How this ‘angry, woke’ college student became the founder of a leading international interfaith organization
Author and nonprofit founder Eboo Patel is the University of Utah’s latest Impact Scholar. Patel is in Utah this week to meet with university students, administrators, faith leaders, elected officials and civic leaders
Early in his college experience, Eboo Patel slipped into the role of “angry activist” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“I would shout people down. Kind of the social justice warrior stereotype today, that’s who I was in the 1990s. I was an angry, woke person. In your face, rude, like all kinds of stuff. ... I was the kind of person who would wreck your meeting. That wasn’t who I was by nature. It’s because that was how I was initiated into activism,” said Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, the leading interfaith organization in the United States.
Later during his undergraduate years, Patel, an American Muslim of Indian heritage, “happened to trip over” the legacy of Dorothy Day, an activist and a journalist who was leader of the Catholic Worker movement.
“There was a Catholic Worker House of hospitality in my town, a little town of Champaign Urbana, and I went there,” he said.
As someone who had volunteered in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, “it was totally different than any other place I’ve ever been. No intake window. Nobody asking for I.D.” Patel said he could not distinguish between the hosts and people who were seeking help.
It took several minutes for anyone to realize he was there. There were children playing in the living room and people cooking in the kitchen. At some point someone poked their head out of the kitchen and said, “I haven’t seen you here before.” Then, he was asked if he would like to stay for dinner.
Instead of seeking to change people’s lives through confrontation, they were “building a community based on God’s love. That’s my initial window into religion and social justice,” he said.
Patel said he had no desire to be Catholic “but I found it beautiful and fascinating. I went and did a search through all these religions starting with their social justice kind of work,” he said.
He has learned that social change is not about “a more ferocious revolution. It’s principally about building a more beautiful social order,” he said.
He continued, “A more beautiful social order is made up of institutions. It’s made up of hospitals, universities, little leagues and park districts and swimming clubs. It’s made up of institutions, and you have to build better institutions. I think we should, but that’s work. That’s not just getting in somebody’s face and telling them what they’re doing wrong.”
Patel, who later earned a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, founded Interfaith America, an international nonprofit based in Chicago that aims to promote interfaith cooperation. He is also a contributing writer for the Deseret News.
He is in Utah this week to begin his appointment as Impact Scholar at the University of Utah.
Patel and his team from Interfaith America will work with University of Utah Vice President for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Mary Ann Villarreal on an array of interfaith consulting activities across the university and state.
According to its website, Interfaith America’s mission is to inspire, equip and connect leaders and institutions to unlock the potential of America’s religious diversity.
While in Utah, Patel has met with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox as well as leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He will also participate in a conversation with Villarreal and Utah Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson on the importance of interfaith cooperation in civic society during the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s Newsmaker Breakfast on Thursday.
Patel will make a number of visits to Utah during his term as Impact Scholar and is slated to be the university’s commencement speaker next spring.
Earlier this year, bestselling author and social scientist Arthur Brooks and Tim Shriver, longtime chairman of the Special Olympics, educator and bestselling author, were named University of Utah Impact Scholars.
Impact Scholars agree to visit the university campus each semester for three to four days to guest lecture, participate in roundtable discussions with state and local officials and consult with university and community leaders “on societal impact.”
In terms of leveraging the Beehive State’s religious diversity to build community and enhance civic society, “I think Utah is in just a remarkably, just delicious, position,” Patel said.
“You have some pillar institutions. Here you have The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that is a pillar institution. If you are an Afghan refugee coming to the United States, my first choice would be to move to Utah. You’ll have housing. You’ll have people who care for you, help you get a job. You’ll have people who believe in your dignity. It’s a really powerful thing, right?”
Patel uses the metaphor of a potluck dinner, a custom with which Utahns are well acquainted.
Attendees bring dishes to add the variety of offerings on the table. Utah’s growing cultural, ethnic and religious diversity means “you’ve got some new folks bringing you new dishes and you got to expand your palette, right? And you got to figure out, like, is our current table going to hold all these dishes?
“You know, Indian food is eaten differently than American food, right? So are you prepared for that? It’s delicious, but you’ve got to have the right equipment. You’ve got to have the right preparation,” he said.
Patel said he would love to see large-scale interfaith service events led by U. students in the near future, “200, 300 University of Utah students from all different religious backgrounds who are trained in interfaith leadership and dialogue who are leading interfaith service projects in Salt Lake City. I’d love to see the mayor cut the ribbon on that and Deseret News put it as the top story in the paper.”