Building Bridges

“Modernity pluralizes.”

That quote, the theme of the multilayered and fascinating speech by Eboo Patel in the Hammermill Center in February, might also serve as a summary of Patel’s meteoric career and indeed his life.

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core an organization that advocates for the notion that diverse faith and philosophical identities can serve as bridges of cooperation rather than barriers of division.

In this role, Patel speaks at about 25 college campuses a year, and he liked what he saw at Gannon.

“Who would have known that in northwestern Pennsylvania, a little Catholic college, built for the Catholic paperboys of Erie, would be home to 200 students from Saudi Arabia and 200 students from India,” he said.

But Patel was careful to stress that diversity does not automatically imply community. “The ‘food-fair’ version of diversity says if you like egg rolls and samosas, you’re ready for the seven billion members of humanity. I’m not so sure it’s that simple.”

With stirring anecdotes, including one about how his father, an Ismaili Muslim from Mumbai, became devoted to Notre Dame football, Patel simplified what was a complex, yet compelling premise. 

His rhetorical gifts are immense. It’s one reason why Patel was named as a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships.

"Higher education is charged with breaking people out of easy paradigms."

He has spoken about this vision at places like the TED conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, as well as college and university campuses across the country. Patel has written two books about interfaith cooperation, “Acts of Faith” and “Sacred Ground.”

Ultimately though, Patel sees himself as a bridge-builder, and he urged all members of the Gannon community—not just students—to follow that path.

“Higher education is charged with breaking people out of easy paradigms,” he said in an interview with Gannon Magazine before his visit. “We present a view of what religion can be in the world that media doesn’t often introduce people to.”

Hear feedback on Eboo Patel's lecture on Interfaith Leadership from the Rev. Michael Kesicki, associate vice president of University Mission and Ministry.

“Campuses with a religious identity can be leaders in our work because religion already matters there. They have a framework to deal with religious identity. When a senior student at Gannon University is going to Mass and a Muslim student asks, ‘Where are jumma [Sabbath] prayers?’ the Roman Catholic student has a framework for knowing that prayer time. That’s incredibly valuable,” Patel said.

In a question-and-answer session following his speech, Patel said, “My favorite part of the day at Gannon University was meeting your emerging bridge-builders, the people who resolve to build bridges from the time they’re college students and far beyond. The question for Gannon University and Erie is: Do you have enough bridge-builders?”

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