On Nov. 1, Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core and served on Obama’s inaugural Faith Council, arrived at Swarthmore. During the roughly 24 hours he stayed, he led four workshops, participated in a world religions class, attended a dinner with President Valerie Smith and other faculty members, and delivered a keynote speech, “Building a Healthy Religiously Diverse Democracy: America’s Promise in a Time of Crisis.” The events focused on the benefits of understanding and acknowledging religious diversity, even in secular spaces.
In his keynote speech, Patel said that hatred of immigrants and other people with different beliefs creates a barrier against their contributions that inhibits societal progression. He then spoke on the history of religious prejudice in America, beginning with the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and the movement that pushed against it.
“What is Judeo-Christian?” Patel asked. “It is a genius civic invention. It is a new narrative for America that allows us to imagine Jews and Catholics as equal participants in American civilization. I want to say this again — a group of civic activists, as a way of responding to anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1920s, invent a new narrative for America that becomes so deeply woven into American DNA that we believe it was present from the beginning. That’s genius.”
Patel, a Muslim, applied this idea of a national narrative to the modern issue of Islamophobia and fear of Muslim immigrants.
“What new civic initiatives do we need now in this moment of Islamophobia?” he said.
“There’s a new chapter that needs to be written.”
Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life at the college, planned Patel’s visit with pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church Joyce Shin and religion professor Mark Wallace, all of whom are members of the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County. They aimed to bring together leaders of different faith groups and to strengthen relationships between the Interfaith Center and the Borough.
“When I first heard Eboo Patel speak on the need for interfaith cooperation in our society, I was struck by two things: first, his ability to speak across many different audiences, by which I mean audiences that consist of different religious backgrounds, different generations, different points of view, and different assumptions; and second, Eboo’s consistently constructive approach to making interfaith cooperation a social norm,” Shin said.
When Shin first pitched the idea over a year ago, Tompkins was doubtful that Patel, a prominent figure in interfaith leadership, would want to come to Swarthmore. However, Tompkins feels that Patel saw an opportunity for expanding interfaith collaboration to secular campuses.
“Swarthmore’s well known in higher-ed circles; it’s also a pretty secular school,” she said. “[Patel] and his colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core are particularly interested in broadening the interfaith conversation so that it’s not just faith groups talking to each other, but talking across the faith-secular divide, which seems to really be dividing our country.”
According to Shin, Patel touched on the significance of religious tolerance and sensitivity to religious issues, even for those who do not practice religion themselves.
“My hope is that Eboo’s constructive approach will draw out and make room for other constructive approaches in building cooperation among different religious communities as well as show the significance of interreligious cooperation in the civic sphere,” she said.
During the student workshop before his talk, Patel gave student leaders case studies of religion-related conflicts that have occurred in secular places such as schools and workplaces and asked them to discuss possible approaches. One situation involved an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit at his assigned seat on an airplane because it was next to a woman; one was the difference in power if it were a Muslim woman refusing to sit next to a man.
“We had some pretty interesting conversation,” Tompkins said. “Some people said, ‘Kick him off the plane,’ some people said, ‘Try to persuade someone to change seats.’ It was interesting.”
Another case study was a group of Muslim women who requested an hour of time at the public pool reserved for women only; another involved Hindu students that protested the dining hall serving beef in the only eating facility on campus as being offensive to them.
“What he said, what actually turned out to be true, was we never actually resolved the question of what should we do,” Tompkins said. “What was important was that we were practicing having this kind of conversation with some sensitivity to the issues that are raised by these different groups.”
Abha Lal ’18, an intern for the Interfaith Center, attended the workshop Patel gave for student leaders. According to Lal, religious literacy and interfaith dialogue can give us insight into everyday interactions.
“I think at Swat and a lot of college campuses religion is treated as a purely private matter, but the fact is that it is really important to how many people understand themselves and conduct public life,” she said. “I think Patel’s workshop encouraged us to see this not as a problem to be dealt with, but a fact of living in heterogenous societies that needs to be engaged with in meaningful ways.”
Though Lal feels that Patel’s message about interfaith discourse has crucial implications, she stated that she and other Swarthmore students would disagree with Patel’s claims about American excellence.
“My main qualm was that as important as his approach is, it seems to base itself a little bit uncritically on American exceptionalism, something that is hard to be fully on board with for people here for good reason,” Lal said.
Patel also led a workshop on sensitivity to religious differences for Swarthmore faculty, a workshop for students at Strath Haven high school and a workshop for leaders of local congregations.
Cielo de Dios ’21 attended Patel’s keynote speech with her classmates from “Religion and the Meaning of Life,” taught by professor Ellen Ross. The class is currently reading Patel’s book “Acts of Faith,” a memoir about the struggles of being a Muslim in America. She feels that her experience at the college has been in accord with Patel’s ideal for democratic discourse.
“A lot of what he said applies in my religions class specifically because in my religions class, we’re not all from one faith,” she said. “Most of us are Christians, but there’s a Jew and then there’s a Buddhist who was an atheist. We come from a lot of different backgrounds, and even before the talk, we were all open to talking about our experiences and our faith, which is what I think Patel is advocating for.”
Patel mentioned a “circle of dialogue” multiple times, which is the range of people with whom someone is willing to converse about differing beliefs. While Ryan Arazi ’21 agreed with Patel’s concept of a religiously diverse democracy, he found the notion of a “circle of dialogue” idealistic.
“I agreed with the very broad circle of opinions and allowing that circle to exist, and I’m someone who’s advocated for that a lot,” he said. “But in hearing someone else say it, I can understand why that can be too optimistic, especially in a society that’s as polarized as ours and especially with a topic like religion, which goes to your core beliefs, like who you are as a person.”
According to Arazi, Swarthmore students tend to be like-minded and therefore not particularly open to interfaith dialogue.
“This is exactly the type of place where that optimism might fail because you have people of very like-minded beliefs and it’s easy to forget about … the outside world and forget that it’s important to listen to everyone,” Arazi said. “I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the people here or the open-mindedness of the people, but that it’s just a natural product of putting like-minded people in the same place.”
According to Patel, religious diversity is a central tenet of social change.
“What else is it?” he said. “What else is social change but dealing with people with whom you disagree and engaging in a conversation in which sometimes, you will change your mind and sometimes they will change their minds?”
De Dios agreed with Patel’s emphasis on willingness to engage others with opposing opinions in conversation, but she felt that Swarthmore students generally identify more with the type of social change represented in the Desmond Tutu quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” which a Swarthmore student brought up during the 30-minute question-and-answer session after the keynote speech.
“I do think, though, that the first step is in dialogue,” she said. “Not that they have to be mutually exclusive, but the dialogue comes first, more than anything, than the action. I don’t think that people would agree with me that you can be tolerant and not act. I do think that the most important acts of tolerance and respect end up anyway leading to protests and action-based causes.”
Tompkins was very satisfied with the attendance at the workshops and at the keynote speech. She felt that this event is representative of recent changes that she has worked to enact as director of religious and spiritual life at the college regarding dialogue around religious differences.
“I absolutely resonate with what he had to say, because I’ve been here 14 years [and] we’ve made huge, huge progress as far as recognizing religious and spiritual identity as important parts of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “When I first came it was … really, nobody talked about religion; it was very marginalized, there was very little support. I see [the event] just as a continuation of the momentum we’ve been working on, but I feel like it gave us kind of a big push.”
For Tompkins, Shin and the Interfaith Council, the success of the event bodes well for similar collaborations between the college and the Swarthmore community in the future.
“I am excited to work with the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County, Partners in Ministry, different groups at Swarthmore College, and members of the community in developing ways to cooperate inter-religiously,” Shin said. “By seeing who showed up, we have a better idea of who is interested in this work and with whom we can build more sustainable relationships.”
President Valerie Smith, who introduced Patel’s speech, delivered similar sentiments about religious diversity.
“During these tumultuous times when democratic values are being challenged, by engaging with difference, particularly religious difference, we acknowledge our shared humanity,” Smith said.