Dr. Ebrahim “Eboo” Patel is leading the movement to engage young people of various religious identities in the United States in interfaith community service. His work aligns the deeply held principles and shared values of public service, religious freedom, and pluralism to enrich society and reduce the ignorance that has made religiously motivated attacks the second most common form of hate crime today.
The New Idea
Eboo founded Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) to bring young people from different faith communities together to work in social action projects, fostering cooperation instead of conflict among youth of diverse religious beliefs. IFYC’s program involves thousands of people working on social action projects addressing problems ranging from homelessness and hunger to education. IFYC also encourages young participants to identify values they share with one another and then articulate how their religious traditions speak to those shared values. IFYC is the first organization to use a service learning methodology to engage religiously diverse teenagers and young adults in community service that teaches them to live in understanding and cooperative service to others.
The contemporary interfaith movement is dominated by people over 50. Interfaith youth projects are often talked about but rarely developed; and if they are, they are haphazard and temporary. Most interfaith work takes place in the “languages” of theology or ceremony. Outside of the interfaith world, multicultural work takes into account identity characteristics such as race, class, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but rarely considers religion. Yet religion is central to the identities of many young Americans.
Many interfaith organizations focus on theological dialogue, which often leads to mutually exclusive claims around, for example, the nature of Jesus. IFYC encourages their youth participants to engage in cooperative service projects and then share how their different religions inspire service. This approach allows them to recognize what they have in common with each other while maintaining their uniqueness, building community and shared understanding at a time in American history when both are especially strained.
Harvard scholar Diana Eck calls America the most religiously diverse society on Earth. More than 85 percent of the United States population identifies itself as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhists, Hindu, Wiccans, Sikhs, or some other religious identity. This diversity gives rise to the following question: How are young Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and others, as they live, study and work in increasingly close quarters in America, going to interact with one another? The nature of these interactions will have serious implications for the identity of religious communities, the strength of our civil societies and the stability of national and international politics.
According to a recent FBI report, hate crimes motivated by religious bias are second only to crimes motivated by racial bias, accounting for 19 percent of reported hate crimes. In the weeks immediately following the September 11th attacks, U.S. citizens were united behind the president who reminded us that although the attackers professed Islam, this “War on Terror” would not be a fight against Islam. Still there were widespread accounts of some citizens being assaulted because they “looked Muslim”—including several attacks on Sikhs.
Long before these attacks, Eboo Patel recognized that people of different religions interact with each other daily in the United States without an understanding or appreciation of the various religious faiths that provide meaning to the majority of citizens.
In the 1990s, young people such a Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Alan Khazei of City Year, and Vanessa Kirsch of Public Allies recommitted their generation to public service and social problem-solving through organizations that embraced diversity and required public service. They were among thousands of new organizations that formed to involve their generation in national and community service. Yet there wasn’t a single national organization that drew young people of faith communities together for the same type of national and community service.
Youth groups in religious congregations account for a great deal of social capital. For example, according to a Search Institute study, 53 percent of youth volunteers report that their involvement with service opportunities started through their religious institution. Building relationships between religiously diverse youth groups provides us with the possibility to bridge and multiply that social capital.
Over the long term, the Interfaith Youth Core will make a more socially responsible, resilient, and forbearing citizenry by combining America’s traditions of pluralism, service, and religious freedom through proliferation of its programs and practices across the country.
A key to IFYC’s local and national model is recognizing that youth programs are often the first ones mentioned in a church or synagogue’s newsletter but the last thing funded in their budgets. The IFYC provides the programming and activities that are often missing in congregational youth programs. It does so at the local level where, in Chicago, it is building a “model interfaith youth city” and on the national level where it speaks to youth program leaders and provides resources and opportunities for them to engage their members in interfaith youth service of various kinds.
The local multilayered Chicago program involves thousands of high school students in outreach, education, and service projects in partnership with their congregations and faith communities. It also involves college students as interns and lecturers in courses on religion and social issues related to interfaith work. The local program deliberately helps Eboo test which parts of the model work best and should be disseminated nationally.
IFYC’s nationwide initiatives seek to catalyze the development of other model programs and cities across the country. This larger strategy requires three distinct efforts. The first is for Eboo to establish himself as an expert on this topic by writing for faith-based publications, speaking at conferences, and championing his vision. The second is for the IFYC to provide the manuals, suggested projects, and best practices that local interfaith programs can apply on their own. The third is to create and coordinate an event—the “National Day of Interfaith Youth Service”—which gives occasion for these informed and prepared groups across the country to all take action in their communities on the same day.
Interfaith youth projects have already emerged in many communities. Campuses like Northwestern, Princeton, Wellesley, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Illinois have student interfaith groups. These are often organized under the auspices of the college chaplain or Dean of Religious Life. Interfaith youth projects have also emerged in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Houston. In some cases, these are projects of interfaith organizations that largely serve adults, such as Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston’s Interfaith Youth Council and NCCJ-Chicago’s Interfaith Collaboration of Emerging Leaders. In other cases, they are projects of community development organizations, such as CAMBA’s Mosaic Youth Project in Brooklyn. In all cases, IFYC can provide materials to help structure discussion and subsequent public services for young people in ways that strengthen their interfaith agenda.
By simultaneously operating the national preparation and visibility initiatives and the in-depth local programs, the IFYC is leading in the development of this new field. Consequently Eboo fully expects that the number of campuses, congregations and local faith programs participating in the National Day of Interfaith Youth Service will continue to rise, the number of young people infiltrating professional life with a deeper commitment to pluralism will continue to rise, and (once interfaith youth service has permeated the culture) incidents of religious hate crimes will fall.
Ebrahim “Eboo” Patel, who was raised Muslim outside of Chicago, Illinois, tells two stories that provide insight to his convictions and intelligence.
The first such story is of a visit to his grandmother in India after he had finished his undergraduate study. He says that he awoke one morning to find a new person sitting on his grandmother’s sofa. When he asked who this person was, his grandmother said “Call her Anisa, I don’t know her real name. Her father and uncle beat her, so she has come here. We will keep her safe.”
This is how he learned that his grandmother had been sheltering women for 40 years by hiding them in her home. She sent those interested in education to school. She paid for the travel of those who wanted to live with family in other parts of India. Others simply stayed and helped her around the house until they got married and started their own families. Eboo was moved by these stories and even more so when he asked his grandmother why she did this. She answered “Because I am a Muslim. This is what Muslims do.” Eboo wanted to be worthy of the peace and community-building tradition that meant “Muslim” to his grandmother.
After two years of undergraduate study at the University of Illinois, Eboo informed his immigrant parents that he intended to drop out of college because it was too far removed from anything meaningful to him. After a summer of consternation, he and his father acquiesced to a compromise that his mother proposed. Rather than drop out, her suggestion was to finish early, then he could pursue whatever he chose.
He did so and moved back to Chicago where he worked as a teacher for an alternative school and he founded (and lived in) a co-op for artists and activists. It was in these intervening years that the Interfaith Youth Core was born. His youth, commitment to community action, and his faith tradition made Eboo simultaneously a participant in the interfaith movement, the youth service movement led by groups such as City Year and Public Allies, and the faith-based social justice movement led by groups like the Catholic Worker. The Interfaith Youth Core combines the best practices of each.
Following a trip to visit his grandmother in India, he returned to earn a doctorate at Oxford University in the sociology of religion on a Rhodes scholarship, stating that “I had a vision of how to change the world for the better, so I acquired the cultural capital that comes with a Rhodes Scholarship and founded the Interfaith Youth Core.”
A moment’s conversation with Eboo makes it clear that he isn’t just attentive to the ideas of great social thinkers, he is propelled by them. He deeply believes that people’s ethical traditions form the basis for social stability and justice.