Are you ready to be an interfaith leader?

Eboo Patel reminds students that you don’t need doctrinal alignment to work together

by | Apr 7, 2020

“What does it look like to be the kind of leader who can encourage cooperation between people from different religious communities?”

Dr. Eboo Patel challenged college students to be leaders in cooperation, noting that working together can save lives.

Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), spoke three times on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, on March 5. His presentations were for the 2020 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, co-hosted by BJC and the Baptist House of Studies at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU.

Patel called students to a new kind of social action that builds bridges across religions to make an impact, encouraging them to consider new ways they can make a difference.

He shared that, when he entered college, he thought there were only a few career paths available to him. Being exposed to new possibilities — from professorships to nonprofit leadership — opened his eyes to new ways to change our civil society for the better.

“I think in the future, being an interfaith leader itself is going to be its own kind of career path,” he said.

“I’m looking at people who are writing chapters that I can’t even dream of in the American story,” he told the students.

Patel founded IFYC on the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division, and the organization works to make interfaith cooperation a normal part of society while creating the next generation of interfaith leaders.

During the lectures, Patel shared the story of a food depository in Chicago that had many volunteers from different faith communities. The volunteers didn’t often work together, and the depository wanted to change that. They just didn’t know how, so they asked Patel about hiring someone that could help them create new connections across religious communities.

Patel asked students to consider whether they could apply for that job.

“Our civil society is made up of diverse religious communities volunteering, participating, doing disaster relief efforts, and doing food relief efforts,” he noted. “Do you have the knowledge, the skills, the vision, the kind of right touch to be able to organize them?”

He said that kind of leadership is unique and needed now more than ever.

“Religious freedom is an abstract idea that leads to a very concrete reality: Lots of different religions flourishing in a single political entity,” he said.

Patel noted that, until the United States of America came along, many people thought it was not possible to have a democracy with religious diversity.

The United States “starts the idea that people who believe very different things — how and why we’re created, who gets to heaven and how they get to heaven — could live together. And that’s where we get the America we have now,” he said.

In his first lecture, given during chapel at the Perkins School of Theology on SMU’s campus, Patel explored the uniqueness of the country’s founding and how it allows people with diverse views to live, work and serve together.

“So many of the things that we care about in our civil society and government structures were advanced by people of strong religious and spiritual conviction that benefited people outside of their own community,” he said.

Patel quoted Roger Williams, the founder of the First Baptist Church in America, who talked about his vision of a religiously diverse land in the mid-17th century. Patel also pointed out the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, which rejected a ban on Quaker worship. Both statements were based on religious convictions.

The authors of the Flushing Remonstrance (in present-day Flushing, Queens, New York) said, in essence, that they cannot allow a ban on any type of worship because of their own religious conviction as Christians. Likewise, Williams’ Christian faith was his driving force for allowing others to worship.

“What is the content of this religious conviction?” asked Patel, that allows someone to say, “as a Christian, as a Muslim, as a Jew, as a Buddhist, it’s part of my religious conviction — part of my spiritual thirst — to stand for your freedom and your ability to thrive and flourish as your conscience calls you to.”

Patel pointed to the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most well-known parables told by Jesus. Patel said that, in any mainstream interpretation, it is a religious call to partnership, including with people who have different religious doctrines.

Patel noted that the story begins with someone asking Jesus how to attain eternal life. When Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, he explains who a “neighbor” is through the parable.

The parable includes a priest seeing someone injured on the side of the road and passing by him. However, someone from Samaria — a land where the people practice a different religion — takes care of the man. After telling the story, Jesus tells the crowd, “Go and do likewise.”

“It’s not just a story about being a nice person or a good citizen,” said Patel. “It’s a story about how you attain eternal life.”

Patel said the message goes beyond a call to love others.

“At least sometimes, you partner with, you emulate, you follow the person whose doctrine you disagree with. That person in your midst has value. They ought to have freedom. They ought to thrive and flourish in the way that they view is right — even if you doctrinally disagree,” he said. “You might learn something from them. You might have to follow them. You might have to go and do likewise.”

Patel pointed out the importance of a religious conviction for a civic architecture that puts religious freedom at the center, which allows religious diversity to flourish.

Our nation today is not getting any less religiously diverse, and Patel challenged students in his final lecture to think about how they can learn more about their neighbors and from them.

“If you grew up in 21st century North America, you probably have religiously diverse friends. Working together can save lives,” he said, noting the difference it can make in serving the homeless or feeding the hungry through organized volunteer work.

Patel encouraged students to consider how they could use their practical experience to lead people from all faith backgrounds into new partnerships.

“As we equip Baptist leaders to serve God’s richly diverse and complex world, Patel called and inspired us to learn practical interfaith leadership skills for serving together for the common good,” said the Rev. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, the director of the Baptist House of Studies at Perkins School of Theology. “With candidness, humor and plenty of joy, he reminded us that working across differences doesn’t mean giving up one’s faith or convictions. We don’t lose anything, but we stand to gain everything, at least everything that matters to God.”

During a lunchtime conversation co-hosted by Faith Commons, the Rev. Dr. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, spoke with Patel about IFYC’s work and mission. Patel also shared his personal story and his family’s experience as practicing Muslims.

Patel noted that he is fortunate because of those who have gone before him and because of his class privilege. But, he pointed out that his kids are exposed to things he is not, sharing a story about his 9-year-old son. Patel’s son engaged in a conversation about religion with his Christian and Jewish friends, but he didn’t want to talk about his own Muslim faith because he felt as if he wasn’t as American as his friends of other religions.

“This 9-year-old kid has absorbed the toxins of the culture,” said Patel. But, he noted that his kids’ class privilege — and advantage of living in the United States — will ultimately overcome those issues; any ugliness of anti-Muslim sentiment or Islamophobia won’t come to his kids through official channels. “But, a girl who wears a hijab in Belgium whose parents are from Somalia and whose dad works at a factory — that’s a lot different,” he noted.

He also shared that IFYC works to make sure students not only are exposed to new ideas but they have opportunities for leadership in new ways.

To close out his challenges to students in his third and final lecture, Patel gave another example of cross-religious partnership and learning that led to social action: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Patel noted that King was a key civil rights leader and an important interfaith leader. But above all, King was a Baptist minister. And, outside of Jesus, a Hindu was the one who most shaped the way King acted in the world: Mahatma Gandhi.

Patel told the story of King’s journey to India in the 1950s to see Ghandi’s legacy. And, he was stunned to see that the movement there wasn’t necessarily just a Hindu movement — it was an interfaith movement built by a Hindu.

When he came back to Montgomery, Alabama, King gave a sermon that said the most Christlike person of the 20th century was a Hindu from India. King then ended the sermon noting the different names people call God from different traditions.

Then, to close, King offered an invitation to the congregation to accept Christ into their lives.

Patel noted the significance of that sermon, pointing out how King showed respect for other religious traditions while being true to who he was as a believing Christian. King’s sermon illustrated that one can respect, appreciate, love, learn from and cooperate with people across religions while never downplaying someone’s own faith tradition.

“You can have roots and wings,” Patel said. “That’s part of the beauty of interfaith cooperation, and it is a characteristic trait of so many of the interfaith leaders that I know.”

For videos and photos of the 2020 Shurden Lectures, visit

This article appeared in the spring 2020 edition of Report from the Capital. You can read the entire magazine as a PDF or a digital flip-through edition.