Alum founds service organization and discovers the missing piece of multiculturalism.
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. “A man walks into a bar and meets a Catholic worker, a Buddhist leader, and a Muslim grandmother....”
But it’s no joke.
For Eboo Patel, it really did take the Catholic Worker House, the Dalai Lama, and his own Muslim grandmother to rediscover the roots of his own religion. These three influences also inspired Patel to found the Interfaith Youth Core, a religious service organization that can be found on 500 American campuses. And it’s still growing.
Patel, a 1996 LAS alumnus in sociology, says he was an angry young activist on the University of Illinois campus when he first walked into St. Jude’s Catholic Worker House, the rambling old house on Randolph Street. He had come there to volunteer, and he says, “It was immediately clear to me that this was different from any other place I’d been. There was a deep spirit of service.”
The Catholic Worker House, which provides shelter and food to people in need, did not feel clinical—like an impersonal agency. It felt like a community.
“I couldn’t figure out whether it was a shelter or a home,” Patel says. “There was nobody doing intakes. There was no executive director’s office. I smelled food and heard English and Spanish voices coming from the kitchen. The first thing somebody said to me was, ‘Are you staying for dinner?’”
Patel was born in Bombay, India, but he grew up in the Chicago area, attending high school in Glen Ellyn, where he was made keenly aware of his brown skin and cultural differences. He developed a heart for the underdog, and when he came to campus in 1993, he threw himself into various service organizations, such as the Men’s Emergency Shelter and the Center for Women in Transition. But it was the Catholic Worker House that opened his eyes to faith-based service.
Patel also became involved in the U of I’s burgeoning multiculturalism movement, and he noticed an important missing piece—religion. Students talked about differences in ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual identity, but barely a word was spoken about religious differences.
In addition, he noticed that as he became involved in service organizations, “the people in service whom I respected the most tended to be faith-based,” he adds.
These observations planted seeds, but his ideas on interfaith cooperation didn’t come to fruition until he went to India during the summer of 1998. It was the first time he had been to India since he was 15 years old, and he stayed with his grandmother, whom he knew only slightly. Whenever she visited the States, he usually avoided her because of her constant prodding about Islam.
In India, his view of her changed.
“The most important lesson came in the most unexpected way,” he says. “I woke up one morning to find a new woman in the apartment. She looked a little scared and disheveled, and she was wearing a torn white nightgown several sizes too big for her, probably one of my grandmother’s older outfits.”
Patel discovered that his grandmother had taken in this woman because she was being beaten by her husband and uncle.
“This is crazy!” Patel told his grandmother. “You can’t just take strange women into your home and keep them here for weeks or months. This isn’t the Underground Railroad, you know. This is dangerous.”
His grandmother proceeded to inform him that she had been taking in abused women for 45 years—more than twice as long as Patel had been alive at the time. When he pressed her for why she took in women, she said, “I am a Muslim. This is what Muslims do.”
But Patel began to notice something else. He noticed that serving others was also what Christians did—and Buddhists and Hindus and Jews.
“I realized there is a powerful commonality among religions—serving others,” he says. This gave him the idea of bringing people together from different faiths around the common core value of service. The movement even includes those from secular faiths, such as secular humanism.
Although the trip to India gave birth to the idea for an interfaith service organization, the Interfaith Youth Core was not formalized until after he received his PhD as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in 2002. During his years at Oxford, he led service projects in Sri Lanka, South Africa, and India, laying the groundwork for the organization.
Interfaith Youth Core trains college students on how to lead interfaith service projects on their respective campuses. It holds Interfaith Leadership Institutes in four different parts of the country each year, attracting well over a hundred students to each event. Diversity is also evident throughout the leadership team, for Patel’s co-founder was Jewish and their first full-time staff person was an evangelical Christian.
Patel says he is impressed with the work being done by the group on the U of I campus, Interfaith in Action, which coordinated Champaign-Urbana’s largest interfaith project ever. In 2010, they organized 5,000 people who packaged 1 million meals for earthquake victims in Haiti.
Patel says they do not expect people to check their beliefs at the door when they participate in an interfaith service project; students are encouraged to talk about their beliefs, as long as it is done in a healthy, non-hostile way.
Today, Interfaith Youth Core has 35 staff members, a $4.5 million budget, and a footprint on about 500 college campuses in the United States. Patel also speaks on campuses and many other venues, such as the Clinton Global Initiative and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.
Along the way, he even received encouragement from the Dalai Lama.
During his Oxford years, Patel’s mentor arranged a meeting with the Dalai Lama. After Patel laid out his vision for interfaith service, the Dalai Lama smiled, then pointed to his secretary and himself and said, “We are not young. Can we still join?”
As Patel writes in his book, Acts of Faith, the Dalai Lama “sent us away laughing and floating and believing.”
By Doug Peterson