Eboo Patel asked Culver Academies students to “deepen your roots” while “expanding your wings” through learning about and understanding other religions. That understanding and appreciation of other faiths – expanding their wings – could lead them in deepening their personal beliefs in their own faith.
Patel, the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, was the featured speaker Wednesday as part of the Global Studies Institute and Class of ’62 Student Enrichment Fund series. He also met with students at a luncheon and after his talk to discuss what actions Culver students could take with interfaith initiatives.
He told the story of young Martin Luther King Jr. going to Philadelphia to listen to Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University. Johnson talk about the one man who was the greatest example of Christian love at the time. But he wasn’t a Christian. He was a Hindu named Mahatma Gandhi. It was Johnson’s speech that started King’s lifetime quest to learn more about Ghandi and his philosophy. And King used Ghandi’s teachings to help build interfaith coalitions around the world. But, as Rev. King would add, the more he became an admirer of other religions, he found his own Baptist faith deepening.
That expansion of King’s wings in learning and appreciating other religions had strengthened his roots as a Baptist minister, Patel said. Faith identity can be used to build “barriers, bludgeons, or bridges.” By using it to build bridges, King and several other faith leaders worked for “justice and dignity for all” during the Civil Rights movement. It was an example of how interfaith bridges can be built to allow “the nation to live up to its creed” as set by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison, Patel said.
And, with such a rich religious diversity on campus, Patel told students they have the ideal opportunity to learn more about different faiths, how to cooperate in the service of others, and “learn more about yourself.” Some of his greatest learning experiences about interfaith relationships came during his teens and early 20s, Patel said. That is when people are developing their personal narratives, the “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”
One of his stories involved his father, an Indian immigrant who became a University of Notre Dame graduate and avid Fighting Irish football fan. Living in Chicago, his father would often take his two sons to games. But before they would go to the stadium, they would stop at the Grotto so his father could kneel and pray. It didn’t make sense because his father wasn’t especially religious and they were Muslim – plus the boys wanted their popcorn, Patel said. When he asked his father about it, his dad told him that Mary is mentioned more often in the Quran than the Bible and is an honored figure in the religion. She was the “Light among lights.” As the statue of Mary stood before all the lit candles in the Grotto, it all made sense.
He also related that during his senior year of high school, a Jewish friend became the target of “thugs.” Patel watched it happen, but said or did nothing. After they were in college, Patel and his friend talked about that time. His friend told him was more hurt by Patel’s silence than the demeaning actions of the group. That “sin of omission” has played a role in his life ever since.
Patel finished with the tale of an old Cherokee man and his grandson. The old man tells the boy there were two wolves inside every person. One is full of prejudice, conflict, and hate. The other is full of love, hope, and inspiration. The boy asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old man answered, “The one you feed.”