S&P's Contributing Editor Jon M. Sweeney had an “Off the Page" conversation with Eboo Patel about “We Need to Build" on July 19, 2022. Watch the video below.
Eboo Patel has been, for the last twenty years, one of the smartest, most enterprising and creative interfaith organizers in the United States. He is the author of several books, including Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground, but none of them has been as focused on nuts-and-bolts community organizing as this one. He is also one of our Living Spiritual Teachers.
In 2002, he founded Interfaith Youth Core, which focused on organizing young people in order to raise up a generation that would normalize interfaith cooperation. In 2022, the organization evolved into a new name, Interfaith America, reflecting their broadened mission to unlock the potential of religious diversity in the United States.
Patel is an Oxford PhD, but he writes in a very down-to-earth style, with an abundance of anecdotes. For example, in the chapter, “America, the People’s Potluck” he uses the potluck dinner as a metaphor, but he also means potlucks literally, at times, as in: “Potlucks build communities; communities sustain potlucks. It is a beautiful, virtuous circle. But everything starts with a leader.” Patel wants to inspire more people to become local leaders for a vision of democracy that includes all people.
With We Need to Build, Patel wants to inspire and create institutions that recognize and encourage religious diversity and pluralism. He says that a real interfaith America will be defined “as a nation that welcomes its religious diversity from atheism to Zoroastrianism, nurtures positive relationships between those different groups, and engages them in common action for the common good.”
Still, he knows from personal experience that Americans can be racist and ignorant about neighbors who are not white and not Christian. He tells stories from his own life, growing up Brown and Muslim, to illustrate this. He also knows that hatred and bigotry have not simply gone away. But he is a hopeful person. That is, in fact, the great gift of Eboo Patel and this book: He and it help the rest of us see that a just world is still possible.
His vision of diversity and pluralism reflects who we are rather than how we are often described. He explains, “We believe Interfaith America should replace our current understanding of America as a Judeo-Christian nation.” That phrase — Judeo-Christian — began as a civic invention for the good, as a statement designed as a response to anti-Catholicism and antisemitism a century ago; today, it no longer comes close to accurately describing American society.
Patel wants to build, and help others build, institutions to do all of this good work. He wants to inspire and train new civic leaders who nurture pluralism and community that is welcoming. People build institutions, he says, and he offers many examples — such as school principals, community integration center directors, YMCA leaders, college student leaders, religious leaders and teachers, children’s center directors, racial-justice experts at the American Civil Liberties Union, and even school bus drivers — who can do this.
His vision is broad, but he also includes small details of what works and what is working. (See the excerpt accompanying this review for an example of an ordinary way that Patel himself, as a young college graduate, modeled building from the ground up.)
Patel defines a strategic institution as “one that instantiates ideals through a web of concrete programs.” He is looking to organized religion to lead the way: “At their best, religions are a network of institutions that seek to make real an inspiring vision that adherents believe was set forth by God, a vision that makes everyone sacred.” He believes that, across our traditions, in all of our communities, we can still do this.