Acts of Faith: Breaking the barriers that divide us

zainabahmad_may2008_cropBy Zainab Ahmad

The evening of Wednesday, the 5th of November, was a great time to be in the United Methodist Church at Grove Street in downtown Minneapolis. Dr. Eboo Patel spoke to at an event arranged by many organizations such as the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, Blake School Diversity Symposium, CAIR Minnesota and Muslim Youth Minnesota, along with many others. He spoke to a diverse audience about his work with the Interfaith Youth Core.

Eboo gave a great message of hope and faith as he said, “the winds of change were in the air” and a new atmosphere was sparked by the election of President-elect Barak Obama where everything was possible. I was moved by his speech as well as the format of the evening in which two young boys, a Muslim and a Jew, were the ones introducing Eboo and managing the event. They were members of the Interfaith Youth Core and a splendid example of how young people could be trained to embrace religious pluralism and become leaders to unite youth together.

To find out what Eboo Patel is all about, his book, “Acts of Faith” is a must-read. I place him “up there” on my list of people to pray for, along with Greg Mortensen, who is building schools in rural areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eboo is an inspiring, dynamic young leader who is successfully engaged in his version of the war on terror, armed with the weapons of peace, love and tolerance.

Eboo spoke about the history of America which was built on pluralism and how it is the role of Americans to draw on that rich tradition and reclaim our respective faiths from those who were projecting faith as intolerant and narrow-minded. He stressed the importance of working with the youth of all religions and showed how his organization, the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) was highly successful in breaking barriers by engaging diverse groups of youth in service projects together.

I was particularly impressed with two things this evening. One was how Eboo was able to shine a positive light on everything and make the audience believe that these are indeed good times to be alive and young, and great times to be Muslim in America. After his speech, the audience was invited to chat with their neighbors and to write a question for Eboo to address. A young person asked how we should deal with older people whose ideas are deeply entrenched and resistant to change. Eboo replied that after the November 4th election results, he was sure that minds can be changed and hearts swayed by appealing to common values. His answer received great applause from the audience!

The second thing that impressed me was the fact that for Eboo, respect for other religions came from deep within him; it was not just an outer façade he projected. One question someone sent was about Christian Evangelicals and how to deal with them and engage them, since the impression is that they are overzealous to convert others and single-minded. Eboo again changed the atmosphere from “Oh we have so many problems and some people are just too different” to one of love and respect and true understanding. He replied that Christian Evangelicals are the group of people that were doing the most work for the greater good in America and outside of it. They had dug the most wells, fed the most people and so they deserved our respect and admiration. He emphasized that close friends of his in IFYC were Evangelical Christians and he had great experiences working together with them. He acknowledged that they would not agree on points of theology and lay exclusive claim to heaven, but that was beside the point. The point in this world was for us to get together and do good deeds and help others and we had plenty of things that could unite us.

I was awed by his response and felt that this was true leadership that Muslims badly need at this time. We need to really reach out to other faiths with our hearts and not just “tolerate” the other but truly respect and admire them for their qualities and good work. Only then can we receive respect in return.

After the event there was a book signing and we waited in line to meet this extra-ordinary man. My nine year old daughter walked out happily after Eboo wrote a kind message to her on our copy of “Acts of Faith”. I mentioned to Eboo that there was also a need for more “intra-faith” love and understanding so that Muslims were more accepting of differences amongst themselves. He agreed and said our theology was our personal business and no one need judge us for it. Once again he gave a message of hope that things were slowly but surely changing for the better.