Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic Herald Thursday, 18 October 2012 09:30
Activist, writer, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a college based organization that builds the interfaith movement on college campuses, Patel learned much about the four men who detonated bombs in London in 2005, killing themselves and 52 others and wounding more than 700 people.
A number of things hit home. They were all young Muslims, and their lives were earmarked by a lack of interest in Islam and then by an almost zealous resurgence. In his book, he writes that their story was also part of his story. He recognized their anger at the West and their alienation from the society in which they grew up.
Growing up in the 1990s at Glenbard South High School in a Chicago suburb, Patel shared a lunch table with a Nigerian Evangelical Christian, a South Indian Hindu, a Cuban Jew, a Mormon, a Lutheran and a Catholic. While religious conflicts were rampant in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and the Balkans at that time, Patel had difficulty believing religious conflict was inevitable because those who were closest to him were of different faiths, and they got along fine.
Since high school, Patel has made it his mission to bring people of varying faiths to work on collaboration.
Named by U.S News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel, 36, holds a doctorate in the society of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. In 2009, he was appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Influenced by work of Dorothy Day
Patel credits Catholics for much of his journey in service to others. He spent time exploring the work of the late Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker movement.
He writes in “Acts of Faith,” “My first faith hero as a young adult was Dorothy Day. When I read her 1952 autobiography, ‘The Long Loneliness,’ it changed my life” because through her writing, she taught him, “what it meant to create a society where it is easier to be good.”
He began by visiting St. Jude’s Catholic Worker Community, in Champaign, Ill., and learned to give back and be of service to others. He and a friend traveled
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Hanging by a Thread Thursday, Nov. 1, 6:30 p.m.; free Location: Sister Camille Kliebhan
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across the country, living in many Catholic Worker communities.
“They played a central role in helping me to find my identity,” he said. “Catholics offer service instinctively and have done it a lot longer and better than anybody else.”
Speaking on the importance of religious tolerance and diversity is one thing, but putting those goals into practice when unrest is rampant around the country and the world, is quite another. On the surface, the world appears to be an angry place, but Patel, cautions that oftentimes cable media platforms play to that anger.
“I … think that just because you see something on cable news doesn’t mean that it defines our country,” he said. “From my experience, we are a country of people who in most of our public and civic spaces we engage quite positively across lines of differences and it is important that we learn how to nurture that in our neighborhoods, in cities, campuses and that we inspire leaders who think this is a high priority. The question is, how do we inspire a set of leaders who think that this is a very high priority and how do we represent that better in the media?”
Dalai Lama blessed Interfaith Youth Core
Celebrating its 10th year, Patel said the Interfaith Youth Core makes a difference in the lives of college students. The organization was in development for approximately 15 years, and solidified a couple of months before he met with the Dalai Lama who imparted his blessing on the organization’s founding.
When unconscionable acts occur, such as the shooting at Milwaukee’s Sikh Temple in August where six people were murdered, Patel reminds others not to let the actions of a hatemonger destroy the beauty of the Sikh faith and allow hate to emanate where forgiveness and peace can reside.
“The Sikh community responded with such grace and beauty during this horrific time,” he said. “Here they had seen several members gunned down before their eyes and when the first responders came on the scene, the Sikh community gave food and water to the responders. They overwhelmingly acted with grace and equanimity in the way they responded. It was so powerful; and healing comes from recognizing this grace and their response within their faith.”
Construct bridges of cooperation, he says
Patel said joining the commonalities of faith can be used as a tool for transformation and peace, rather than a barrier of division and a bomb of destruction. He believes in constructing bridges of cooperation by utilizing the theology of interfaith cooperation to collaborate one tradition with the faith traditions of another.
“One great example of this is St. Francis of Assisi, who, during the time of the Crusades, goes from a Christian camp to the sultan’s camp as an offering of peace and meets with the sultan during the Christian-Muslim War,” said Patel. “This is a beautiful example in that there has to be a different way to relate to others than fighting. The more we learn about faith and tradition, like so many Catholic schools, hospitals and social service agencies have as part of their theology to be of service to other traditions, it will bring peace, and this is the essence of the theology of interfaith cooperation.”
Combining the peace keeping efforts of a multitude of faith groups can appear daunting, especially when each group believes that theirs is the true path to salvation. Patel points out that successful interfaith dialogue focuses on one’s actions on earth, in lieu of the argument on who is saved at the end of the day.
“These different religious views are ones that emerge out of the deepest sincerity,” he said. “But we share this earth together and are in a partnership here. There are plenty of people who believe that their tradition is the only one that contains salvation, but they are still good partners in interfaith dialogue. We focus on earth, not heaven. People have different views, but we share earth together and partnerships can make the earth a better place, rather than a worse place.”
In order to achieve a more open and tolerant future for the next generation, Patel said it will take a substantial amount of work, but it is possible.
“This is the theme of my latest book, ‘Sacred Ground,’” he said. “There are several chapters of early anti-Catholic bigotry, and the movement against Kennedy. But America overcame this because the people fought against it. We need a generation to rise again to defeat prejudice and forces for pluralism and the need to work for interfaith cooperation.”