Eboo Patel mesmerized the audience gathered on Tuesday in Texas Lutheran University’s Jackson Auditorium with a lecture that explored topics from America’s history to the struggles of European segregation all aimed at bringing people together through religious diversity.
Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-based Neighborhood Partnerships. He visited TLU because of the university’s students and its values, he said.
“There’s exciting things going on here,” he said. “There’s a conversation about ‘what does it mean to be deeply Lutheran, while also being welcoming to people of all faiths.’ I met some remarkable students who are current interfaith leaders and are going to be doing great things through interfaith leadership in the world. So I love being at places where people are connected to their heritage, and they’re embracing the future with open arms.”
Patel looked to the nation’s history as a template for a more socially accepting future.
“America was birthed as a nation that was about welcoming people from different religious identities and nurturing cooperation between them,” he said. “But the American genius is when people’s identities are given dignity, they will make major contributions to their society. Texas Lutheran is a great example of this. German Lutherans were at one point immigrants who said, ‘We’re going to build an institution that ensures the continuity of our community, but also serves the people from other communities.’”
Patel describes the U.S. as a “potluck” of religious diversity more than a “melting pot,” as it is often referred.
“A potluck is a space that requires people to bring their distinct identity and their distinct dish,” he said. “So the thing I don’t like about a melting pot is the notion that we all get melted into the same thing. I like the idea of welcoming and benefiting from the diversity of people’s identities.”
Although the country’s varied religious and racial minority populations are on the rise, diverse interpersonal relationships among the masses are not, Patel said.
“Geographies are getting more diverse, but social circles are becoming more homogenous,” he said. “What diversity initially does is it causes people to pull in like a turtle, it causes them to seek sameness and isolation. Diversity is not rocket science; it’s harder. Your surroundings can become more diverse, and you can find your social circles dramatically more reformed.”
Americans must focus on education and exposure to combat a lack of assorted relationships and religious acceptance, Patel said
“We need a generation of interfaith leaders who are skilled at building bridges of cooperation between people of different religions,” he said. “There is a holiness to the notion of diversity in American democracy, and it begins with the idea that people from different religions came together to build a nation.”
Patel also spoke of a southeastern European town called Mostar that struggles with segregation between its Muslim and Catholic populations.
In Mostar, various forms of segregation take place, such as Catholic youths attending school at different hours of the day than their Muslim counterparts. Additionally, nightclubs are also segregated as well as the fire departments, Patel said.
“They are unable to build civic spaces for people of different backgrounds,” he said. “The only integrated space in Mostar is the garbage dump. There’s two garbage collection companies, a Catholic one and a Muslim one, and so there’s constantly a squabble about who gets to enter and dump their garbage first.”
In contrast, Patel shared a story about a high school in Willmar, Minnesota, who’s principal identified his school’s diverse student body and used it to bring them together.
“He is an interfaith leader,” Patel said. “So he’s asking himself, ‘How do I build a school environment in which people are intimate and connected with one another and in which we take advantage of the geographic diversity in our social circles.’ He struggles with this fact, but if you look at the school clubs, you look at the classes, you look at the way they build partnerships with businesses and the community, it’s all about creating spaces where people from different identities can feel welcome.”
Patel closed his lecture with a series of questions.
“What we need is a set of leaders who can rebuild our public life,” he said. “How do you have a diverse democracy? How do you have a civic life? How do you have a sense of a public, which is what America relies on if people are staying at home and only hanging out with those that have already decided they like. As our geographies get more diverse, we need to lean in instead of stay at home. We are each other's business, and we are each other's hearts.”
Amelia Koford, associate professor and librarian at TLU, said she first learned of Patel seven years ago when the library received one of his books. She played a role in inviting him to speak at the university.
“I hope students will think about how religion is central to a lot of people’s lives, she said. “If people aren’t religious, I hope they’ll have a world view and a belief about what’s good and what’s most meaningful in life. Sometimes someone’s views can be very different, but we can work together on things that we share and acknowledge the differences and celebrate them, not try to paper them over.”
TLU senior and applied physics major Wade Cookston said he had anticipated Patel’s appearance for several weeks and that the lecture was a breath of fresh air.
“I thought it was really insightful and overall enjoyed it,” he said. “These days it can be real tribal politically, so it’s nice to hear someone talk in a way that wasn’t helping to reinforce that tribalism and talk about interfaith and diversity.”
Hannah Grove, a 19-year-old TLU junior, said she walked away with many thinking points after the lecture.
“I’ve heard Eboo Patel talk on multiple occasions, and you learn something new every time,” she said. “Something I didn’t quite get earlier is that interfaith dialogue can be used to enact social change, but that is something I will be thinking about today and how that can move towards social justice and that kind of thing.”