By Maria Saporta
It’s no accident that Atlanta is the largest base of operations for the Interfaith Youth Core and its leadership institutes.
Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, told members of the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Monday that “Atlanta’s golden son” — Martin Luther King Jr. was a “great interfaith hero.” Yes, he was a Baptist minister, but he based much of the Civil Rights movement on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who believed in non-violence, justice and harmony.
But in addition to Atlanta’s Civil Rights origins, Patel gave credit to the Coca-Cola Co., and executive Clyde Tuggle, for being an anchor sponsor of the organization — giving a $100,000 grant that will help provide intensive interfaith leadership training to nearly 200 college students in the metro area.
The Interfaith Youth Core operates four different institutes around the country — Chicago, Los Angeles, New England and Atlanta. But the Atlanta program serves about twice as many students as any of the other locations.
The training gives people an opportunity to learn more about “religious pluralism.”
The Interfaith Youth Core defines religious pluralism as having respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities; promoting mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds; and encouraging common action for the common good.
The next Interfaith Leadership Institute will be held in Atlanta from Friday, Jan. 25 to Sunday, Jan. 27.
The organization believes that American college students can become the interfaith leaders who can make religion “a bridge and not a barrier.”
Patel is a case in point. He was born in India, and he is Muslim. With the help of his father and others, Patel learned to respect the religions of others. Patel called the United States the “most religiously diverse nation” in the world and the most religiously devout nation among civilized countries.
At Rotary, Patel shared his five pillars of religious pluralism.
First, religious pluralism was part of vision of the nation’s founders. Patel shared excerpts from a letter that George Washington wrote denouncing religious bigotry.
Second, although they were initially shut out of the founders’ vision, blacks responded to their exclusion by trying to become part of the American vision. “African Americans didn’t call America a lie, they called it a broken promise,” Patel said. “I don’t think there’s anything more inspiring to me.”
Third, Patel talked about all the religious institutions that serve the community at large — providing tremendous social capital to people regardless of what faith they practice.
The fourth pillar is the tradition by Americans to “stand up for people who are different than us.” When Muslims wanted to build a community center in lower Manhattan, it was Michael Bloomberg, the Jewish mayor, who emerged as one of top advocates for the project.
The fifth pillar is that it’s up to people to build bridges between the people who practice different religions, and every individual can play a role in speaking out for those who may be experiencing hostility or alienation because of their beliefs.
Although the Interfaith Youth Core focuses its efforts in the United States, Patel said that he hopes that students who go through the Interfaith Leadership Institute will help spread the message to countries around the world.