The Common Good
February 2009

Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Me

by Alexis Vaughan | February 2009

A conversation about identity, social justice, and the “color line” between Alexis Vaughan and Eboo Patel

A century ago, renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois cautioned that the 20th century would be plagued by “the problem of the color line.” Now in the 21st century, many would agree we are faced with the challenge of the faith line. On one side are the religious totalitarians who believe there is only one way to legitimately live by a particular faith. On the other side are the pluralists who believe that people belonging to different faiths and communities need to learn how to live together with a sense of mutual trust and loyalty. Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, seeks to strengthen the movement for religious pluralism in the tradition of peaceful coexistence and equal dignity for all regardless of faith.

The son of Muslim immigrants from India, Patel was raised in a suburb of Chicago. His adolescence, like that of many young Americans, involved balancing multiple identities, which at times led him to feel like an American “other” because of his Indian heritage and Muslim faith. Yet, it was the radical work of peace, equality, and love exuded by James Baldwin, Dorothy Day, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and the Dalai Lama that set the course of Patel’s life. In 2002 he received his doctorate in sociology from Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and has been pioneering the religious pluralism movement ever since.

Acutely aware of how young people’s desire for a clear identity and to make an impact on the world can sometimes lead down dangerous paths, Patel urges people of faith to join forces to better engage and communicate with youth. If we don’t, we run the risk of throwing our future out the window. His hope is to encourage young people to be strong in their own religious identities, while cultivating mutual respect and inter-religious understanding to serve the common good. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core in 2003 knowing that young people needed to be the ones to create a reality out of that vision through thought and action. Amongst the real struggle and conflict in the world, this growing movement leads us to believe that there can be no peace without pluralism, and no pluralism without the engagement of young people. —Alexis Vaughan

Alexis Vaughan: What is the value, for you as a person of color, for you going through a consciousness-raising phase when you realize that everything you were taught—especially about American history—was wrong? What is the value in going through that, or is there a value?

Eboo Patel: I do not have a coherent answer to that question right now, and I think there are a number of reasons for that. Partially because I study religious extremism, and I am hyper-aware of how quickly those moments of consciousness can turn very violently combustible. And because there are those movements out there right now, which are actively looking for people at that stage and are trying to move them from big questions of ‘what do I do with this world that seems so messed up?’ And who am I in saying that “I have the answer for you”. That’s a threat, that’s a very real threat…so if you had asked me this before September 11th and before I started studying religious extremist movements and just how good they were at this, I would have had a less complex answer for you.

Vaughan: What is the value of people in religious social justice movements to understand the sentiments of young people who are feeling marginalized or in some sort of way colonized or discriminated against by their homeland, by America? What would you say?

Patel: So here are my answers. I think for me, part of this is in the Malcolm X story and the James Baldwin story, which for me are kind of the two master narratives of this so to speak. I am at a different stage. The other thing is that I’m at a different stage of my life. Part of what I want to do is, I don’t want to give you a pat answer. I don’t have a pat answer. So, you know, Baldwin goes through a couple of years of just rage. And part of his rage is not just what America has done to black people but as he says ‘my countrymen, you don’t know and you don’t want to know. That’s your problem.” But here’s the thing- the thing that’s remarkable about Baldwin and the African American experience it’s in one line: African Americans decided America was not a lie, it was a broken promise.

Here’s the truth of it, if African Americans had decided that America was a lie, we would be done. This country would not exist. They were the only group who could be that bridge. So that decision that America is a broken promise, and we are going to be part of bridging to something new, is something I think is up there with the decision to start the Revolutionary War and to start the Civil War. I think you call it the third required bridge in the American story. Because I am at a point now where I see that as so important and I think that Malcolm is similar in this. Although Malcolm for me is both a Muslim narrative and an American narrative.

I saw “Into the Wild” recently, and I didn’t sleep for nights, because my wife looked at me and said “that could have been you” because I was sort of a purist around social justice, and I happened to find a relatively healthy movement called the Catholic Worker movement, and of course what was really important to me was not just Dorothy Day’s philosophy, because if all I had done was read Dorothy Day and whatever Tolstoy and Peter Maurin, I may have become a mendicant also. But I met real Catholic Workers who were real people, they weren’t purists themselves, they swore, they made mistakes, whatever else. They just happened to be a part of this movement, but if I had been a purist environmentally, I could have wound up dead in the woods of Alaska.

Part of what I want to say is there is something, I look back on my life and I’m extremely grateful for the heat that I felt during those years, but I’m extremely aware that heat can sometimes explode and if I hadn’t had the blessing that I had of a certain set of people coming into my life in a certain point in time, Dorothy Day, Brother Wayne Teasdale, the Dalai Lama, the writings of Heschel. And a part of that was an increasing complexifying of the world. There’s a great line which I quote in the book by Richard Rodriguez which is “Thomas Jefferson, that democrat, was a slaveholder.” True; and that was all I saw at 18, and then “Thomas Jefferson, that slaveholder, was a democrat.” So the question that one begins to ask oneself is ‘so which story are you going to try to make real?’

Vaughan: In terms of the Interfaith Youth Core, what still needs to be done? What are some of the ideas you’ve heard from your youth about what they’d like to see done?

Patel: The methodology of our movement- and frankly I’ve learned a lot of this from Sojourners- at the IFYC we probably have 2 or 3 organizations that are archetypes for us and Sojourners is one of them. I’ve studied Jim over the years, and I’m meeting with Brian McLaren in a couple of days, right? And so, Brian McLaren wouldn’t exist without Jim Wallis. And when I say Jim Wallis, what I really mean is Sojourners. And you probably encounter this a lot. What we try to do is we put the idea of interfaith cooperation into the culture. I call it the ‘preaching to the choir’ philosophy or approach, because we get accused of doing that so much, and I wonder if this is going to be useful to you all, so I’m like, ‘you’re damn right we preach to the choir!’

Here’s what that means: there are 4 steps to preaching to the choir. 1) you recognize the noise that already exists in the world. What’s the noise about religion and religious diversity in the world? The noise about religion and religious diversity is dominated by the voices of aggressive atheists who hate religion, religious extremists who hate people, and religious bigots who hate Islam. And one day religious bigots will hate Hinduism, but today they hate Islam and they hate evangelicals. Those are the two groups on the Pew surveys, like we rate the approval rating of Jews and Catholics are like 75%. Muslims and evangelicals are like 15%. I think that’s hilarious. We have a lot in common there. So that’s the noise outside of the cathedral. That’s step one you realize when you’re preaching to the choir.

Step 2 is you teach a different song. If that’s the existing noise, you have to teach a different song. So what we sing is the song of Interfaith cooperation, the song of religious pluralism, the song of King learning from Gandhi, the song of King marching with Heschel; the song of the South African liberation movement being a multifaith movement. You sing a different song.

Step 3 is that you teach that song to the choir and make sure they sing it. So now you’ve added your voice to the noise, and hopefully you’re singing a different song in the world. Instead of just the voices of religious extremists, and religious bigots and aggressive atheists, there’s now the voice and the song of religious pluralists.

The fourth and final piece is that you teach your choir members to start their own choirs. That’s crucial. And that’s what the Interfaith Youth Core does. We’re singing the song of religious pluralism in a world dominated by these other voices and we are teaching people to sing that song, and we are teaching them how to become their own choir directors.

What’s missing is not young people, or interest amongst other people, it’s a resource fix. So on a college campus, young people can get the resources to run a day of interfaith youth service, which is kind of our biggest, global coordinated project, but once they graduate, where are they going to get even the $2500 to run that? And what I would like to see is religious communities, just as religious communities have committed to environmental projects, and committed to Habitat for Humanity builds, for them to start putting aside some resources to say ‘if we have someone in our congregation who wants to lead an interfaith project, an interfaith service project, here are some resources for that.

We have to start building a resource base so that people who want to do interfaith service projects can do them. That’s our version of making our own choir directors, by saying we’re going to train you in the framework, the knowledge base, and the skill set to run your own interfaith projects, and we’re going to network you with other people who are doing the same thing. You can get all of that information on ifyc.org. But we’re very much a movement-building organization in that way, again something we’ve learned from here. We don’t seek to grow exponentially as an organization ourselves, we seek to tell the story and inspire them to tell it themselves and inspire them to act on it.

Vaughan: Going along with the metaphor of teaching a song to a choir, at Sojourners we have a magazine that’s kind of like our sheet music. Does the IFYC movement have that?

EP: That’s a great question. I don’t know if the magazine is your sheet music, I think you’re sheet music is the Bible.

But what the magazine is is story-telling within that category. More stories. So you guys have a certain set of values depending on your interpretation of the Bible and what you do is you tell a story of the world, you sing a story of the world, within that.

I have a blog, this book Acts of Faith, you know, and we are very deliberately training people to be able to tell this story. The biggest staff in the Youth Core is a staff of speakers and trainers who go out to different congregations, and I’d love for this to show up in the magazine, we send people out to churches, and synagogues, and mosques, and cities to preach the song of religious pluralism. I think something to realize is that you guys have been around for 30 years, right? And what you’ve effectively done is you have created a new category in American life- the category of the progressive, evangelical voice. It took you 30 years to do that. We, following your lead, are sort of creating a new category in American and global life which is the category of interfaith cooperation.

Our modes of discourse are not as well developed as yours. It’s a couple of books, it’s a consistent blog in the Washington Post, and it’s really speakers. Jim Wallis once told me that a great metaphor which I use all the time, it’s ‘I used to feel like I was in a stadium without a microphone, so what did I have to do? I had to preach to each section of the stadium.’ I think what’s interesting is that those sections needed to see him. Whenever you’re talking about something new, it’s the person or the set of people who embody that. So right now, people need to see a progressive Muslim. They need to put their hands on it. You can’t just write about it, they need to see that. They need to see people, young people, who are full-time interfaith cooperation staff people. So as much as we might continue to build a literature so to speak, we’ve got a bunch of other stuff out also, we’ve got about 15 articles, we’ve got another book we’ve co-edited, etc, etc. but at the end of the day, with the exception of probably this book, which is more personal, that is still a quasi-academic literature, which is useful because it’s building a field, but it’s the equivalent to a theology in your world. Right now where people need to see people, they need to see the preacher, which is why we invest so much time in training people to go out and speak.

Vaughan: As a young person you want to feel as though you can touch something, someone, but also you want to feel connected to some extent to other young people who are where you’re at right now. I have no idea what’s going on in Nebraska right now like if someone else is having this same conversation. I’d like to, but I don’t…

Patel: Right. We have realized that for years and are just now getting good at it. And I’d love to have this show up in the magazine also, we’re just launching this. We’re launching something called “Bridge Builders Network.” We preach, so to speak, to tens of thousands of people. We do sermons in churches, we preach keynote addresses on college campuses, but we do specifics that might be an hour. But we also do 3-4 hour trainings to start their own interfaith project, and we’re starting to say to those people, ‘you’re part of a category. It’s the category of interfaith peace builder. We’re going to put you in a database, you’re going to get regular emails from the IFYC and we want to find out what you’re doing.’

Whenever they do an interfaith project, they often times get in a college newspaper, we’re going to send those articles around; we’re going to make people feel like they’re a part of a movement. Somebody said this is like the Sojourners model that we’re just trying to accelerate. Jim told me last time I was here, that a lot of the people that he preached to and the early Sojourners community preached to 25 years ago are now senior ministers in pulpits. Well, because of the internet, we can accelerate that. And now they’re finding each other, they’re like ‘you were in such and such also? Me too!’ You can accelerate that and tighten that more quickly. The other problem of course is that there are frankly a lot more movements; there is a lot more competition for people’s energy and time. And so part of our wonderful challenge is to say to you, ‘you should invest you’re prestigious time, talent, and treasure into this movement.’ It requires you to pay special attention to the issue of religious pluralism. It doesn’t mean environmental stuff is not important. It doesn’t mean poverty is not important. We have a crisis in the world around religious conflict right now, and if you don’t have a set of people committed to being interfaith peace builders, we let those other people win.

Alexis Vaughan was an editorial intern at Sojourners when this interview was conducted. For more on Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core, go to www.ifyc.org.

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