The Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core talks about young people, spirituality, and interfaith collaboration
Explorefaith sat down recently with Eboo Patel, the charismatic founder of the Interfaith Youth Core. Eboo has recently published a memoir called Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press; July 2007). He is an outspoken believer in God who talks at times like a rabbi, imam, priest, shaman, labor organizer, and business executive, and who believes in the power of people, especially young people, to change the world.
You clearly have a passion for young people—understanding them, motivating them, organizing them? Where did that passion come from?
It first comes from being aware of the fact that many of the people at the
cutting edge of innovation are young—from the founders of Google and Facebook
to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the Struggle in South Africa. It
also comes from two very clear sets of experiences that I had as a young person.
One is a story of adults in power who ignored me, or threw me scraps. And the
other is a story of adults who took even a little time to pay attention to what
I was thinking and saying, to encourage me, to invest in me. Their nurturing was
like sunlight to a plant—it helped me grow, grow, grow in every way
I think a lot of young people have those two sets of experiences.
Bill Drayton, the Founder of Ashoka and one of the people I admire most in the world, says that the last group of people that we institutionally oppress are young people. We have realized that dismissing the talents of women or racial minorities is both wrong and counterproductive. We need to realize that same lesson when it comes to young people—and view them as contributors and creators instead of irritants or problems.
You write in Acts of Faith about your college friends, who, "despite
their radical politics had all locked up jobs before graduating or been accepted
to graduate school." You didn’t, although clearly, you could have. Why didn’t
I was profoundly influenced by two traditions at that point: one was the Grateful Dead/Jack Kerouac tradition of exploration, and the other was the Catholic Worker tradition of putting your values into immediate and radical action. That meant I was inspired to do two things after college: hit the road for the summer, and when I returned, find a way of life and a vocation that allowed me to be true to my beliefs about social justice.
I think I tripped my parents out a little by that three month road trip, followed by moving into a Catholic Worker and taking a job teaching high school dropouts, but they were among the best decisions of my life. I learned to love America from close up. I went coast to coast and stopped everywhere from hippie communes to small towns to national parks and talked to everybody. And as a teacher, I learned that even the most supposedly dangerous and incorrigible young people, when put in a different environment, blossom in beautiful, even stunning, ways.
I think a lot of my life has been combining those two approaches—the let’s-get-to-know-the-world-in-a-close-up-way dream, and the commitment to creating spaces (classrooms, youth councils, organizations, movements) where people can be their best selves.
Do you believe there are certain moments in history that are somehow fuller of sacred possibilities than others?
You know, I’m not sure. I’m tempted to quote Dr. King on this: time itself
does nothing, people do things with time. I am on Earth right now and
I don’t ask myself the question "Is this a sacred
moment in history?" as much as I ask what I’m going to do with the time and
talent that God gave me to move Creation a little closer to the intention of the
Do you feel called to this work?
Deeply, deeply. I feel called to it as a Muslim, as an American and as an Indian. I think at the heart of all three traditions is a commitment to pluralism—creating societies where people from different backgrounds live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. Pluralism is in danger in all three traditions right now, as it is everywhere in the world, but I and many, many others are doing everything we can to bring that ethic back.
Born in India, you must have interfaith understanding in your very bones.
Was your family of mixed religious background?
Well, sort of. I write in the book that I grew up in a Muslim family that increasingly believed in another faith—the glittering and suffocating religion of American achievement. It was the hyper-material that challenged the spiritual when I was a kid.
I did always have friends from other religions, and in college I began a
serious intellectual study of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism—an
exploration that paved my path back to Islam.
Many young people mix spiritual traditions in the ways that they practice, today. A lot of parents and religionists find this frustrating, as if their traditions are rapidly fading away, blurring to the point of losing their meaning. How do you counsel those people who love religion but love really only one? What is their role to play in the years ahead?
Let me do a twist on the second part of your question: I love many
traditions, but I belong to one. The same is true of nations, families, cities,
etc. I love many, but I belong to one.
By and large, I don’t tell people what to do with their personal spiritual lives. That is between them, God, and their family/spiritual community. My own choice is to consider myself as part of the river of a tradition (to borrow from Diana Eck when she says that religions are more like rivers than monuments, they change course over time and those who are part of the rivers help guide those adaptations and alterations).
For me, that means that I am a Muslim, very much part of a 1400 year tradition first revealed to Muhammad in a cave outside of Mecca in 610, but I am not the same kind of Muslim as my parents or grandparents were, and I do not expect my children to be the same kind of Muslims as I am.
Every generation has new opportunities and new challenges. The Muslims in South Africa during the 1980s felt it was their Muslim duty to fight against Apartheid—to not do so would be to tantamount to betraying the tradition. But in order to reach that conclusion, they had to both know and reinterpret the tradition for their own place and time.
Would you mind telling us how you nourish your spiritual life daily, weekly,
First of all, let me confess that I don’t do this half as well as I would like. I say my prayers regularly—morning and evening—but I too often rush through them, treating them as an obligation rather than an opportunity to re-connect with God.
I have been blessed and cursed with being obsessive about work. It has helped the interfaith youth movement grow, but it’s been hard on my spiritual life, and also my sense of balance. Now that I’m a father, I am realizing just how important balance is. I not only want to be around more with my son and wife, I also want to be more fully present with them. I also want to be more fully present with God. In those rare moments that I am, I feel filled in indescribable ways.
Ramadan, especially the beginning of
it, is good for that. I wake up early for the morning prayer and for a meal
before the day’s fast. I read from the Qur’an. In the afternoon, I’ll often go
on a "prayer walk" with a Muslim staff member at the IFYC, kind of in lieu of a
lunch break. We’ll stroll around the block chanting ayats of the Qur’an and
other Muslim prayers.
There are other things that open up a spiritual space for me—poetry, fiction, taking walks with my best friends Kevin and Jeff, both of whom I write about in the book. I need to do more of all of this.
Is the Interfaith Youth Core something that people join? What does that entail?
The best way to think about the Interfaith Youth Core is that it’s the institution at the heart, or core, of the growing interfaith youth movement. We view our role as catalyzing, resourcing and networking a global movement of young people from different religious and moral perspectives building understanding and cooperating to serve others. In practical terms, it means that we
Raise awareness about the importance of engaging in interfaith cooperation through things like our website, my book and the new film we are making;
Make presentations and do trainings for people on college campuses and in communities who want to start their own interfaith youth projects, everything from "Days of Interfaith Youth Service" to starting "A Different Kind of Conversation About Religion" program. We then coordinate the above programs into broader campaigns;
We identify, network and train exceptional interfaith youth leaders through our Fellows Program and our Annual Conference.
I know that you have an affection for the writings of James Baldwin. You seem to love how he thinks, how he sees the world. I’ll bet that most teenagers don’t even know his name, today.
I think Baldwin’s nonfiction is especially
important for young people to read because it explores the "Who am I?" and "What
do I belong to?" questions so powerfully, the same questions that a lot of young
people are asking themselves. One of the things I like most about Baldwin is
that he doesn’t repeat the first paragraph of his essays over and over again. In
other words, he’s not cramming an argument down your throat. He’s exploring a
question, and often his first answer to that question turns out to be wrong, and
the essay is a process of discovering deeper layers and more accurate answers. I
actually wrote a piece about Baldwin for a National Public Radio series called
"You Must Read This."
Your book has gotten some very notable recognition, including a book jacket endorsement from Bill Clinton. How did that come about?
Well, kind of like crossing paths with you ten years ago, I got lucky! In 2005, when the first Clinton Global Initiative was being planned, the organizers of the Religion track called me to ask about the work of the IFYC. I pitched them so strongly about the importance of highlighting interfaith youth cooperation that they put me on a panel. One of my fellow panelists was Queen Rania from Jordan, who spoke about the importance of youth programs, especially exchanges. I almost grabbed the microphone from her and said, "I would love to partner with you on an international interfaith youth exchange." Three months later I was on a plane to Jordan, meeting with Her Majesty and several youth organizations in Jordan.
President Clinton heard about our project and used it as an illustration of
how the Clinton Global Initiative was catalyzing concrete action in interviews
on CNN and elsewhere. When he heard that we were making a documentary film on
the exchange, he wrote us a personal check to support the cause. Then, in the
spring of this year, I was at a small meeting with some of his top advisors, and
he asked me to sit next to him at dinner. He wanted to talk about the role of
religious identity in young people around the world. I told him I was writing a
book and he said he would do whatever he could to be supportive. That’s where
the blurb came from!
Copyright ©2008 Jon Sweeney
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