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How interfaith activism could change the world

The college campus is the quintessential setting for promoting religious tolerance and nurturing interfaith leaders, said Eboo Patel, Northeastern’s inaugural interfaith leadership fellow.

“Higher education is the place where America throws its hardest problems,” he explained in an hourlong lecture on Monday evening in the Curry Student Center Ballroom. “If our college campuses aren’t nurturing a critical mass of interfaith leaders, we simply forfeit the territory to people who would deal with it in an ugly and negative way.”

Patel’s address, “Interfaith Leadership in a Time of Global Religious Conflict,” kicked off the university’s celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week, a U.N. resolution aimed at promoting cooperation and understanding. It was co-sponsored by the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service; the Office for Student Affairs; the College of Social Sciences and Humanities; and the Northeastern Humanities Center.

Patel focused on interfaith activism on the college campus. He praised Northeastern’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, saying, “the university is a place where interfaith leadership is flourishing,” and later challenged the campus community to help transform the widespread belief that “violence and conflict is written into the DNA of world traditions.”

Named by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization that seeks to build the interfaith movement on college campuses. He served on President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.

In short, his body of work exemplifies his commitment to building a culture of inclusion, mutual respect, and understanding across religious traditions.

“Eboo is an expert on interfaith partnership, an agent for positive change in a difficult world,” said Lori Lefkovitz, the Ruderman Professor and director of the Jewish Studies program, who offered opening reflections on the study of religion. “He’s a friend, an inspiration, and a brother in this work,” added Alexander Levering Kern, the executive director of the CSDS.

Patel’s solution to overcoming the factious nature of religion in the U.S.—the world’s most religious industrialized nation—is to foster meaningful interfaith partnerships. “Do not define diversity as eating interesting ethnic foods alongside people you agree with,” he said. “Define diversity as working alongside people with whom you have profound disagreements on fundamental matters.”

In the Q-and-A, Patel fielded questions from a secular humanist, a spiritual adviser at Northeastern, and the president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. The spiritual adviser asked him for advice on expanding her interfaith literacy.

“If I could inject one piece of interfaith literacy into everyone on the planet, it would be to find something you admire about the traditions you disagree with,” Patel told her. “It could be something about how they run their community or about the institutions they build to serve the world.”

About 30 student leaders met with Eboo Patel in the Sacred Space on Tuesday afternoon.

About 30 student leaders met with Eboo Patel in the Sacred Space on Tuesday afternoon.

In addition to his lecture, Patel’s two-day fellowship included a Tuesday afternoon meeting with a score of student leaders, some of whom participated in activities at the IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institute last year.

One such student is Afif Rahman, S’14, co-president of Northeastern’s Islamic Society and member of the university’s Interfaith Leadership Council. Tuesday’s meeting with Patel, he said, focused on the IFYC’s model for enhancing interfaith cooperation, and has helped reshape the council’s immediate goals.

“I think it’s time to push ourselves further and see what other socially conscious initiatives we could create for both Northeastern and the community,” Rahman said. “If we are aware of the role interfaith cooperation plays in solving religious conflicts around the world, it will increase our urgency to come up with more programs.”