A Memoir of Faith and Activism

Eboo Patel, the author of this year’s Common Reading Book, offers a prescription for peace in a world of division
Eboo Patel, an advisor to President Barack Obama's faith-based initiative, gives a lecture on interfaith leadership in the 21st century for the Tufts community. Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 18, 2015

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“Adolescent identities can shift in an instant,” writes Eboo Patel in his memoir Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. A Muslim born in India, Patel grew up outside of Chicago, where he endured “a gut-wrenching feeling of being excluded from mainstream society, in the form of a constant barrage of racist bullying … a vague sense of being Muslim … a growing consciousness that people with whom I shared an identity were being horribly treated elsewhere, often by people who looked just like the ones who were bullying me here.”

He writes about finding disturbing similarities in his own sense of otherness with those who detonated explosives in London on July 7, 2005, killing themselves and 52 others and injuring hundreds more, and with the young men who flew planes into buildings on September 11, 2001.

“How does one ordinary young person’s commitment to a religion turn into a suicide mission, and another ordinary young person’s commitment to that same faith become an organization devoted to pluralism?” Patel writes in Acts of Faith, which was chosen as this year’s Common Reading Book for Tufts’ undergraduate Class of 2019 and transfer students.

As part of the program, Patel, named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report, will present a free public lecture, “Personal Stories, Radical Diversity and Active Citizenship: Interfaith Leadership in the 21st Century,” on Monday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m. in Cohen Auditorium on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.

Patel has written “the story of an Indian American and Muslim American young man, trying to reconcile his identities and find his place in a society, while facing racism and religious prejudice,” says University Chaplain Greg McGonigle, whose office is co-sponsoring the Common Reading Program this year along with Tisch College and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Students.

“And like many Tufts students, Eboo describes how experiences that impacted his life—such as his family, his faith community and service work—helped to form who he is as a person and what he cares about deeply,” McGonigle says. “What he eventually chooses as his life’s work is the much-needed effort to bring understanding, peace and cooperation among people of various religions and cultures.”

Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes understanding and respect among those of all—and no—faiths by engaging young people in community service and interfaith dialogue. In just a few years, the organization has grown into an international youth movement with a goal nothing short of healing divisions and conflicts throughout the world.

Real-World Activist

His journey toward a life devoted to interfaith cooperation through service almost never started. By the time he reached high school, Patel, a self-described “bad boy” turned “goofball” turned “class A nerd,” told his parents he wanted to stop participating in the YMCA Leadership Club, which focused on volunteering as a key to leadership development, to concentrate on his education. They said no: education was important, but schoolwork was just one part. Grudgingly, he agreed to maintain a place for community service in the increasingly demanding schedule of an ambitious college-bound student.

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of a nonprofit that engages young people in community service and interfaith dialogue. Photo: Stephen Shugerman/Getty ImagesAs an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Patel realized that those he admired—Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela—embraced principles of faith. And so he followed their paths. He lived and served at Catholic Worker centers across the country; he returned to his native India and met with the Dalai Lama; he organized an international interfaith conference in South Africa, and he received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, earning a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion. He now serves as one of President Obama’s faith-based advisors.

Patel concedes his decision to heed his parents’ advice was a good one.

Acts of Faith, written in an appealingly conversational style, lays out the author’s simple yet provocative plan for peace among nations and neighbors alike. It is very much a memoir, though—he even gives great dating advice for young people, chronicling his early high school and college heartbreaks all the way through postgraduate romance and marriage.

When the book was selected for the Common Reading Program, the University Chaplaincy volunteered to help facilitate related discussions and educational programming. This summer, the chaplaincy “also resumed the interfaith social justice pre-orientation program CAFÉ [Conversation, Action, Faith and Education],” says McGonigle. “Eighteen incoming undergraduates were mentored by 13 returning students in a six-day experience that included site visits to religious and philosophical communities in the Boston area” to learn about issues of identity and social justice, he says.

McGonigle says his office will continue to sponsor opportunities for interfaith discussions and engagement throughout the academic year.

“We are delighted that Acts of Faith was selected as the Common Reading Book this year,” McGonigle says. “We think it presents an excellent opportunity for the campus to focus on and discuss issues of religious and philosophical pluralism and interfaith engagement, which are so important to people’s personal lives and are always at the forefront of current events domestically and internationally.”

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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