Friday, November 1, 2013


Last Tuesday evening I was experiencing once again the good old "should I stay or should I go" dilemma. There is always something happening on campus, which, obviously, is a good thing – except that when you are not only a graduate student, but also a graduate assistant who likes to write (and very occasionally has a life) in her spare time, you need to learn how to prioritize.

My former coworker and his best friend were supposed to visit me in our small town that night and despite of looking forward to seeing both of them I ended up canceling, because I had a research paper to write. So going to a presentation really wasn’t on my agenda.

Predictably, in the end, I wasn’t able to resist. The title of the presentation, Many Beliefs, One Community, was simply too tempting. And that’s how I met Dr. Eboo Patel.

Dr. Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and organization based in Chicago that focuses on teaching youth how to “build bridges” between religions. He is probably the right person for this job based on his own background – we are talking about an Indian-American Muslim (who sends his younger son to a Catholic school), which is a very colorful combination.

I really enjoyed hearing Dr. Patel talk, even though he started the presentation by stating that from all countries in the Western part of the world the United States is probably the most religious. It’s not that I disagree with the statement; it’s just that Dr. Patel thinks that this is awesome, while I tend to think that that’s exactly the bloody problem. But other than that, Dr. Patel and I got along just fine. The point of his presentation was relatively simple: To educate his audience about how people from all religious background can get along wonderfully if they choose to. In fact, it sounds almost too simple, but if you look at the history of the humankind, you will probably notice that people seem to struggle a lot with this concept.

Dr. Patel is a charismatic, upbeat public speaker (and the fact that he is also “such a cutie,” as some of my classmates observed, didn’t hurt), so listening to him was a pleasure. What I really liked about his ideas was how he pointed out that accepting other people’s beliefs didn’t mean that one had to give up her own. This is something I very much needed to hear because I sometimes feel that my counseling program, in its quest to train “multiculturally sensitive” counselors, is putting too much pressure on us to accommodate our future clients’ beliefs and cultural practices. For example authors of one of my textbooks insisted that every counselor, with no regards to her own spiritual background, should be able to immerse herself in a prayer with her client, should the client wish so. Well, guess what? I’m not a Christian and I don’t do Christian prayer, especially when it refers to the Holy Trinity, or to being “saved” through Jesus Christ. Don’t take me wrong: I’m fully capable of accepting my Christian clients’ beliefs – but “accepting” and “actively participating in” are two very different terms, and, in my opinion, the latter seriously crosses the line between being multiculturally sensitive versus being robbed of my own spiritual identity.

Imagine my joy when Dr. Patel mentioned how participating in a prayer with people of different faith was also something he didn’t engage in!  A prayer, he said, was too personal. One had many other ways how to reach out to people of other religions. Building bridges didn’t mean destroying one’s own beliefs.


And then there was the Q & A part when a cute 10-years-old came upfront to ask Dr. Patel what specifically SHE could do in her school to promote interfaith cooperation. Sometimes, Dr. Patel said, it’s enough to just show others that we appreciate the things they might be doing differently from us, may it be eating different food or celebrating different holidays; and we might easily accomplish this by saying “wow, that’s cool!” every time when we are facing  something new and unfamiliar that people do.

I made a mental note to remember this and use it as a tool every time when I face something new and unfamiliar. Can you imagine how great would it be if a child of a different ethnic-cultural background heard THIS kind of a response whenever he shared with his peers something that his family did differently!? So much less stress for the little tyke… And more often than not, what works for children works for adults as well, if they are willing to give it a chance.

So overall, as much as I felt bad for not even touching my research paper on Tuesday night, I was glad that I decided to go, because one can never have enough experiences that are educational, inspirational, and empowering; all in one neat little package. When it comes to Dr. Eboo Patel and his Interfaith Youth Core, all I can say is: “Wow, that’s cool!” :)

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