Season 1 - Episode 7: Eboo Patel
Eboo founded Interfaith Youth Core on the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division. He is inspired to build this bridge by his identity as an American Muslim navigating a religiously diverse social landscape.
For over 15 years he has worked with governments, social sector organizations, and college and university campuses to help make interfaith cooperation a social norm. Named by U.S. News & World Report as one of America's Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo served on President Obama's Inaugural Faith Council and is the author of Acts of Faith, Sacred Ground, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer, and Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise. He holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.
These days, Eboo spends most of his time on the road, doing what he loves: meeting students, educators, and community leaders to talk about the complex landscape of religious diversity and the power of interfaith cooperation in the 21st century.
In his off time, you'll find Eboo in Chicago with his wife, Shehnaz, and their two sons. When he's not teaching his kids about interfaith cooperation, there's a good chance he's rooting for Notre Dame and feeding a lifelong coffee addiction.
Sara Barton: Hello, my name is Sara Barton and I am the University Chaplain at Pepperdine
University. Welcome to Pepperdine Spiritual Life Podcast, a podcast about how people
in our community along with our friends and guests are finding and joining God's good
work in the world. Jesus said, "Seek and you shall find." And I will be talking to
people who are doing just that. Let's get started. Today, I welcome Dr. Eboo Patel
to our podcast. Dr. Patel is a regular contributor to the public conversation about
religion in America, and is a leading voice for interfaith cooperation.
He holds a Doctorate in the Sociology of Religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes Scholarship. For over 15 years, Dr. Patel has worked with governments. For example, he served on President Obama's faith council, and social sector organizations to nurture a future in which religion is a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division, and he founded Interfaith Youth Core, which we will explore more today.
So, welcome Dr. Eboo Patel.
Eboo Patel: It's great to be here, thank you.
Sara Barton: We're so glad that you're here and one of the first things that I want
to do, this is a Spiritual Life Podcast for the Pepperdine community. For all of our
schools, we have five schools, we have our undergraduates, and then we have graduate
schools. This is for our alumni who graduated here and are all over the world, our
students who are studying in campuses all over the world, for our faculty, and for
our staff. And so thank you for joining this podcast.
You happen to be our first Muslim guest on this Spiritual Life Podcast, so talk to us a little bit about your spiritual life. What does spirituality mean to you and what does your own spiritual life look like? How do you describe that?
Eboo Patel: Right. So it's wonderful to be here. I have very high regard for Pepperdine.
Even before I visited this stunning campus, which I've probably been to 130 campuses,
I don't know if I've been to a more beautiful one than this. Evidence of God's existence
and wonder right in front of you in that Pacific coast line. So, thank you for having
me here. I remember one of the best students from the year above me in high school
came to Pepperdine. So, that's the first time that this Midwestern kid heard of this
place, but I've had high regard for it from afar for many years, and as I've been
working in higher ed for the past 15 or 18 years, you hear about Pepperdine, and the
way it seeks to be a Christian university serving the world. And so it's great to
be on this campus and getting to experience that.
So, my spiritual life as a Muslim. Let me say three things about that. Number one, I come back to Islam as a young adult. I was raised in an Isma'il Muslim household. Isma'ilis are a small Shia community of Islam, which not that many people know about, but you would of course because you spent many years in East Africa where Isma'ilis have built a network of institutions. Schools, hospitals, social service agencies, which serve all of East Africa. So, I am a part of that community, and I was raised in an Isma'il Muslim household in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Like a lot of adolescents, I kind of faded away from the tradition and its rituals in my teenage years. Not out of any overt rejection, just out of a sense of whatever my parents did had to be uncool, and there were other things to do when I was 17 years old.
Sara Barton: That goes across all religions I think-
Eboo Patel: I think it does also. I got involved in diversity and social justice activism
when I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois in the mid-1990s, and to make
a long story short, it turned out that the people whose social justice work I wound
up admiring the most were faith based social justice workers. First and foremost were
people in part of the Catholic Worker Movement, but then Evangelical Protestants who
did similar type of work, and I would watch how they carried themselves and their
work was always the most front line, their approach was always the most loving. They
loved people way more than they hated the system. They were never impressed with themselves,
which always struck me because at that time I was really impressed with myself. Everything
that I knew about the world as a 19 year old, of course. But I was really moved by
the kind of work that they did, and I wanted some of that.
I actually spent a summer in Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality, including some Evangelical Protestant social justice communities. I'll never forget spending a week at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia, run by Evangelical Protestants Ed Loring and Murphy Davis, and this was a place that had homeless people living in the house-
Sara Barton: I've read about them.
Eboo Patel: Yeah, sleeping out back. Just remarkable kind of live like Jesus lived.
It wasn't even work for them, it was life. It was life. And I wanted... I was so moved
by being there that I asked Ed Loring, who kind of ran the community, if I could come
back the next summer and spend the whole summer with them. And he said, "You know,
I've been watching you Eboo. You close your eyes when we pray and you kind of hum
along with the songs, but you're not a Christian, are you?"
And I said, "No." And he said, "You're not really that interested in learning about it as your own faith?"
I'm like, "I have a lot of respect for it, but it's not my path." And he said, "I can kind of sense that about you." He said, "Well, what I want you to know is what we do here is really hard and to do it for any kind of period of time you need to have a spiritual well that you drink from, and we drink from the well of Christianity. And I'm not going to say, no, you can't come here, but I do want to say that I think you're going to find this kind of work extremely hard if you haven't found the well of spirituality that you drink from, and if it was going to be Christianity I would proactively you into it, because that's part of what we do here, but I don't get a sense that that is your path and that's okay, and I want to just invite you to go find that path."
And that was such a gift to me, and in so many ways it's informed my understanding of doing interfaith work, which is to say here's somebody who was clear about who he was and clear about what he thought the right path was and the full buffet was, and he was very clear that he would happily offer this to others, but he was also really respectful, and a sense of like, there are other people in the world and there's other paths and those paths are to be respected also and if you're going to be on one of those paths, I'm going to invite you to seek that more fully. That's what he did for me.
I never got anything but a sense of respect from him and I have never had anything but respect for him. That's the beginnings of my path back to Islam.
Sara Barton: When he said that about a spiritual well to draw from, was that a new thought to you? Was that new language? Did you already sort of know it or was it a new thought?
Eboo Patel: I think what was new about that for me was somebody who clearly owned his well. Thought it was the best well, and had a sense of respect that there were other paths and other wells, and a sense of kind of decorum. In Islamic Arabic it would be called [Foreign Language 00:08:11]. Kind of a sense of respectfulness of who somebody else was. He discerned that this wasn't going to be my path, and so he had a sense of respect. And he wanted it to be, and had a sense it wasn't going to be, and so there was an invitation for me to go find that path and a clear sense of what path the Open Door Community was on. And he didn't forbid me from coming back. He's like, you know, "You can't be here if you're not a Christian." He said-
Sara Barton: Wouldn't be much of an open door.
Eboo Patel: Yeah, right.
Sara Barton: If you weren't allowed to come.
Eboo Patel: A clear sense of this is who we are. We have an identity. And I love that. You know, we have an identity. There's an ethos here, and to be here for any extended period of time it is going to be much more comfortable for you if you have that identity or that ethos, right? So, that's a very particular kind of community. You know, a university can have an ethos and be open in the way that Pepperdine is, but that, for me, when I began proactively thinking about the faith of my upbringing, Isma'il Islam, and how I might connect to that in a way that inspired me to do the kind of work that Ed Loring and Murphy Davis did.
Eboo Patel: So, how does my spiritual life nourish me now? So, frankly, I'm not the
most ritualistic Muslim or Isma'il in the world. It's not like I do nothing, but it's...
I go to prayers probably once a month instead of once a week and I go on the night
of the week that the fewest people go, and I do my thing and I give my tithe and I
kind of wink at the prayer leader and he knows my gig and I know his, and it's not
my principle connection to the tradition.
That doesn't mean that I don't think it's important. I think it's really important. It's just not the way that I connect most deeply, but I want to say two things. Number one, I'm reaching in my pocket here and I'm pulling out my [thusby 00:10:08], my Muslim prayer beads. These are with me wherever I go.
Sara Barton: Prayer beads, Another... Something that goes across so many traditions-
Eboo Patel: Yes, they look like a rosary.
Sara Barton: Religious traditions. They look like a... mm-hmm.
Eboo Patel: And you will see me, you might see me today at a session where I'm doing
mostly listening and not talking, and they'll be in my hands, and I'll be silently
praying to myself, "Yea, Allah. Yea, Allah." Or, "Yea, Mohammed. Yea, Mohammed." It's
something that I wind up doing for hours every day. In Islam it's called Zikr, or
Remembrance of God. That is a very... it's a principal way for me to connect with
And the final thing is, the stories of the tradition mean a great deal to me. Right, the story of creation, God picking up a lump of clay and giving it his [Foreign Language 00:10:58], his breath, and thereby creating Adam and making Adam his [Foreign Language 00:11:04], his deputy on Earth. The story of the Prophet Mohammed sending a contingent of his followers to Abyssinia where there is a Christian king, believing that Muslims would be safe under the aegis of a Christian king. These things matter a great deal to me. I view them... these are part of a sacred world for me. That it is, in Christian language, you try to bring the Kingdom to Earth. How do you make those stories, how do you imprint those stories on reality.
Sara Barton: You said in Acts of Faith that you had an inner desire to connect with God as a child. You wrote this inner desire that you had to connect with God as you reflected back on childhood. Is that spirituality, does that connect to what you're talking, this desire to connect with God?
Eboo Patel: The first line in Rumi's Mathnawai, his great, long poem, which is sometimes called the Quran of the Persian tongue, is, "Listen to the reed as it sings a song of lament, lament of separation. It seeks to return to the reed bed." And I think even though I faded away from faith for six or eight years... I'm not sad about those years. I mean-
Sara Barton: I think that's hopeful because we're... This podcast is obviously involves college students, and that is true across religions that people disconnect sometimes from religion during their university years and then soon after-
Eboo Patel: Yeah, it wasn't open revolt for me. I've always been a pretty personally conservative person, by which I don't mean anything politically-
Sara Barton: I love though your mother's... What did she call them, the motorcycle boys?
Eboo Patel: Yeah, the boys who ride dirt bikes.
Sara Barton: The boys who ride dirt bikes.
Eboo Patel: Minus sixth grade, I think I was at my worst in sixth grade.
Sara Barton: When you were hanging out with the boys your mom didn't want you to hang out with.
Eboo Patel: Right.
Sara Barton: But after that, otherwise-
Eboo Patel: I'm in bed, these days I'm in bed at 9:00 and I've always been in bed
by like 10:30, up at 6:00 AM. In any case, the point is, I didn't do crazy things
in the years in which I faded from religion. It just wasn't a part of my life, but
I think that I felt like a reed reconnected with the reed bed, when I came back to
Isma'il Islam, and I'm so glad I came back with eyes that were shaped by the Catholic
Worker Movement and that were shaped by the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and
that were shaped by experience, and the Open Door Community, because it was such an
adult consciousness about religion.
One of the reasons that I'm a believer is because when the Quran and the Muslim tradition talk about the [Foreign Language 00:13:59] of God within us, and the idea of [Foreign Language 00:14:01], or God Consciousness, I feel that. I feel an inner sense of God consciousness and it's not just I have an innate sense of right and wrong, which I think most human beings do, it's this sense of I want to be connected to, I want to be connected to things beyond what I see.
There's a beautiful line in the work of J.M. Coatzee. He says we all come into this world with the memory of justice. I remember reading that in this book Waiting for the Barbarians and thinking, "I've always felt that." And that memory is our creation by God.
Sara Barton: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love that. And I think sometimes when we remember back to our childhoods and now we're adults, we can, for me when I think about my spirituality, I get back to that connection, that I think spirituality is that longing and desire to connect with God. Sometimes, because all the problems in the world, or all of our thinking, we can get maybe distracted, but getting back to that simple desire to connect with God, there's so much in religion that distracts us sometimes from that simple childlike desire or that human desire to connect with who we are as human beings.
Eboo Patel: You know, there's this idea in Islam that all creatures are naturally Muslims, [Foreign Language 00:15:26]. Which means that they naturally incline towards what God wants them to do which is goodness-
Sara Barton: I didn't know that.
Eboo Patel: ... natural, and the only one of God's creatures who has choices in the matter are human beings. I mean, this is a Christian idea also, free will. But otherwise, God creates us, imprints upon us a sense of goodness by which we naturally incline towards him. So you get ideas like if you take one step towards God, you'll take thousands of steps towards you. God knows you better than your jugular vein. This sense that, and this is one of the things that I find distinctively beautiful about Islam, but the sense that we are made with God's goodness. We have an innate sense of goodness. That's powerful.
Sara Barton: It is powerful. A scene from Acts of Faith that stood out to me is, and so just to summarize it a little bit, you were in a cab with your friend Sara, and you describe what it was like when you realize that for all your talk and study about identity and religion, you did not have an identity or religion of your own. And I have to say, in a world of toxic masculinity, where men don't often admit to crying, you described crying.
Eboo Patel: Yeah, I wept.
Sara Barton: Weeping. And so thank you for describing that emotion in such depth in the book, but tell me more about what was happening in that moment. A young person wanting religious identity and not having it and not knowing where to find it. What was happening?
Eboo Patel: So, I'll tell you the story. So, my college girlfriend was Jewish and in the book I gave her the name Sara. And-
Sara Barton: Good name.
Eboo Patel: A good name. A good name. Not her real name, but a good name. And she
spent a semester on Mount Scopus at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem,
and I went there and visited her for a couple weeks. And we went to a party where
one of the people that I started talking to was a young woman who described herself
as, she kept [Foreign Language 00:17:50], I think was the word, and what that means
is that she was part of an Orthodox or Hasidic movement in Judaism in which there
are strict limits on your contact with the opposite sex or opposite gender.
And so, she inquired about my relationship with Sara. Nothing like lewd or lascivious, but I talked about yeah, we spent the summer together in Chicago, and it's a normal college relationship for most people. This young woman who is [Foreign Language 00:18:32], it was a whole new world to her, right? And none of this was lewd or lascivious but I was describing a normal, what I viewed as a normal relationship and what many Americans would view as a normal relationship and this girl was kind of wide eyed about it. And I could see Sara, my girlfriend, being extremely uncomfortable as I was having this conversation, and we get in a cab to go back, and Sara lays into me. She's like, do you have any idea what you were doing? You were basically, every sentence that you said, this other girl thought less of me as a Jew."
Sara Barton: You were flaunting something-
Eboo Patel: What was a normal teenage American life or normal teenage life for so
many people for this particular view in Judaism. And, of course, I'm familiar with
similar views, analogous views across religions and as particularly in Islam was making
Sarah seem less of a Jew. And I looked at Sarah and I said something extremely, out
of a handbook of being a young adult. I'm like, "Why do you care what this other person
thinks of you?" And Sarah looked at me, and she's like, "Because I'm a Jew." And that's
when I broke down because I thought to myself, "That's part of what it means to be
in a community." Part of what it means to be in a community is other people get to
tell you there are parameters. There's a tradition. It's not just what you think and
want to do all the time, right? You belong to something that's bigger than you and
you are expected to abide by those things.
And the law, if it's a religious community, it's a law made by God, but frankly, it's enforced and policed by other people and what those other people think of you matters. Now, I'm 22 years past that point. I do not really like being told what to do and yet I'm really happy to be part of a community that, in part, tells me what to do, right? And as I said at the beginning, I'm not especially ritualistic, but I still go to Gymkhana once a month even though that's not probably my first choice on a Sunday night. I have the sense within me that I probably should go more often. What these things are, is belonging to a community in which your momentary whim is not the most important thing all the time.
Sara Barton: You had a line about, "To be a part of people who would miss you if you weren't there," and that spoke to me. I think many people in the Western world, and I guess we could say all over the world, we have this challenge between our individual identity and wants and communal identity and wants. That is a hard thing to balance when you're figuring out yourself as a young person when you're figuring out your life in relation to God. And so I think many young people are trying to figure out that very same thing you described in the cab.
Eboo Patel: Yeah. And I think what struck me about religion when I kind of ... My
eyes were open to it around 19 or 20 with being introduced to the Catholic Worker
Movement is that it included tradition and what's tradition but the ways things have
been done for generations. That's what a tradition is. It included community. It came
from God and it inspired, compelled and commanded you to act in ways that were better
than you would otherwise act. Right. And I think that's what struck me about this
set of religious people that I first encountered, I continue to encounter. That they
are better than who they would otherwise be if they were principally controlled by
their momentary whims.
Now, having said all of that, I'm a Westerner. That is the shape of my mind. I still come at things I think with the principle reference points of individualism. And it's also funny to think that there's enough in my bones from a tradition and probably from an immigrant background in which if my kids do something bad in a public place, my instinctive rebuke to them is, "You are embarrassing the family," right? In other words, your actions reflect on other people. And when my kids act in ways that kids do, selfishly, et cetera, et cetera, one of my first lines to them instinctively is, "Do you think that you come from nowhere?" Right? "Do you think you just dropped from the sky? That there are not generations of people that willed you into existence?"
Sara Barton: These are hard things for all of us. I mean, for people, really, people who practice religions is figuring out what of tradition changes and doesn't. And so I have a specific question. Maybe you described your mother as a keeper of faith. She held on even as things were changing in her life and your life. And so you describe her role in your life, in your spiritual life. And so I'm curious, how do you make sense of the patriarchal nature of Islam and other world religions and the changing dynamics that we have in the world when it comes to the way that women are a part of society that they weren't when world religions, of course, were started and when they were their strongest? How do you make sense of the roles of women in Islam, especially in light of your mother's role in your life?
Eboo Patel: Well, it's interesting, right. Let me answer it this way. I'm an Ismaili
Muslim. I'll say that again. And we have female prayer leaders and women literally
do everything in the tradition that men do with the one exception of there has never
been a female Imam and by Imam, I mean kind of Pope figure, right? The distinguishing
feature of the Ismaili Muslim community is that we have a kind of Pope or Dalai Lama
figure who we believe has the newer or light of God and is the interpreter of the
Islamic tradition for the community. But my mom has been a female prayer leader, an
appointed female prayer leader in the Gymkhana.
My aunt, in India, was the President of the largest Ismailic National community in the world, which is the Indian National Council. And so I grow up in an environment where I just literally women do every single thing that men do. Now, of course, I learn as a young adult about the rules and regulations in many dimensions of Islam and in other religions that restrict things. But it's not a part of my formation. And so I don't feel it in my bones if that makes sense. Another thing that I would highlight is my first faith hero, as an adult is Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. And I'm not sure, I do not believe that Dorothy Day was disappointed that she could not be a bishop or a cardinal. She starts undoubtedly the most important Catholic grassroots movement of the mid-20th century in America. Right.
Does this mean I don't think women should be Catholic priests? No. Right, and I am struck by ways that women are powerful in different traditions, and I respect, I have kind of an instinctive respect for tradition and order such that my first question is, "How is it that things have got here and what is good about this?" Right? "In what ways does this serve human beings? How can we reflect on that? What is it that we might improve and expand, but do it in a way that is continuous with the tradition?" Add another chapter, highlight how expansion takes place because the foundation of the tradition speaks to that expansion.
It's funny because I think of myself as politically progressive and theologically progressive, but with a ton of admiration for tradition. So yeah, I think that there's probably a lot there, but I have a sense of egalitarianess in my bones just because I grow up with it and I just grew up. It's just literally in Gymkhana there's a man that prays the first Dua and then a woman that pray the Dua. And it just that's what I grew up with since I was one year old. Right.
Sara Barton: So I guess sometimes, people might think that you come from a different tradition of Islam and so-
Eboo Patel: I do come from a different tradition of Islam.
Sara Barton: Where there are more patriarchal structures. So do you find yourself explaining that often or-
Eboo Patel: No, because so many of the people that I have come to know in American Islam are female leaders, right?
Sara Barton: Same for me.
Eboo Patel: Maha Elgenaidi who starts the Islamic Networks Group, right? Ingrid Mattson, who's the President of the Islamic Society of North America, from 2008 to 2015, something like that. Amina [inaudible 00:29:31], who's the outreach director of the Council of Islamic organizations. And it just felt so natural to me. I also think that my instinct is to accept the rules of the game and to ask the question, "How do we work within this to expand and improve things?" Right? So in that sense, I'm not a revolutionary. I think that that's my instinct. I think that that's my instinct is, and one of the reasons for that is because I think the continuity of traditions is really important and that there is a grave danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and that we ought to think hard about the hundreds of years that have gone before and the hundreds of years that will come after before we declare something wrong for now in a permanent way.
Sara Barton: Which is interesting since you spend so much time with young people, and you believe so strongly in young people. And I'd like for you just to talk a little bit about that. I say it's interesting because sometimes when we are young, and we look at tradition, we struggle with tradition and finding our own place in that, especially as religious people. But here you have devoted your life to youth because you believe this is really where this is where it's at when it comes to the hope that we can have for the world. So tell me about your commitments to young people and then also just about interfaith youth.
Eboo Patel: Yeah. I want to address the specific question you asked because I think
it's a profound question, and I'll tell you my own experience with this. So when I
kind of first have a spiritual awakening, so to speak, I'm introduced to Dorothy Day
and the Catholic Worker Movement. I want to tap into that spiritual well, so to speak,
and I want to stay away from any prescribed tradition. What I do is every night I
meticulously put together a handful of poems that I love, Walt Whitman and William
Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks and I kind of pray them the next morning, right?
And I do this night after night. I think that I'm being both novel here, and I'm being
innovative and I'm doing something spiritual and reflective, right? And I'm not following
anybody else's rules.
And I do this over and over and over and over again. And it's exhausting. Right? And at some point, I think it might've been my mom who like says to me, and I'm really proud of telling her that I've done this. And she's like, "Why don't you just pray the Dua, the Ismaili Muslims prayer. Ten million people around the world pray it and our people have been praying it for generations. Why don't you just pray that?" And I thought to myself, "You know what? Not only is that a lot less work, why wouldn't I welcome this received wisdom," right?
Sara Barton: That's what I love about the Psalms. The Psalms are these prayers of ancient people that people have prayed really across religions for thousands of years. I have loved to delve into those Psalms and prayers. But they are, that what you described for me, the Psalms are that for me when I don't know what else to pray on my own [inaudible 00:33:16].
Eboo Patel: That's what tradition is. And, for me, the most powerful term in all of this is the term faith, which I will invoke the Wilfred Cantwell Smith definition of faith. Cantwell Smith says that faith is the relationship between the believer or the adherent and the tradition. And I love that because it recognizes that there is a thing called a tradition and that the adherent does not swallow the thing whole but has relationships with the different parts of it. And those things will over time. There might come a time when I will go to Gymkhana twice a week instead of once a month. Right. And the tradition changes, but slowly and any particular generation of adherence adds a little bit, takes away a little bit. But the traditions move like glaciers. Right? And adherence have some volition, right. They don't do everything, but they get to connect with that tradition in a manner that gives them life in any particular moment of their lives.
Sara Barton: Which Dorothy Day most have been doing.
Eboo Patel: Yes, outright.
Sara Barton: The well that she was drinking from to do what she did or others that you have mentioned they must have been delving deep into that well that came before them and tradition. Yeah.
Eboo Patel: But they're not doing everything and certain parts are louder than other
parts. I mean, the Hindus have a great kind of categorization for this. They say that
there's the Karma Yoga, the Bhakti Yoga and the Nona Yoga. There's the path of action.
The path of knowledge is the Nona Yoga and the path of devotion is the Bhakti Yoga.
And when I read that I was like, "I love this," right? Because it recognizes that
in the tradition there are those different categories and any given person is going
to have a stronger inclination towards one or the other and it's going to change over
the course of that individual's life.
So right now I am more of a Karma Yoga. At some point I might be more a Nona Yoga, and I might go to [foreign language 00:35:35] and learn, Chronic Arabic and at some point I might be a Bhakti Yoga and wake up for Ismaili Bandagi at 3:30 in the morning, which is the Ismaili meditation practice, which my mother was the [foreign language 00:35:48] for, or the female prayer leader for a year as a full-time professor of the is Ismaili Muslim communal gathering. That was the 3:30 AM meditation, hour-long meditation. Right. And my mom-
Sara Barton: Was that musical by the way? Just a little side.
Eboo Patel: It's not Zilker. No, it's a silent meditation. It's a silent meditation. It's an hour-long. And my mom would say, "You should come," this is three years ago. Right. So it's not very long ago. And I'm like, "Are you crazy? I'm not getting up at three in the morning." And My mother would say to me, "One day in your life, you will." Right? And that's so interesting. She's like, "Eboo, when I was in my mid-40s and raising kids, I could never have imagined waking up three in the morning." She said, "I'm 65 now, I'm older," right? Things change. And this is why the revolutionary spirits scares me. I might want to get rid of the idea of Bandagi when I'm 22 and I can't imagine waking up at three in the morning, and then when I'm 50 I might need it. Right? And the tradition is wiser than me. That doesn't mean it doesn't change, but it means it should not be subject to my whims at any given moment. Right?
Sara Barton: So back to youth. Youth, why youth?
Eboo Patel: So a lot of this is that the period between 17 and 22 were so formative for me. It was this storm of things happening and that's when I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do and 20 years later I'm still doing it, right. And so I want to be involved in that period of time in the life of young people who are making decisions about who they want to be in the world. And every once in a while, an idea that you have, a conversation that you hear, a decision that you make at 21 formats the next 50 years of your life. And for a set of young people, I would like that to be the decision to be an interfaith leader, to be the kind of person who builds bridges between people who orient around religion differently.
Sara Barton: So ...
Eboo Patel: Between people who orient around religion differently.
Sara Barton: So interfaith core?
Eboo Patel: Interfaith Youth Core, yeah.
Sara Barton: Interfaith Youth Core. How did you get it started? We have a lot of people in our community who are entrepreneurs and who really care about non-profits. You have done this. How did it get started? Where did you get the idea? Who did it with you? Just tell me how do you get something going that now has become quite successful... Maybe 30 employees or, yeah.
Eboo Patel: Yeah, 35 employees about 20 years old. Eight million dollar budget. Probably
a network of 500 campuses. So it's bigger than it was, let's put it that way.
So, in a lot of ways this is kind of a standard entrepreneurial story with some sprinkling of divine grace, which probably every standard entrepreneurial story has. So the idea emerges for me, in the summer of 1998, I'm two years graduated from college, my mentor brother [Wayne Tisdale 00:39:02] tells my best friend [Kevin Covel 00:39:05] and me to go to this interfaith conference at Stanford.
It's a typical interfaith conference, United Religions initiative, great organization, but it's basically senior theologians talking, right? And Kevin and I, we're both inspired by Dorthy Day and we're 22 at the time, and like our hair is on fire and we're like, "This is boring." Interfaith cooperation should be young people acting.
And we complained about it enough where somebody said, "You know, you ought to do that. You should stop telling other people what to do, you ought to go do that."
And so we're like, "Well, we ought to start a project." And we're the kind of people who started things all the time. In fact, just a year earlier, I had helped to start an artists and activists collective in Chicago called Stone Soup Cooperative, which still exists 25 years later or something.
I loved starting things, and so this felt like just another thing to start. And I figured I'd spend a couple months on it and then that was that. And what ends up happening is, later that summer Kevin and I go to India, we have an audience with the Dalai Lama, we spend time with my grandmother, who's kind of a Muslim Dorthy Day, which I didn't know until I spent some time with her in her home in Bombay.
And this notion of our work in the world, our spiritual work in the world, might well be starting this project, kind of gets into me. I get a fancy scholarship, I go off to Oxford, I start a PhD in the Sociology of Religion, and I just start building this project.
And the way I do it is, I just go to different parts of the world and I basically run the youth program of adult interfaith conferences. And it's my way of getting to South Africa, and Hungary, and I come back to California several times. And every time I do it, I like it more. And I start thinking to myself, "You know, I'm building a methodology and a network and some connections and I really want to try to make this thing happen."
And then September 11th happens. Which just kind of affirms my idea that interfaith cooperation really matters and now we're on the funding circuit and we're talking to people at the Ford Foundation et cetera, and low and behold, we get a small Ford Foundation grant of $35,000 right? And we just kind of build from there.
And so it's a complex story, but in some ways it's just a simple story of you get a grant to run a project, you do the project well, you tell people about the project, other people give you grants to run more projects, you get some media, you kind of... you learn how to both run projects and tell the story of those projects.
You tell the story both in the media and in the funding world. A lot of luck is involved, you know. A Pepperdine University graduate named [James Jenson 00:41:42] and his family make a big financial commitment to IFYC way earlier than we deserved, but we were smart with that money.
We did a strategic plan, we hired some really good people. We honed and honed and honed, and developed a niche which right now is helping college campuses become what we call ecosystems of interfaith cooperation, such that they're nurturing through their courses and co-curricular activities, a generation of interfaith leaders.
And I can say it in two sentences now, and we've got 35 people and an eight million dollar budget focused on that. But it took a long time to come to that simplicity.
Sara Barton: And one of the goals is to have interfaith cooperation as a social norm. [crosstalk 00:42:29]
Eboo Patel: Yeah, that's the long term [crosstalk 00:42:30] goal.
Sara Barton: What would that mean if it was a social norm?
Eboo Patel: So, it would just be natural for diverse houses of worship to have their youth groups meet on a monthly basis.
Sara Barton: Without fear?
Eboo Patel: Without fear [crosstalk 00:42:41]-
Sara Barton: That there's going to be [crosstalk 00:42:42]-
Eboo Patel: It's just a natural thing to do. Like recycling is natural, right? Like
people call themselves environmentalist, right?
You would have days of interfaith youth service in cities across the country. Every college campus would have an interfaith student council. Every college campus would have a Minor in Interfaith Studies.
The idea of America being the world's first religiously-diverse democracy would be something widely known and celebrated. We would connect the ethic of George Washington's letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport Rhode Island, with Martin Luther King Jr's admiration and inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi.
So both the story of interfaith cooperation and the doing of it would simply be par for the course.
Sara Barton: You mentioned pluralism. Some people think pluralism is negative. They're
worried about it. Scared about it. There's fear. But you have called it a part of
the American Dream. You refer to the dream of pluralism. I think some people are opposed
to that and there are people who to work against that.
So what is pluralism really? And what would you say to convince people that pluralism is part of the American Dream.
Eboo Patel: So we define pluralism as respect for diverse identities, relationships
between different communities and a commitment to the common good. And it is so deeply
American, which is not to say that it's not also a part of other traditions. But it
is so woven into the American DNA that we forget how special it is, right?
And when Governor General Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam, now New York City, in the mid-17th century, bans Quaker prayer meetings, and a group of citizens in the small hamlet of Flushing write a beautiful document called the Flushing Remonstrance, which says the law of love gets applied to everybody, Quaker, Baptist, Jew, Turk, Egyptian... That's pluralism, right?
When you have an athletic team with Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jains, Sikhs and atheists, that's pluralism. When you go to your doctor and notice that there's a small Hindu deity that sits over your doctor's office, and you realize that, "Oh, my doctor's Hindu, and one of the reason's that she's inspired to be a healer is because of her Hindu faith." That's pluralism.
So it is woven into the American fabric and my metaphor for this is the potluck. We're not a melting pot in America, we're a potluck. Which is to say, we feast because of the contributions of a variety of communities.
Sara Barton: This brings up, we have significant dives in our country when it comes
to rural and urban people and the way they think about some of these things. So I
grew up on a farm in Arkansas. I did not know a religious other until I was in my
You grew up in Chicago, knew religious others your entire life. So what has been your experience, if any, on how your message is received in urban and suburban environments and universities, colleges, people you work with and in rural settings. Have you had experiences? And what do you think we can do? Is that a divide that needs to be addressed when it comes to interfaith cooperation as a social norm?
Eboo Patel: I think absolutely it's a divide that needs to be addressed. But frankly
my experience in most environments is extremely positive. And I think one of the things
that America does really well is it has a civic fabric that when people from different
backgrounds come together, they encounter each other in warm and welcoming ways, right?
I think the problem right now is that our various... We are, there's a religious leader in Chicago who likes to say we're no so much divided as we are disconnected. I think when people in Los Angeles hear about Republicans in rural Iowa, they conjure monsters in their head.
And when people in rural Iowa hear about atheists in godless Los Angeles, they conjure monsters in their head. And because I travel once a week, and I'm on college campuses across the country, I get to go into these diverse places, and I find them remarkably similar in their warmth and welcome. And then they, you know, as I'm leaving, you know, whatever, rural Arkansas one day, or rural Iowa, people are like, "You be careful amongst those Muslims in the big city."
And I'm leaving some progressive private school in Minneapolis on my way to rural Iowa, people are like, "You be careful with those conservative Christians in rural Iowa."
And I'm like, "Well, I was just with them, they're super nice people and they're concerned about you."
I am concerned about that. There's a story that Martin-
Sara Barton: What did you say connection, rather than...
Eboo Patel: We are not so much divided as disconnected, right-
Sara Barton: Disconnected.
Eboo Patel: And I think I am concerned that we are losing the great genius of American life, which is civic associations that bring people from different backgrounds together in ways where they get to know one another.
Sara Barton: Is there anything, we're coming near the end of our time together, is there anything you want to make sure you add to this conversation that we haven't mentioned so far? Anything that...
Eboo Patel: You know, the one thing that I would say is, is one of the most interesting
things about interfaith work, or any kind of diversity work, is that you learn once
you get deeper than two inches, that diversity is not just the differences you like.
It's about disagreements. And that if those disagreements are rooted in people's deeply
held identities, as long as they're not crazily egregiously offensive, KKK-type stuff,
people get to be who they are.
Like I'm much more oriented to Sufi Islam than Salafi Islam, but Salafis get to be who they are, right? I'm not... I don't like the fact that the Catholic priesthood is closed to women, but Catholics get to be who they are, right?
And the question is what can we do together? That doesn't mean that difficult conversations are off limits, or that we need to accept every disagreement. It just means are we going to allow a certain set of disagreements to prevent us from doing other things together. And I think that the only way you have a diverse democracy is if you can disagree on some fundamental things, and still work together on other fundamental things [crosstalk 00:49:55].
Sara Barton: And we have so many similar commitments to hospitality, fellowship, justice,
compassion... We have so many things around which to gather.
So let's say someone in the Pepperdine community is listening to this podcast, and they are inspired to make a difference when it comes to interfaith cooperation as a social norm, what is step one for them? Or advice, piece of advice number one?
Eboo Patel: Reflect on how people from different religions enrich your everyday life.
And I promise you, like if you go to Pepperdine, which is to say you live in Malibu
in the greater L.A. area, you have interactions with people from different religions
at the very least on a weekly basis.
Your Uber driver, or your cab driver has a little pendant with Allah, which looks like a W, Arabic for Allah, hanging from his or her dash. Your doctor is Hindu. Your professor is Jain, right?
So reflect on how people from different religions enrich your everyday life. Here's another one. Reflect on how people from different religions have contributed to American civilization. So I'll give you a couple of interesting Muslim examples.
The person who designed both the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building is a Muslim. The most celebrated American athlete of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali was a Muslim. And easily one of the top ten centers in American basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, L.A. Laker, was a Muslim, right?
And these are just like... None of these are like... I'm not like reaching for these examples, I mean they're prominent people who are obvious and apparent, right?
So ask yourself the question, how has your life, how has your community, how has your nation been enriched by people from other religions?
Sara Barton: Thank you for being here today. We're so glad that you joined us and we are excited about the rest of our chances to get to interact with you throughout our day here at Pepperdine.
Eboo Patel: I am grateful to here. Thank you so much.