How Tolerance is Built

When Pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn Qurans at his church in Florida this fall, he hurt a lot of Muslims I know. He also hurt a lot of Christians. So many of my Christian friends approached me and said, "That man does not represent me or Christianity, and certainly not the teachings of Jesus."

Of course, I knew that. And the reason is simple: It's because I have come to know so many Christians through common activities, from service projects to athletic competitions.

In their new book American Grace, sociologists Bob Putnam and David Campbell show that this kind of experience is actually how tolerance is built in a diverse society. They report that one of the most effective ways to improve attitudes toward people of different religious background is to have a positive, meaningful encounter with them. In other words, they show that when people come together through common activities, their attitudes toward one another improve -- even if they enter into the relationship with negative or suspicious attitudes about the other’s religion. Putnam and Campbell call this the "Pal Al Syndrome."

If we value interfaith cooperation, and if we know we can build it through meaningful, positive encounters between religiously diverse people, we should expand the opportunities for these encounters.

At Interfaith Youth Core, we believe that two kinds of institutions in the U.S. have huge potential to facilitate these experiences: houses of worship and college campuses.

Let me give you an example. In Chicago, the Youth Core -- along with our partners Inner-City Muslim Action Network and the Chicago Community Trust -- runs a program called One Chicago, One Nation. Last year we trained 100 "community ambassadors" from all over the city -- including local colleges and local houses of worship -- to create these kinds of positive, meaningful encounters.

On Sept. 10, while the national conversation was dominated by discussions of the controversy over an Islamic center in lower Manhattan and Jones in Florida, who planned on burning Qurans, a different conversation was taking place at a church on the southwest side of Chicago. A Muslim community ambassador was leading a session at a Catholic church with more than 50 community members -- Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, black and white -- on how their faith called them to reduce gun violence in their neighborhood. They left with two things: an action plan that addressed a serious issue in their community, and new relationships between diverse groups that strengthened not only their commitment to solving this critical issue but also increased tolerance.

Let me give you another example: Erica attends Brandeis University. She’s an Interfaith Youth Core Fellow -- a college student who has dedicated a year to advancing interfaith cooperation on her campus. In response to the way religion has been talked about in the media over the last few months, Erica spent this fall raising the volume on a different way to talk about religion. She organized a "speak in" event on her campus to highlight how people of different traditions can work together to address local issues. The president-elect of the university gave the keynote address, and students made a commitment to work together to combat homelessness in the area around the university.

I’m not sure if Erica has read Putnam and Campbell's new book, but she sure was putting it into practice: She made a space for a diverse group of people to engage in a common activity together. What if every campus and every house of worship was a space that nurtured positive, meaningful encounters between people of different backgrounds?

Eboo Patel is founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

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