BH: How did you get so deeply interested in these issues of interfaith cooperation?
EP: I’ll tell you where I started: the Catholic Worker in Champaign and in Chicago. My story actually is a Busted Halo story in a lot of ways. When I was in college, I got involved in service and social justice efforts, and I asked questions like, “Why do we have people in America who beg on the streets for food?” And the answers that I got from other circles, whether they were kind of volunteerism circles or whether they were more politically left circles, they just didn’t fill me. I wanted to serve people out of love, but I also wanted to transform the culture and the system so that we didn’t have homeless people and hungry people, etc. Somebody once said to me, “You need to check out the work of Dorothy Day and you need to go into a Catholic Worker House.” And that was the first time that I saw this seamless garment of connection to this cosmic idea of good, and consistent application of that. I was so moved by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement that I spent a whole summer after one of my years of college in Catholic Worker Houses from Atlanta to Boston. I lived at the Catholic Worker House in Chicago after I graduated from college for a couple of months, and what that whole experience convinced me of is that service and social justice were at the heart of the Catholic tradition. But I wasn’t a Catholic and, at that time, I wasn’t really religious at all, but what I wanted was to see where service and social justice fit in with other religions. So I basically explored a lot of religions and ultimately ended up coming back to the religion of my birth which is Islam, but with the eyes of Dorothy Day, so to speak. With those eyes of service and social justice, so that’s the beginnings of the Interfaith Youth Core. It was my deep immersion in the Catholic Worker movement.
BH: I know you’ve talked about college campuses being the laboratories for things to change in the culture in general. Why is that?
EP: If you think about what’s happen, what we’re seeing in the culture right now, which is this enormous religious division and this enormous religious prejudice, right, which happens to swirl around Muslims, but has swirled around Jews in the pasts, Catholics in the past, Mormons and Baptists, and will one day probably swirl around other groups, be they Hindus or Confucianists. What we want to say is, America ought to put its stake in the ground firmly and publicly on religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation, and our definition for that is simple: people from different backgrounds should be living in equal dignity and mutual loyalty, and some institution needs to show what success looks like, what good looks like, right? And we think college and university campuses can do that in a similar way as college and university campuses have a deep value and have manifested what success looks like around service learning, around multiculturalism, increasingly around environmentalism. That could take numerous forms. A college president in their address to the freshmen class would talk about the importance of interfaith cooperation in the era in which we live. Just as colleges have large days of service, there could be a large day of interfaith service. A college could offer robust curricular offerings on interfaith cooperation. There could even be an interfaith cooperation concentration in a religion department. There would be a group of students on campus called the Interfaith Leaders, and they would maybe be responsible for doing trainings on religious diversity and interfaith cooperation for different religious student groups and maybe even other student groups, maybe even for staff. So in the same way college campuses took multiculturalism seriously from their senior level higher ranks to the freshmen class to the curricular offerings to the staff training to student groups, we think campuses can do the same for interfaith cooperation.
BH: On what campuses is IFYC getting some traction?
EP: A lot of Catholic campuses actually, like DePaul, Loyola and Dominican all right here in Chicago. We’ve probably been on somewhere around 25 or 30 Catholic universities, all told, and it’s because Catholic universities, amongst other things, they value faith, diversity, service and learning, right? So the Interfaith Youth Core is a perfect fit for those universities. Overall, we’ve probably been on, somewhere around the range of 160 or 170 campuses in total. We’ve done everything on campuses from a two-day outreach engagement — where we’ll send speakers and trainers to do a keynote speech on interfaith cooperation — to training student groups to be interfaith leaders to faculty workshops.
BH: Even if polls show that religious affiliation among young people is dropping, there’s clearly a spiritual awareness among younger Americans. Are you seeing any hopeful signs in that regard on campuses?
EP: I’m extremely hopeful for a number of reasons. First off, plenty of young people are still connected to their religion, right? They view it as a source of comfort and inspiration. A much larger percentage of the current generation has some kind of experience with someone from a different religion through a friendship, a neighbor, a student at school. And we want to encourage two positive questions. One is: What is it in my religion that would encourage me to have a positive relationship with somebody from a different religion? And it could be an example of how a leader or a hero in their faith started, you know, kind of modeled a positive relationship, right? Pope John Paul II and his role in bridging religious divides, or Cardinal Bernadin. What is it about me as a Catholic that would inspire me to have good relations with Muslims, Jews, etc? The second thing we want to suggest to people is: What are some values in your religion that you admire, that people in other religions have as well? The value of mercy, the value of cooperation, the value of service. I mean Catholics have a clear set of values around mercy, cooperation, and service, so do Muslims, so do Jews. We should highlight those dimensions of common ground.
BH: I get the sense that a new generation of people believe deeply in what we have in common rather than what divides us. Do you see any evidence of that?
EP: I absolutely see that, and I actually think this ugliness, this religious division and religious prejudice that we’re seeing right now is going to galvanize that other movement, and it’s going to make them say, “Wow, we ought to really prioritize our focus on interfaith cooperation.” It’s not just a nice marginal thing anymore. It’s now central and key. How do you combat religious divisions except with religious pluralism?
BH: What words do you have for Muslim Americans in terms of dealing with issues of religious prejudice?
EP: I would say live up to the highest values of your faith and your nation, and the highest values of your faith are calling you to seek to make a positive contribution to the country that you’re in, and the highest values of your nation are saying that even if the forces of religious division are rearing their ugly heads, you can rise above that and recognize that Washington and Jefferson and Franklin and Adams and Madison set up a country in which you have a place and where you can contribute.