Activist Says College Campuses Can Facilitate Interfaith Movement

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Institutions of higher learning should serve as models of interfaith cooperation, and college students should be at the forefront of the movement, a prominent proponent of interfaith initiatives on campus stressed Wednesday in a speech at Georgetown University.

“We’re the ones who have to build interfaith cooperation,” said Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization that seeks to build an interfaith youth movement through community service.

Patel made his remarks at the historic Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University for the college’s year-end symposium on the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

Among other things, Patel—who has served on President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships—defined the interfaith movement as one that is civic in its essence as opposed to being spiritual or political.

The key idea, he said, is for people of different faiths to better understand one another through cooperation on common goals.

That is precisely what students at Georgetown University have sought to do over the past year since President Obama—through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—issued the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which called on institutions of higher learning to build on existing interfaith cooperation and community service initiatives—or build new ones—during the 2011-2012 academic year.

Final reports on the programs are due May 1, and exemplary initiatives will be recognized by the White House this summer.

At Georgetown, interfaith initiatives have included food drives, service days and faith and service roundtables.

Aamir Hussain, 19, president of the Georgetown Interfaith Council, said the service projects helped build understanding among students from different faith backgrounds. One of the projects—25 Days of Service—involved getting campus-based groups to work with other groups that they typically don’t deal with.

“In terms of personal values, it’s good that we served the community and recognized that there are different faiths and non-faiths at Georgetown and in America,” said Hussain, who is majoring in government with a minor in theology. “But it doesn’t’ matter. We agree on the service and helping others, and we get stronger in those values by pursuing community service.”

Though interfaith cooperation is in many ways a developing field, at least in the formal sense, in practice it actually goes back to the founding of Georgetown University and the nation itself, speakers at Wednesday’s event said.

Georgetown President John DeGioia said that the pursuit of interfaith understanding is “deeply rooted in Georgetown’s traditions,” and he noted how founder John Carroll stated in the original papers for the institution that it should be “open to students of every religious profession.”

Patel recounted examples of religious diversity and interfaith understanding and cooperation from the earliest days of the nation through the civil rights movement.

He cited George Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., from 1790, in which the nation’s first president reassured them that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Patel said the letter should be required reading for every American high school student.

Patel said that, if he had to share the most inspiring story in the American trajectory toward interfaith understanding, it would be how Martin Luther King Jr. as a young college student was first exposed to the teachings of Gandhi during a 1950 speech by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the first Black president of Howard University, and eventually came to see in Gandhi an expression of Christian love and employed Gandhi’s nonviolent strategies in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.

“One of the things I think escapes us often about King was how young he was when he was going through this process,” Patel said. “Frankly, and I’m looking at you all, sophomores and juniors, he was 20 years old when he went to see Mordecai Johnson.”

Patel elaborated on what he believed were the essentials for interfaith cooperation.

They include appreciable knowledge of other religions; knowing important moments in history of interfaith cooperation; knowing your own theology; and having the knowledge and ability to identify shared values, such as mercy, compassion and service, across different faith traditions.

“Interfaith literacy ought to be standard operating procedure,” Patel said, adding that he thought interfaith studies could be a subfield of religious studies.

“It seems pretty clear to me that interfaith literacy is a key knowledge base for citizenship and leadership in the 21st century,” Patel said.

Patel challenged the students not to sit on the sidelines in what he characterized as the ongoing conflict between the forces of prejudice and the forces of pluralism.

“The next chapter is not going to write itself,” Patel said. “Pens don’t fall from the sky. History doesn’t just rise from the ground.

“People write that next chapter. Bridges don’t just emerge out of thin air. People build bridges between communities of different faiths.

“If you’re not going do it, who is?” Patel asked. “The forces of prejudice in our era are no less ugly, no less shy than the forces of prejudice in other eras.

“The question for us is, are the forces of pluralism going to be just as strong?”