YMCA Friday Forum addresses interfaith relations

By Frank Krolicki

Eboo Patel said he recently opted not to travel to his native India for fear of being “dragged out of the car and killed.” Patel said this fear was from rampant religion-based violence, but he spoke of a possible cure – increased interfaith relations among youth – Friday at a University YMCA lecture.

Patel, a University alumnus, is the executive director and founder of the Chicago-based, nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). The IFYC, which began in 1998, promotes the exposure of young people to different faiths through pro-active interaction and service projects. Patel spoke as part of the YMCA’s “Friday Forum” lecture series.

Becca Guyette, YMCA program director, said Patel’s talk – like all of the Friday Forums – was meant to directly address important issues to the campus and community.

“This semester’s theme is ‘Neighbors to Nations: Managing Conflict,'” Guyette said. “Dr. Patel fit into that theme well because he deals with conflicts among religious identities and peacemaking.”

Patel said much of the conflict between groups of people that takes place in the world today is the result of “religious segregation,” or people in one religion being completely detached from and lacking in knowledge of other religions.

“A chasm of difference between two religious communities is too easily filled by violence,” he said.

He also said that although a given classroom at the University usually has several different religious groups represented, there wasn’t much of an outlet for students to actively confront these differences in faith.

“There are few spaces where people from different religious communities can come together to deal directly with religious issues,” he said. “It is important for a person to not only know a private language of faith, but also a public one – that is, developing fluency in discussing faith issues beyond one’s own religious community.”

One significant occurrence that signaled a lack of interfaith understanding to Patel happened in high school, when one of his Jewish friends faced anti-Semitic harassment, he explained.

“This friend later told me that the worst part was actually the silence of his friends, the fact that nobody spoke up,” he said.

“When people do not understand other religions and are afraid to talk about them, those who face these kinds of attacks suffer alone.”

After experiences such as this, Patel thought of the idea of the IFYC. He said the organization allows youth volunteers of all faiths to connect, understand one another better and do service projects together to better the community.

“There are way too many forces in the world encouraging and leading to conflict rather than cooperation,” he said. “IFYC brings religiously diverse 14- to 25-year-olds together to emphasize cooperation.”

He said it was important for the organization to focus on youth because aspects of religion have changed significantly from what previous generations experienced.

“Now, religion is a huge part of other aspects of culture, such as popular music, and we can no longer hide kids from confronting differences in faith,” Patel said.

He mentioned two factors the organization was trying to avoid. The first was “identity politics,” when a person does not care about anyone else’s background or ideas unless they coincide with their own.

“We also discourage assimilation – we have to recognize the fact that while we share important values, we are different and should not try to make people the same,” Patel said.

Anne Masters, junior in FAA, said she found Patel’s ideas inspiring.

“I think he spoke directly to the hearts of the students,” Masters said. “Not only about interfaith relations, but about individual contribution to society in active and creative ways.

Masters said she felt Patel’s goals were attainable, but was unsure of how quickly or easily.

“It’s not necessarily something that can be achieved right away,” she said. “But if people really work toward this and opens our hearts, I think it’s a goal that can actually be lived.”

Nick Price, junior in LAS, said he enjoyed listening to Patel’s perspective on the importance of faith.

“It was great to hear him discuss how individual faith was important in building a common investment in society as a whole,” he said.

Price said he felt Patel’s goal of extensive interfaith relations among youth was “extremely attainable” because of a strong curiosity young people have about different faiths.

“I see many students with these deep questions about other faiths around them, but they don’t know how to go about asking about them,” he said. “Programs like this provide the opportunity to do so.”

Patel said that programs such as IFYC need to be connected with other organizations that also aim to bring people of different faiths together.

“If you are young and religious in America, you need to come together with people who are different from you,” he said. “It is a key way to work toward a common good.”