Making Yourself Worthy

Eboo Patel, PhDSeptember 13, 2018Rituals and TraditionsPerSpectives

I met Brother Wayne in the spring of 1997, when I was living and working in Chicago after university. Besides being a Catholic monk, Brother Wayne had a PhD in philosophy and had spent years at an ashram in India.

Brother Wayne fascinated me – he was a cross between Don Quixote, Zorba the Greek, Saint Francis of Assisi and the mad scientist from Back to the Future.

He was interested in me because he wanted more action from the interfaith movement. He told me, “I think you can play a leadership role in the global interfaith youth movement.”

My friend Kevin and I started tagging along with Brother Wayne to various interfaith events. After finishing his talk, he would invite Kevin and me to the stage, introducing us as the leaders of the next generation – a Muslim and a Jew who were building the interfaith youth movement. Then he would whisper to us, “Tell them about the interfaith youth movement.”

Kevin and I were both uncomfortable with this – not only were we both trying to be Buddhists at the time, but there was no interfaith youth movement.

Then, at a conference of the United Religions Initiative, the right number of interesting young people from around the world finally convened. After many discussions long into the night, Kevin and I began to get an idea of what the interfaith youth movement might actually look like.

Brother Wayne – always one step ahead of us – had his own idea of who might be interested in this concept. He sent us to India to see the Dalai Lama.

Kevin and I traveled together to Bombay, staying with my Grandmother, and from there departed for Dharamsala.

We met with His Holiness in a visiting room of his small palace.

I looked on as His Holiness and Kevin discussed the similar ideas of emptiness in Buddhism and Judaism. I listened as the Dalai Lama told Kevin “Judaism is a very good religion. I have many Jewish friends. We have interfaith dialogue and I learn a lot from them. Judaism and Buddhist are very much alike – you should learn more about both and become a better Jew.”

Then he turned to me. I was pretty sure after listening to his discussion with Kevin that he was not going to be impressed with my story of trying to be a Buddhist. But when he opened his mouth, it wasn’t to ask a question but to make a statement.

“You are a Muslim,” he said.

I replied, “Yes…”

He said “Islam is a very good religion. Buddhist and Muslims lived in peace in Tibet for many centuries. You should visit them.”

We then spent a few minutes talking about our idea for the interfaith youth movement, and how we could bring young people from different religion together to serve others.

The Dalai Lama said, “This is very important. Religions must dialogue, but even more, they must come together to sere others. Service is most important – this is a very good project.”

And with the Dalai Lama’s blessing, and much to think about, we headed back to Mumbai.

A few weeks later, I woke up in my Grandmother’s apartment and there was a woman who I had never seen before. She didn’t look like she was part of the household help. She didn’t look like she was part of the extended family.

And I said to my Grandmother “Who is she? She looks a little scared.”

My Grandmother said, “I don’t know her real name. We will call her Anisa. The leader of the local Muslim prayer house brought her here because she was being abused at home. So we will take care of her.”

I said to my Grandmother “Don’t you think this is a little bit dangerous? What if the people who were abusing her come looking for her?”

And my Grandmother gave me that arched eyebrows look – you know the one I’m talking about – and she said to me, “How old are you?”

I said, “I’m 22.”

She said, “I’ve been doing this for more than twice the amount of time you’ve been alive.”

And she got up off the couch and she padded over to the cupboard. She brought out a shoebox. Inside that shoebox were Polaroid pictures of all these women that my Grandmother had taken into her home – that she had saved.

Women from Aminabad to Calcutta, to the Punjab and Hyderabad. Women who had heard that in Bombay there was a woman named Ashraf Manji, who you could go to if you needed help. If your husband died and the sole breadwinner in your family was now gone, if your father took a bad turn and started abusing you – you come in a monsoon, you come with your hand out needy, and this woman will help you.

My Grandmother kept the stories of these women, written in chicken scratch on the back of those Polaroid’s. Dozens and dozens of women my grandmother had taken in – Sikhs and Jains, Hindus and Christians and Muslims.

After she finished, I wanted to hear one more story – my grandmother’s. I asked her, “Why would you do this?” And she replied with one simple line:

“Because I’m a Muslim, and this is what Muslims do.”

Nothing could have shocked me more than those words. Nothing could have made me question my existence, my purpose, than the use of the term Muslim.

Muslim: “One who submits to the word of God.” And I was going to call myself a Muslim? What was I doing that was anywhere near the heroism that my grandmother had shown?

There’s a great line in the work of the poet T.S. Elliot. “We do not inherit traditions; we work to make ourselves worthy of them.”

My Grandmother was striving with every breath in her 75 year old body to make herself worthy of the term Muslim, worthy of the tradition of Islam. What was I doing to do the same?

Watching my Grandmother not only convinced me that I was a Muslim, but forced me to ask the question, “What am I called to do as a Muslim?”

Her call was to work with abused women in this way. And my experiences with Brother Wayne, Kevin and the Dalai Lama had taught me something; they had culminated in one important, life changing realization.

My call as a Muslim was to live out the vision of interfaith cooperation. That is why I started the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

10 years ago, IFYC was a big idea.

Today, we have a 30 person staff and a more than four million dollar budget.

We have trained thousands of young interfaith leaders spanning six continents on how to bridge the divide between faith communities and come together to work for the common good.

We have worked with Presidents Clinton and Obama, Queen Rania of Jordan and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

At Interfaith Youth Core, we believe that interfaith cooperation can become a social norm, like environmentalism and civil rights. We believe that interfaith leaders – like environmentalists and civil rights activists – are the key to making this happen.

Interfaith leaders do three main things:

They change the conversation about religion in public life, transforming the narrative from negative to positive; they bring together faith communities and launch projects that address issues of local and global concern; and they transform environments, most often working on their college and university campuses to transform them into models of interfaith cooperation.

I can only hope that through building this kind of interfaith cooperation with my Jewish, Christian, secular and Hindu colleagues, I make myself worthy of the tradition of Islam.

Transcription of “30 Good Minutes” from the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.

Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He has served on President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.