Eboo Patel Is Leading Interfaith America Into The New Era Of Religious Diversity

"We are coming to the end of Judeo-Christian America," he said. "It’s time for us to welcome new voices into the discussion."

(Religion Unplugged) — By his own telling, as a young man Eboo Patel was something of a jerk.

In high school, he failed to defend one of his closest friends from racists. In college, he lectured his fellow classmates on identity politics and called those who disagreed with him “sellouts.” And once, at a gathering of Catholics, he proclaimed, “If I had as much money as the Catholic Church, I’d just do good with it. I’d start hospitals and schools.”

Even his father found him unbearable. “If you use the word ‘bourgeois’ in my house one more time,” he told Patel, “you can find some other bourgeois dad to pay for your bourgeois college tuition.”

Looking back, Patel now jokes, “I was seeking the gold medal in both flippance and scorn.”

But by his mid-20s, Patel — now in his 40s — put aside his angry young man persona to become one of the leading lights of interfaith work in the U.S. In 2002, he founded Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on building religious understanding between students. It now has 52 employees, an entire floor of lake-view offices at the Chicago Board of Trade and an annual budget of $13 million.

How did this one-time rebel with more causes than courtesy become the king of kumbaya? How did Patel go from sleeping on other people’s couches to a place at the table in two Democratic administrations?

The answer, of course, is that Eboo Patel grew up. And Interfaith Youth Core has grown up, too. In an acknowledgment of that maturity, IFYC was rechristened this year as Interfaith America. The dropping of the word “youth” is another signal that both the organization and its founder have wider goals than changing the world one kid at a time.

“We were 22, 23, 24 when we started this organization, and it’s not like the pope took our phone calls,” Patel said from his corner office, which is just across the hall from a sunlit prayer room. “I joke when I say that, but we did have access to world leaders in the first few years because we were such a counterpoint to young people involved in religious extremism. I went to Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative and blah blah blah, right?

“But we were a feature. We weren’t driving the narrative. We were a character in somebody else’s story.”

Now, Patel plans to not only drive the narrative of American religious cooperation but change it altogether. “We are coming to the end of Judeo-Christian America,” he said. “It’s time for us to welcome new voices into the discussion. Hence, Interfaith America.”

‘You should build that’

In the late 1990s — fresh out of college and making only about $12,000 a year as a teacher — Patel found himself at an interfaith conference at Stanford University when he was gobsmacked by a great idea.

He and a friend had been making the rounds of various interfaith events, often introduced as “new blood” who were going to build a new youth-based interfaith movement. One problem, though — the pair didn’t really have any concrete plans or a following.

But at the Stanford event, Patel was revved up by an evening spent away from the endless talking and presentations. Instead, he joined a band of young social entrepreneurs like himself for an evening full of big talk, bigger passion and a lot of encouragement.

And in the middle of the night it just came to him — why not create an organization that would gather religiously diverse young people to work on community service projects? Patel borrowed the service aspect of Teach for America, the faith factor of Lutheran Volunteer Corps and a sprinkling of Avodah’s leadership building — all service organizations with a focus on youth — to create something new: Interfaith Youth Core.

Bursting with excitement, Patel stood up during the conference the next day and shouted, “There’s no action here, no young people, no edge,” he recalls in “We Need To Build,” his latest book. “You people are killing me, you are so boring!”

Most of the attendees were embarrassed by his outburst, but one elder in the interfaith movement there said to him, “That’s powerful. You should build that.”

A couple of years later, in 2002, Interfaith Youth Core was born when it received its first grant — $35,000 — from the Ford Foundation. It had a staff of three, including Patel, and only one was full-time. It initiated a Chicago-based training course for “interfaith fellows” who learned about each other’s different faiths as they worked on community projects together. Graduates passed on what they learned when they returned to their various campuses.

Among the first cheerleaders of IFYC was Diana Eck, a Harvard University professor whose focus is on American pluralism. She remembers meeting Patel in the early 2000s and sitting with him on her patio as he outlined his vision for IFYC.

“I think he touched on something that for students was liberating and educating,” Eck said recently. “They could articulate their religious tradition without claiming to be a representative of it, but rather as a person for whom their tradition is grounding and nourishing as they engage with the wider society.”

Lightning struck the organization in 2009 when it was tapped by former President Barack Obama — another Chicagoan — to be part of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel was part of the president’s religion advisory council.

Twenty years and a name change later, the organization’s reach is far beyond Chicago. To date, it has programs, curricula and chapters on almost 700 U.S. college campuses, and it hands out grants to emerging interfaith leaders, educators, students and “strategic partners” — to the tune of $3.7 million in 2021 alone.

And its been welcomed back to the Biden White House, too. In September, the White House announced Interfaith America, the YMCA and Habitat for Humanity are collaborating on a program that will bring 10,000 Americans of different faith backgrounds together on community projects and bridge-building in 300 communities — the basic IFYC and Interfaith America model.

A few days before the White House announcement, Patel was sitting in his office, with pictures of his wife, his two sons and his parents to his left. On the wall were photos of Patel and the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Isma’ili branch of Shiite Islam, of which Patel is an adherent. Lake Michigan twinkled 50 shades of blue outside the east-facing windows.

“I don’t think I could have guessed in my early 20s that I would be doing this,” Patel said, office casual in maroon pants and a blue-checked shirt, no tie. “Or that 20 years later this would still be my passion.”

‘They saved me.’

Patel didn’t exactly grow up in an interfaith world. His parents, also Isma’ili Muslims, came to the U.S. in the 1970s so Patel’s father could attend the University of Notre Dame. The family settled in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. The family prayed together and attended the local jamaat — an Isma’ili congregation. “I led the Chicago jamaat in prayer before I could ride a bike,” Patel writes in his memoir, “Acts of Faith.”

Patel’s father was a marketing executive, and his mother was an accounting professor. The demands of making a living soon took precedence over regular observance. By high school, Patel was more concerned about getting good grades so he could eventually become a lawyer with a fast car and lots of women than with religion.

Patel entered the University of Illinois in Champaign in the mid-1990s and very quickly discovered identity politics. He soon became the campus gadfly, organizing protests and crashing meetings and clubs to quote bell hooks and Malcolm X on oppression and the ills of capitalism. “‘America is bent on imperialism’ was the first thought I had every morning and the last thought I had every night,” he writes of this time.

But it was also at university that Patel discovered Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. When he heard there was a Catholic Worker house near campus, he checked it out.

It changed his life.

“Here is what I had been seeking for so long,” Patel recounts in his memoir. “A vision of radical equality — all human beings living the abundant life that could be achieved through both a direct service approach and a change-the-system politics. For so long, those two things had existed in separate rooms in my life . . . Here was a movement that combined them. Finally, the two sides of myself could be in the same room.”

And yet, he eventually came to feel something was missing.

“When Catholic Workers asked about my religion,” he writes. “I told them that I didn’t really have one.” Nonetheless, “they saved me.”

‘You are a Muslim’

In 1996, Patel was teaching during the days and spending his nights on the couch in a Catholic Worker house in Chicago when someone there suggested he meet Brother Wayne Teasdale.

Teasdale was a Catholic monk on the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, an international interfaith organization founded in Chicago in 1893. Teasdale, who died in 2004, was frustrated with the glacial pace of interfaith relations and wanted to recruit “new blood.”

Patel and a Jewish friend started attended local interfaith events with Teasdale. At each gathering, Teasdale introduced the pair as “the leaders” who are “building the interfaith youth movement.”

That was news to the two young men; they were just exploring world religions together — a little meditation here, some Scripture reading there. But Teasdale seemed to think an idea would present itself.

When it did, while Patel was at the Stanford interfaith event, Teasdale was enthusiastic. “You have to go to Dharamsala and tell (The Dalai Lama) about Interfaith Youth Core,” he said. Teasdale made some calls and made it happen.

In India, Patel was still not fully anchored in any single faith. He knew religion was important to him, but he was still exploring Buddhist meditation.

But the Dalai Lama looked at him and said, “You are a Muslim.” It was a statement, not a question. And he repeated it: “You are a Muslim. You are a Muslim.”

That statement — made by a Buddhist in a predominantly Hindu country to a young Muslim man traveling with his Jewish friend — moved something in Patel.  A door that was once closed was now ajar.

It was kicked wide open a few days later at the Bombay home of Patel’s grandmother. There was a strange woman in his grandmother’s kitchen — a refugee from an abusive home who came to Patel’s grandmother for help. It turned out his grandmother — a woman whose visits to America embarrassed the young Patel — had helped scores of women escape dangerous situations for almost 50 years.

When Patel asked his grandmother why she endangered herself to help others this way, she looked at him in surprise and replied, “I am a Muslim. This is what Muslims do.”

For the next few years, Patel bounced between setting up Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. And he was reconnecting with Islam.

“I was embarking on an intensely personal journey,” Patel writes of this time. “I had no interest in Islam until my recent trip to India. … I knew nothing of Islam except that it lived in my bones. I desperately wanted it to be magnificent.”

At Oxford, he had a sort of reconversion experience. He began reading the Quran and soon found the prayers of childhood came back to him. He began studying Islam with Azim Nanji, then the director of the Institute of Isma’ili Studies in London. He decided his Oxford doctorate would be about Isma’ili religious education programs.

By the end of his time in Oxford, Patel was ready to say it himself: “I realized that I was now facing and understanding the part of myself that was both first and final,” he writes. “I am a Muslim.”

‘What is mine to do?’

Rabbi Or Rose first met Patel on a cold call.

Someone had given Rose, founding director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College in Boston, a copy of Patel’s memoir, “Acts of Faith.” Rose felt like the two were living parallel lives.

So Rose called Patel in Chicago and found out he was actually on his way to a speaking engagement in nearby Hartford. Rose drove more than an hour to hear Patel speak. In a coffee shop after the talk, Rose pulled out his copy of “Acts of Faith” — dog-eared, underlined and highlighted throughout.

“As two people who were relatively young and for whom 9/11 was equally shocking, I felt he was responding to that shock creatively and instructively,” Rose remembered. “And that was exciting because, given the relationship between Jews and Muslims, here was someone whose life was different than mine but who was committed to the same values interreligiously and civically.”

Today, the two men are close friends. They call each other before their respective religious holidays and greet each other as brothers. They also work on projects together, including an off-the-record dialogue between Jewish and Muslim leaders about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a hot-button issue.

Rose said Patel has an innate gift for storytelling that people respond to.

“He asks what is mine to do?” Rose said of Patel. “What is yours to do? How do we do that thoughtfully, deeply, diligently together? I think that is one of his gifts. None of us thought we were going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we had to ask how are we working together or not, why or why not?”

Jenn Hoos Rothberg has also known Patel since the first days of IFYC. As executive director of the Einhorn Collaborative, a nonprofit that focuses on “the crisis of connection” in the U.S., she advised Patel on growing and nurturing his nonprofit baby. She calls Patel “one of the most remarkable visionaries and moral leaders of our day.”

“What you get with Eboo is the ability to brilliantly articulate and flesh out an ambitious vision and demonstrate what the work needs to look like on the ground,” Rothberg said. “He knows building bridges across our differences is the kind of work that you have to feel, you have to fully experience with both your heart and your mind, so that interfaith cooperation ultimately isn’t something that we do; it’s who we are. And that’s what Eboo inspires. His work inspires.”

The work inspires Patel, too. On a quick break between phone calls — including one from the White House — an interview with PBS, a recording session for a new Interfaith America podcast, two or three one-on-one staff meetings and two Zoom brainstorming sessions with partner organizations, he reflected on why he does what he does.

“There is spirituality in this,” he said, spreading his arms to take in Interfaith America’s offices, recently updated in shades of cool grey, lime green, turquoise blue and tangerine.

“For me, it’s the Islamic concept of ‘ishan,’ which means excellence. I think bridge-building is a craft, and you should do it excellently. Organization building is a craft, and you should do it excellently. There is a spiritual value in excellence.”

There was the briefest of pauses before he continued, “There’s a line in the Islamic tradition: ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’ I think building an organization, having a podcast, writing a book, building an organizational partnership and building a coalition that launches at the White House — I think all of these things are part of a craft. And the way a carpenter thinks of her craft, the way a musician thinks of his craft, I think of this as my craft.”

Interfaith America

In March 2022, Interfaith Youth Core officially became Interfaith America. The name change is not so much a rebranding as a signal that Patel and his cohort have more than American youth in their sights. They want to change the way organizations — both for- and not-for-profit, in everything from health care to tech to local governments — “do” bridge building.

“We think religious diversity and interfaith cooperation are relevant to virtually every aspect of American life,” Patel told The Deseret News earlier this year. “We want to be the vital civic institution standing up and taking responsibility for helping the United States to become interfaith America.”

Still, dropping of the word “youth” caused some ripples in interfaith circles. But, according to people familiar with IFYC’s work and history, the change is not a turn away from the source that has nourished it so richly.

Eck, the Harvard professor, said IFYC had to admit that the majority of its leaders, including Patel, had grown up and grown beyond. “They all have much wider portfolios in terms of their responsibilities and engagement with American life,” she said. “But their emphasis is still on the energies of younger people, on education and leadership training. So I think Interfaith America is going to continue to draw up on the spirit and alumni of IFYC.”

Tahil Sharma first met Patel when he was an IFYC fellow 10 years ago. He said the name change is making “the point that the world ‘interfaith’ is not separate from America” — what it is, who it is and how it progresses. Sharma, now the North American coordinator for the United Religions Initiative, attended a recent Interfaith America alumni event and said the foundation built by IFYC is still strong.

“I think the concern about the name change sits there,” he said. “But they are still very much centered on young people and making sure they are equipped to go out in the world and make change through interfaith work.”

Other interfaith leaders familiar with the organization say Interfaith America will move into areas IFYC should have tackled before.

Sabrina Dent first encountered Patel at a session for young people held at the 2015 Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. Afterwards, she asked an IFYC staffer about the nonprofit’s engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities for a critique of IFYC in her doctoral work.

“I thought it was so significant what IFYC was doing,” she said. “But the problem was it left out young people who did not go to college. My thing was and still is, how can Interfaith America make this accessible to everyone? I think the direction it is going in now will see these conversations take place not just on college campuses.”

And, Dent said, Interfaith America will emphasize something that IFYC initially did not — racial equity. In December 2021, IFYC announced it received $1 million from the Henry Luce Foundation for the Black Interfaith Project. It includes a fellowship program for 80 emerging leaders and a partnership with both the Smithsonian Institution and the American Academy of Religion to stage conferences, presentations and public engagement.

“There wasn’t enough storytelling within IFYC around how racial and religious minorities are impacted” by racial injustice and religious freedom in America, Dent continued. “That is something I look forward to seeing Interfaith America address.”

That’s a challenge Patel says both he and Interfaith America are ready for.

“We need to take the barriers of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, etc., seriously,” he said. “But the model has to be how do you bring your distinctiveness to a space where it can be in positive relationship with other people’s distinctiveness?”

Then he used a metaphor that he has returned to frequently in the past year in his interviews, writings and public speaking appearances. I heard him use it at least a dozen times in the course of a single day.

“That’s what happens at a potluck,” he said. “You bring a dish in order to see how it is in relationship with other dishes. You expect there to be interesting and creative combinations. We’re all distinct and yet we all make contributions to the American potluck. And you nurture creative combinations amongst people’s distinctive dishes.”

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and more. She is the recipient of the Religion News Association’s 2018 award for best religion reporting at large news outlets.