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama
in India (which is chronicled in his autobiography, "Acts of Faith,"
published in 2007 by Beacon Press). But when he visited his
grandmother in Mumbai and saw her taking in battered women, he
realized that his own tradition offered the ethic of service and
humanitarianism he had been looking for all along.
Now, during the work day, Mr. Patel flies from speaking engagements to
White House meetings to college campuses. Six university presidents
have signed paying contracts to have the Youth Core assess the state
of inter-religious relations and awareness on campus and devise
proposals on how to improve them.
The Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, president of Loyola University, a
Jesuit university in Chicago, said of Mr. Patel's group: "They don't
have the knowledge base or experience in theology, but they have
provided the data on where our kids are. The world we grew up in was
all Irish, Italian and German. Now it's Vietnamese, and Poles and
Jewish kids from Skokie. We are not automatically able to reflect on
The White House initiative is the biggest breakthrough yet. Mr. Obama
sent a letter last month to 2,000 university presidents inviting them
to sign up their campuses for the "Interfaith and Community Service
Challenge" in the coming school year. So far, about 400 have signed
Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of
Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said Mr. Patel, who served
on the president's religion advisory council, and the Youth Core staff
were "critical early partners" in developing the new initiative.
"You have people who can cast a vision but then not implement the
vision," Mr. DuBois said in an interview. "Then you have people who
are great implementers but are not very inspirational. Eboo is a
unique leader who can do both."
At night, when Mr. Patel comes home to his apartment, his year-old
son, Khalil, is waiting at the glass door.
Mr. Patel tries to live the philosophy that exposure to other
religions enhances one's own. He and his wife, Shehnaz Mansuri, a
civil rights lawyer and a Sunni Muslim, have hired a South American
nanny who sometimes recites the Lord's Prayer to their two sons. They
send their 4-year-old, Zayd, to a Roman Catholic preschool.
"When Zayd talks about saints," Mr. Patel said, "I can tell him about imams."