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Interfaith leader calls for building bridges, not barriers between faiths

PROVO, Utah — Eboo Patel wants to build bridges.

Not big steel structures that span bodies of water or deep, rugged canyons. No, Patel wants bridges between people of diverse religious faiths: Muslims and Jews. Christians and non-Christians. Mormons and Evangelicals. And don’t leave out the atheist and the secular humanists.

“Frankly interactions between people who orient differently around religion can turn into four things,” said Patel, founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, which works to foster interfaith work on college campuses. “It can turn into bubbles of isolation. It can turn in to barrier of division, where people emphasize their differences. It can turn into bombs of destruction. Or it can turn into bridges of cooperation.”

In a shrinking world, where diversity of culture and faith is more prolific in communities than ever, and where new democracies are rapidly emerging around the world, bridge building fosters understanding and creates civic cooperation and shared work for the common good, Patel told an audience of students and scholars at Brigham Young University on Tuesday night.

“This is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century,” Patel said in his address, “Interfaith Leadership in a Time of Global Religious Conflict.”

The speech at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitor’s Center launched the annual Wheatley International Affairs Conference, which draws students from across the U.S. An initiative of BYU’s Wheatley Institution, the conference, which ended Friday, provides a public forum for the discussion of international relations, including the principles that influence governmental policies, economics and other issues that impact governmental and social institutions.

The differences inherent in religious diversity play a huge rule in domestic political issues both in the U.S. and abroad. In places like Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflicts often erupt in violence and death because individuals would rather kill than accept governance or share society with those of different beliefs.

Americans, on the other hand, air their differences in the streets through public protests, or negotiate disagreements through the courts or political process.

“How you deal with religious diversity in emerging and established democracies is a major issue,” Patel said. “Anybody in this room who plans to have a career in international aid organizations — or in the state department world or in any sort of work in defense, diplomacy or development — better be able to deal with those issues, because I don’t see them going away.”

Patel believes interfaith leaders are the key to resolving the problems stoked by the flames of religious diversity. Good leaders can invite others in, recognize diversity and difference, guide conversations, and shape projects that lift up and inspire commonality.

Interfaith leaders should also be able to clearly express their own theology — or ethic, for secular humanists — of interfaith cooperation, he said. Such clear, articulated beliefs are common among religious extremists, who can “quote you chapter and verse why they have a gun to the head of somebody they think is praying the wrong way.”

“Then you are saying to fellow Christians or Muslims or Jews, ‘I am an interfaith leader not in spite of being LDS, because I am (a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints),’ ” Patel said. “It’s encoded in the DNA of the tradition.”

Central to interfaith work is interfaith service, shared projects that unite people for the common good — something all religious traditions call their flocks to do.Those projects don’t happen without a vanguard of leaders who can identify commonalities and opportunities. That’s the reason malaria deaths have fallen in parts of Africa after a set of interfaith leaders worked to distribute bed nets to families.

“Tell me that’s not a holy project,” Patel said. “African imams and Christian preachers who disagree on heaven and disagree on matters of of government, agree on matters of making sure that 3-year-olds don’t die from mosquito bites."

College students may be the most powerful actors of change in the world today, Patel suggests, not because they have the power or financial resources held by political leaders, but because they know how to use technology to spread information and messages. Still, youths aren't necessarily more predisposed to fostering or embracing interfaith relationships he said.

“I think that the disagreement vectors play in just as divisive a way among young people just as much in older people,” he said in response to a question from a student. “It might be a differing set of vectors.”

Patel challenged conference attendees to identify the five issues which are most divisive among their generational peers and consider how they engage in a civil dialogue of the issues, without hiding their own point of view or beliefs — and without ruining their relationships.

“Have a conversation in a way that doesn’t vortex you in that spot,” he challenged. “Agree that this is a fundamental difference, but let's not let it define our relationship.”

The call to interfaith work begins with looking outside yourself, noticing your differences with others and using that information to inform your own journey, Patel believes — noticing, for example, that not everyone in your neighborhood attends church on Sunday, and asking yourself what that means or says about how you interact with other people.

Patel’s own journey toward interfaith work began when, at age 17, he fell in love with a Mormon girl.

After a week or so of dating, the girl, named Leigh, sat Patel down and drew a stick figure of herself on a piece of paper. He said she then drew a circle over 85 percent of her body and explained, “Everything inside the circle is a no-go.”

“It was my first experience of somebody willfully following a discipline based on a cosmic order,” Patel said. “It was the first time that I thought that cosmic order is something I want to be a part of, and that discipline was something that I wanted in my bones.”

Patel credits Leigh and her devotion to her faith with his desire to recommit to his own Muslim faith at the age of 23.

“I don’t think I would ever be a Muslim, or an interfaith leader, without her.”