One book author sparks interfaith dialogue


Isabella Sanchez-Castaneda

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, Eboo Patel, the author of “Acts of Faith,” spoke on campus for the University’s One Book Program. Patel is a leader in the interfaith movements and the founder of Interfaith Youth Core. “[The Interfaith Youth Core was founded] on the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division,” its website states. “Patel was inspired to build this bridge by his identity as an American Muslim navigating a religiously diverse social landscape.” He has also served on Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships.

The following is an interview with Patel and the University: 

Isabella Sanchez: Thank you for being here 

with us today. 

Eboo Patel: It’s great to be here with you .

IS: How has your time been at Villanova for the day? 

EP: I mean, what a terrific University this is. I’ve loved the high level of intellectual engagement. It’s a stunningly beautiful campus. I love the city of Philadelphia. So, I couldn’t have imagined a better day.  

IS: How does someone begin to dive in and explore religious pluralism? 

EP: I think one good way to do this is to have an appreciation for American history and the role that building a religiously diverse democracy played in the imagination of our founders. Political philosophers believed it was impossible to have a religiously diverse democracy, but Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and George Washington, they not only believe it was possible but they founded a nation based on those principles and one interesting thing about being in Philadelphia is that a number of those people did their thinking here. So Ben Franklin, for example, plays a big role in the American ethos of religious pluralism, and he did a lot of that ground work here, in Philadelphia.

IS: You’re mentioning very prominent political figures. What would your response be to people who say you should keep religion out of politics? 

EP: You, in a religiously diverse democracy, you can’t keep religion out of public life and I’m not sure that we would want to because then Villanova University wouldn’t exist. Villanova is a great example of an expression of Catholicism in the public life of America. So this group of Catholics, this Augustinian order, believed that higher education is not only a way of nurturing its own tradition but also a service to the broader public, so I view Catholic and K-12 schools and hospitals and refugee resettlement agencies as a great example of how religion makes a very concrete contribution to our civic life. I don’t think anybody would want to get rid of that. 

IS: How can a religiously affiliated institution, such as Villanova, achieve the goals of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue, while still adhering to a tradition?  

EP: That’s a great question. So, in my experience it’s actually easier for institutions with a religious affiliation to engage robustly in interfaith cooperation. I think there’s at least two reasons for that. Reason number one is because religion is already in the air or in the water of such institutions so it’s not a taboo topic, in fact it’s the inspiration for the University and oftentimes students from other religions and faculty from other religions feel a sense of comfort because although their religious tradition is different there is an understanding and kind of DNA level respect for religious identity and tradition period. So that’s one thing. 

The second thing is that all traditions have theologies of interfaith cooperation, so it’s very likely that Villanova has a class on Catholicism—for example, a required course on Catholic theology. It’s not that hard to nuance that course to have it be Catholic theology and religious diversity so you’re still learning about Catholic theology but now you’re learning about it in specific reference to religious diversity. A public university might have a course like that, but it certainly wouldn’t be required, where as Villanova is part of the mission of the University to educate it’s students about Catholicism and often times universities like this, and VIllanova is an excellent example, fuse it as part of its mission to educate about Catholicism, other religions and positive relationships between all of those. 

IS: You mention the mission of Villanova and one of the missions of Villanova, but also of your personal philosophy, is service. We have our day of service coming up, How would you encourage students who are participating to view the service they are taking part in? 

EP: That’s a great question. So one is to connect their religious or philosophical world view with the service that they’re doing. So you’re not just helping to feed a homeless person as a prosaic act. You are

following on the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad who was told by God that you are to be a special mercy upon all the worlds right so that notion of like you’re giving expression to or you’re implementing one of the highest values of your religious tradition is a powerful inspiration to serve and recognizing that you’re doing that with hundreds or thousands of other people, many of whom are thinking the same thing, that’s a powerful reflection moment. How do you go from that to an interfaith dialogue? How do you go from that to I want to create a space where I can share some of the reflections I’ve had about serving and I want to hear other people share their reflections. The beauty of this is its what we in IfYC call a mutually enriching dialogue, instead of the mutually exclusive dialogue. People are always going to have differences about the nature of Jesus there’s a mutual exclusivity in Christology for example but when I tell you about my Islamic inspiration to serve and you tell me about your Catholic inspiration to serve I don’t feel like your story is taking anything away from mine I’m just learning from yours. So that’s a mutually enriching conversation. I’m not saying to avoid the difficult ones. I’m saying make sure you’re also having these other ones 

IS: How do you create the space for that?

EP: Ah, right! That’s where interfaith leaders come in. That space doesn’t naturally appear. You need to have facilitators that are gathering people in groups of 12 or 15 and creating a space where they can share those stories. And if you’re not doing that this year, maybe that’s something you think about doing in the future. That you take the day of service, and you build around it facilitated dialogue sessions where people are doing storytelling about their faith. It’s a great student leadership opportunity because you would train a cadre of say 80- 100 of those students, something that the office of interfaith affairs could do and those students who are trained to facilitate interfaith dialogue are the ones responsible for gathering a thousand students into groups of 10 for an interfaith reflection afterwards. 

IS: You focus a lot on students and young people especially. Do you see this interfaith movement being very rooted in younger generations? 

EP: It’s happening in all generations, but if there’s an interfaith event happening somewhere in Philadelphia, there’s a reasonable chance that the people on the panel are older people and the people in audience are older people, so we started interfaith youth core with the hope and purpose of engaging younger people in this work, especially in a language that they find more exciting than the typical interfaith dialogue. 

IS: You mentioned in your book that in your undergrad years you became very politicized and ultimately angry. What would you say to a student now in their undergrad years who may be going through a similar experience? 

EP: Read Dorothy Day. 

IS: Can you elaborate on that? 

EP: It was reading Dorothy Day and engaging in the Catholic Worker movement that flipped me from an anger based activist to a love based activist, and the fact that she came out of the faith tradition of Catholicism was new to me. I didn’t know that at the time and that’s what was my first window into faith based activism and social change work. There are lots of different Dorothy Days for people. Dorothy Day was my Dorothy Day but maybe somebody else will be your Dorothy Day 

IS: Could you potentially see yourself as someone’s Dorothy Day? 

EP: I don’t really want to be that guy. God drops a Dorothy Day on a country like once a century. Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933. It was about living the way Jesus lived, which was living in solidarity and in community with poor people and she did it for 47 years. I’m not that guy. I lasted all of four weeks in a Catholic worker house because it was just too hard. So the notion that somebody lived in Catholic Worker housing for the bulk of 47 years. They have a different quantity of the divine than I have. 

IS: Do you see yourself as that leader that you mentioned in your book you sought after when you were younger? 

EP: No, and honestly, “Acts of Faith” is eleven years old, and I would never write another memoir, because at 41 I know that I’m a lot less important than I thought that I was when I was 30. 

IS: Are there things you would have done differently had you written it now? 

EP: I wouldn’t write it now. I’m glad I wrote it I think it provides a service to the world and I’m thrilled about that but I have a 10 and a seven year old, I’m constantly reminded of the beauty of a pedestrian, of living a modest life where you try to make a contribution 

IS: You mentioned it is 11 years old, and in those 11 years we’ve seen a lot of anti-Muslim imagery and rhetoric, especially in today’s administration. Has the expression of your identity as a Muslim changed in those eleven years? 

EP: That’s a great question. Not me. I speak English without a discernable accent. I don’t wear a headscarf. I don’t have a seven-inch beard, so I am not an obvious target in the street and I live a blessed and comfortable life. I have mild concerns for my kids, even though they also live a blessed and comfortable life. But I have deep concern for the Muslim family who live 40 miles from a major city and they’re the only family in three square miles that’s Muslim, and they’re in sea of 80 percent of the county went for Donald Trump, and it feels like open season on the seventh grader. I have deep empathy for that situation, and I think that religious prejudice has long been a part of American life, and every generation has fought against it, and I’m inspired that people are fighting against anti-Muslim prejudice in a way that people fought against anti-Catholic prejudice, so I think in the long term we will get over this prejudice, I think that right now for a set of people it’s very difficult.