Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), recalled that the first interfaith event he attended consisted of a group of old men sitting on a stage discussing theological similarities and differences. While Patel appreciated their good intentions, he could not see how the intellectual exchange could change anything in a world where differences often lead to fear, hatred and violence.

This Saturday, June 6, Hind Makki and Fatema Haji-Taki, two trainers from the IFYC, will join Rev. Alan Taylor at Unity Temple to lead an all-day Building Bridges Conference which will focus on young people telling their stories about living in a pluralistic society with the hope that such sharing will lead to concrete action on civil liberties issues.

“Our goal,” said Taylor, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation that meets in Frank Lloyd Wright’s endangered building, “is to develop relationships, especially among young people, that [lead to] advocacy around civil rights abuses.”

Wright’s historic structure parallels what the Building Bridges Conference is trying to do. Just as learning about the history of Unity Temple might be interesting, it won’t strengthen the landmark building’s infrastructure or repair its leaking roof. Similarly, the trainers from the IFYC focus on relationships that lead to action rather than indulging in intellectual discussions.

The IFYC’s webpage states: “There are millions of religious young people in the world interacting with greater frequency. … Where so many of these interactions tend towards conflict, the Interfaith Youth Core aims to introduce a new relationship, one that is about mutual respect and religious pluralism. Instead of focusing a dialogue on political or theological differences, we build relationships on the values that we share … and how we can live out those values together to contribute to the betterment of our community.

The IFYC’s concentration on youth is informed by Patel’s experiences as a minority growing up in the western suburb of Glen Ellyn. At times he was the target of bullying and racial slurs. At other times, however, he was protected and nurtured by non-Muslims.

One of his safe places was Glen Ellyn’s YMCA. In his book, Acts of Faith, Patel recalled the time when he wandered away from a day camp at the Y, causing the staff and his parents to search for him for an hour. When they finally found him, his father was furious but one of the camp counselors rubbed his head and said, “I tired my feet out looking for you, kiddo. Man, I’m glad we found you. You’re one of my favorites here, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” Patel concluded the story by writing, “I almost jumped into her arms.”

As a teenager he joined the Leaders Club at the Y, a group dedicated to volunteering as a key to leadership development. “If Y camp was where I first discovered I could be liked,” he said, “the Central Region Leaders School is where I first recognized I could create and contribute.”

When he came home from the Y one day singing the ’60s Christian classic “Pass It On,” his annoyed father said to his mother, “Do you think they are trying to teach Christianity to our kids?”

To which his mother responded, “I hope so. I hope they teach the kids Jewish and Hindu songs, too. That’s the kind of Muslims we want our kids to be.”

Patel concluded the story by saying, “In that offhand reply, overheard when I was a teenager, my mother guessed the arc of my life.”

The IFYC’s focus on fostering understanding is not meant to create a sort of generic pluralistic belief system in the children with whom they work. Just the opposite, they seek to encourage young people to go deeper into their own individual traditions, trusting that at the core of each tradition are shared values like respect and hospitality.

“To see the other side,” Patel wrote, “to defend another people, not despite your tradition but because of it, is the heart of pluralism.”

A third focus of the IFYC is on action. In a piece titled, “Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work,” which Patel co-wrote with April Kunze and Noah Silverman, the three writers concluded: “Stories are just the beginning. Without action their full potential for social change remains unrealized. … Each storytelling dialogue is coupled with an opportunity for the participants to leave the dialogue circle, go out into their communities, and embody the stories of service and compassion they have told.

The way the event will play this out, Taylor said, is by catalyzing the young people participating around human rights work, and especially around civil rights in the Muslim community.

Recalling that many interfaith dialogues he has attended in the past felt “thin,” and accomplished nothing significant, Taylor said, “This workshop is about building relationships and finding out how we can work together. We are going to get to know each other in the work. It’s tough moving towards authentic unity. The unity that really matters is the unity that comes when we’re working together in relationships.”

The Building Bridges Conference at Unity Temple is being co-sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Interfaith Youth Core. Young people of all faiths are welcome to participate. Call 708-848-6225 for more information.

Join the discussion on social media!

Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...