We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy

Brian Paulson reviews We Need to Build by Eboo Patel.

Eboo Patel
Beacon Press, 224 Pages | Published May 10, 2022

How can I build my congregation to strengthen our wider community through diversity? This question drove my curiosity about Interfaith America founder Eboo Patel’s new book We Need to Build. True to its subtitle, it is full of field notes that reflect practical wisdom gained through personal experience, social activism and organizational leadership. I have decades of formal involvement with interreligious work, yet when reading this book, I often felt like an outsider listening in on a conversation aimed at younger generations of activists. Nevertheless, my vantage point did not prevent me from gaining valuable insights as our current landscape broadens.

The book opens with Patel’s journey from his youth to interfaith leadership — through generative critique and enriching academic encounters. Patel offers a vision of America as a great potluck, contrasting America with Trump and America with Obama, and closing by highlighting the creative wellspring of inspiration fostered by communities of faith. The final section of Patel’s book pairs field notes with powerful illustrations to accompany practical aphorisms drawn from his years of experience.

Like most pastors, I am alert to the growing segment of America that identifies as spiritual without involvement in religious communities. However, I witness rising interest in movements for change, whether a collective movement for justice or simply a personal desire to move with the spirit at Sunday morning yoga. Society’s shift away from religious community concerns me because I know that faith communities have been a wellspring of transformative movements throughout American history.

Patel put his finger on this concern and placed it at the center of his book. “As the numbers of people involved in those religious communities decline, so does the strength of faith-based agencies. There are fewer volunteers, less money, lower morale.” Patel acknowledges this concern but adds that “there is also cause for hope. Part of the genius of faith communities is how they adapt to changing times.”

A historic example of this genius is the creative use of rail cars as chapels in the 19th century, reaching communities without churches at the western edges of frontier America. That same creative spirit regularly serves as an incubator for civic energy; energy that “doesn’t stay within the confines of the religious community; it gets offered to the broader society.” This left me asking, “How will our congregation reach beyond our familiar confines today?”

This is where the field notes come in. For example, in “Stand on the Balcony and Think of a Hedgehog” Patel draws on Ronald Heifitz and Jim Collins to remind leaders to rise above the “dance floor” to better envision and build. He also challenges the reader to call and claim a single big idea (hedgehog concept) to define our effort.

Patel writes We Need to Build through his lens of self-reflective insight. It targets leaders who need to grow beyond passionate activism into a posture that builds lasting change while also guiding more seasoned builders who embrace diversity and are passionate to act.

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