An Obama Faith Adviser Preaches Tolerance To Youth
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The top prize in religion has gone this year to Chicago's Eboo Patel. Mr. Patel teaches young people to appreciate religious diversity and to pass it on. His work just landed him the prestigious Louisville Grawemeyer Award. Eboo Patel is the founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, and is one of President Obama's advisers on faith.
Lynette Kalsnes of Chicago Public Radio has this profile.
LYNETTE KALSNES: Eboo Patel was only 22 when he was struck by an idea, what he calls a moment of clarity. He'd done a lot of volunteer work. But he was interested in what people of different faiths could do by working together, like his heroes, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So he attended an interfaith conference and noticed something: Nearly everyone was in their 60s or 70s. Yet terrorists who were attacking in the name of religion were his age.
Mr. EBOO PATEL (Interfaith Youth Core): You watch the evening news and I promise you, you're going to see some story of some kid killing somebody else to the soundtrack of prayer. And I promise you that kid was not born that way. There are powerful movements who are identifying, training and mobilizing young people to be the bombs of religious destruction.
KALSNES: Patel decided to develop an alternative. He started the Interfaith Youth Core in his dorm room at Oxford University with no budget. It has consumed him ever since.
Mr. PATEL: If the interfaith movement is a group of senior theologians talking, and religious extremism is a group of young leaders acting, we lose. We need a movement just as passionate, which believes just as deeply the creator believes in cooperation.
KALSNES: Patel is 34 now, and with his pierced ears and pierced tongue looks more like a rock musician than an interfaith leader. His Youth Core has trained more than 9,000 college students around the world. They do service projects like AIDS Outrage, lobbying for interfaith housing and shipping medical supplies to Africa. This kind of volunteerism isn't unusual but still, Patel's effort stands out.
Professor SUSAN GARRETT (Louisville Seminary): He has a very unique, motivating vision.
KALSNES: Susan Garrett's the professor at Louisville Seminary who coordinates the Grawemeyer Award in Religion. She's sorted through 500 nominations in the past eight years.
Prof. GARRETT: He is really arguing that the acts of terror will continue if we don't teach young people to value other religious traditions, and also to understand our own traditions more fully.
KALSNES: She says Patel's focus on youth and action is rare. Evanston Rabbi Brant Rosen worked on interfaith projects with Patel.
Rabbi BRANT ROSEN: He has the kind of charisma that when you're with him, he is able to convey his genuine interest in who you are. And I think that's the secret of his success. He is amazing in front of a group, he knows how to work a crowd - you know, very, very expertly - but he's also remarkably genuine one on one.
KALSNES: That charisma's on display at a recent speech to high-schoolers at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
Unidentified Woman: It is my honor and true pleasure to introduce to you Eboo Patel.
(Soundbite of applause)
KALSNES: It's just after lunch, that deadly hour when students are feeling drowsy, yet Patel is holding them in rapt attention.
Mr. PATEL: When somebody says, oh, that looks like something that all Muslims would do, that looks like something that all Mexicans would do; Jews and Hindus, they are just fated to fight. Interfaith leaders can change that conversation from negative to positive.
KALSNES: After the speech, students and counselors talk about what they can do.
Unidentified Man #1: We all just need to like, work together and like, little things -like no one gets left out, don't judge anybody by appearance, just basic little things that can help every day.
Unidentified Man #2: If everybody's treating each other nicely, the cruelty looks way out of joint and doesn't ever get - doesn't get any momentum.
KALSNES: Patel was the age of these students when he had experiences that he says could have turned him toward extremism. He came to the U.S. from India at 2, and grew up in a largely white, Christian suburb of Chicago.
Mr. PATEL: As a kid, I felt like I was on the outside with my face up against the glass, too scared to go knock on the door.
KALSNES: He faced discrimination in school. So did a Jewish friend, who was taunted with Holocaust jokes. Patel's still ashamed that he did nothing.
Mr. PATEL: I thought: I never want to be in this position again.
KALSNES: In the next five years, he wants to bring the Youth Core to 500 college campuses around the world. Patel hopes that within a generation, he can make interfaith cooperation as much of a social norm as environmentalism.
For NPR News, I'm Lynette Kalsnes in Chicago.