“Tell me that’s not a holy project,” Patel said. “African imams and Christian preachers who disagree on heaven and disagree on matters of of government, agree on matters of making sure that 3-year-olds don’t die from mosquito bites."
College students may be the most powerful actors of change in the world today, Patel suggests, not because they have the power or financial resources held by political leaders, but because they know how to use technology to spread information and messages. Still, youths aren't necessarily more predisposed to fostering or embracing interfaith relationships he said.
“I think that the disagreement vectors play in just as divisive a way among young people just as much in older people,” he said in response to a question from a student. “It might be a differing set of vectors.”
Patel challenged conference attendees to identify the five issues which are most divisive among their generational peers and consider how they engage in a civil dialogue of the issues, without hiding their own point of view or beliefs — and without ruining their relationships.
“Have a conversation in a way that doesn’t vortex you in that spot,” he challenged. “Agree that this is a fundamental difference, but let's not let it define our relationship.”
The call to interfaith work begins with looking outside yourself, noticing your differences with others and using that information to inform your own journey, Patel believes — noticing, for example, that not everyone in your neighborhood attends church on Sunday, and asking yourself what that means or says about how you interact with other people.
Patel’s own journey toward interfaith work began when, at age 17, he fell in love with a Mormon girl.
After a week or so of dating, the girl, named Leigh, sat Patel down and drew a stick figure of herself on a piece of paper. He said she then drew a circle over 85 percent of her body and explained, “Everything inside the circle is a no-go.”
“It was my first experience of somebody willfully following a discipline based on a cosmic order,” Patel said. “It was the first time that I thought that cosmic order is something I want to be a part of, and that discipline was something that I wanted in my bones.”
Patel credits Leigh and her devotion to her faith with his desire to recommit to his own Muslim faith at the age of 23.
“I don’t think I would ever be a Muslim, or an interfaith leader, without her.”
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