Eboo Patel had to cut our phone interview a bit short because he needed to be on a conference call with the White House.
That’s the way life is these days for the founder and head of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international organization that is focused on helping young people navigate the multi-faith world in which they are emerging as leaders.
He was a key voice in the development of what is known as the White House Initiative (the long title is the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge), which this year involves 270 colleges and universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Patel will be in Madison to give a talk at 7:30 p.m. April 30 at UW's Tripp Commons on “Interfaith Leadership in a Time of Global Crisis.” It will be his first public lecture in the city, but it is hardly his first visit here.
As a college student himself at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, he made friends with students from Madison and some of them joined him in forming an intentional community called Stone Soup. These folks lived together and worked on social justice issues in Chicago. Patel later described this as “the love child of Walt Whitman and Ani DiFranco.”
More recently, as he was working on his book that will come out in September, Patel did most of the writing at Barriques and Ancora coffee shops around Madison’s Capitol Square as he came here for quiet days away from small children and workplace demands. It also gave him a chance to connect with an old friend, Aaron Oliver, who is Madison’s director of economic development.
Apart from those personal ties, Patel finds UW to be a place that is taking the lead nationally on interfaith work.
“I don’t know of any public university with the institutional commitment that Madison has made to interfaith work,” he said, citing among other things the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions on campus.
That may come as a surprise to those who see Madison as the ultimate secular city, a place with a deep tradition of humanism and a place that is home to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
But the Madison area also embodies the multi-faith world that is at the heart of Patel’s work. It is home to the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a more conservative religious group, and to one of the country’s largest Unitarian Universalist congregations. The Deer Park Buddhist Center is in Oregon and three Islamic mosques and four Jewish congregations are in Madison. A Wiccan organization is based in Barneveld and an outspoken conservative bishop governs the Madison Roman Catholic Diocese.
Patel sees interfaith work as engaging all of those and many more, believers and non-believers, evangelical Christians and committed atheists. He said most people are open to that, even though there may be strident voices at both ends of the spectrum — ardent believers and adamant atheists.
His forthcoming book, “Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America,” will look at some of the heroes of the past who “helped build a nation that welcomes people of different religions.”
While rooted in the past, Patel looks to the future.
“We need a critical mass of those heroes today,” he said. That’s a key element of what his work on campuses is all about — helping shape the heroes of the future.
Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. firstname.lastname@example.org