Eboo Patel Brings His Message to Atlanta

by Tom Glenn

Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) always gives a great speech, but he made one the other night that was particularly powerful as some three hundred college students, along with supporting faculty and student affairs professionals from all over the United States, gathered at IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute dinner at the Loudermilk Center in Atlanta. In the wake of recent developments at odds with interfaith cooperation, Eboo crafted his comments to focus on the concerns of those students dedicated to interfaith cooperation. Sharing those concerns, I listened attentively to his various profound messages, some of which I will pass along.

Addressing the contentious, divisive environment now before us, Eboo called for thoughtful, non-combative dialogue when confronting bigoted rhetoric, emphasizing that venting our frustrations seldom changes opinions. The statement he used as an example, “I always thought you were a bigot,” demonstrates the type of dysfunctional attitude that never achieves positive results.

In his answer to a question about frustration from failure to change attitudes, Eboo pointed out that one’s actions – as opposed to statements — can inspire others in ways that are not always immediately apparent. Civil Rights Movement history is replete with stories of heroes whose actions inspired subsequent – though frequently not immediate – changes in attitudes and calls to action.

In a way that I found most moving, Eboo described how goodness often emerges from bad situations, and how beauty can spring from ugliness. (This is the part we really needed to hear). He gave examples ranging from an Underground Railroad departure point in Savannah, Georgia, to the inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s heroism at a particularly vicious march confrontation in Chicago.

These comments reminded me of recent reports of reactions to changes in U.S. immigration policy. This is a contentious issue, to say the least, but we are now seeing more examples of people of different faiths standing up for each other. This is a departure from the more commonly observed Christians-for-Christians, Jews-for-Jews, or Muslims-for-Muslims reactions. Now, we are seeing Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and leaders of other faiths objecting to the demonization of Muslims. This strikes me as a particularly beautiful thing at a time when we can use all the beauty we can get.

The one commonality across all of Eboo’s comments was that taking the high road when confronting a difficult situation is always best. And it was most gratifying to hear one of the preeminent leaders of interfaith cooperation convey this message to a group of highly motivated young people.