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Eboo Patel, a prominent thought leader on interfaith dialogue, spoke at Earlham in January.

Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core to Bolster Interfaith Cooperation

May 07, 2013

Given the escalation of violence over religious difference in the United States and the world, there’s never been a more critical time for colleges to infuse interfaith relations into their diversity work. 

Earlham took a decisive step to advance its religious diversity efforts recently by contracting with Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). During the next academic year, the organization will help Earlham explore how to position religion as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.

Patel, a prominent thought leader on interfaith dialogue, spoke at Earlham in January. He has written two books about interfaith cooperation, Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground.

Fertile Ground for Interfaith Dialogue

Earlham’s openness to people of all religious faiths and people with no religious faith provides a wonderful climate for interfaith education work, says Kelly Burk, Diversity Planning Coordinator.

“As a Quaker institution we talk about peace and justice a lot,” Burk says. “Understanding religious differences and developing the capacity for respectful dialogue about those differences is another important way of working toward peace in the world.”

To more fully enact its diversity ideal, Earlham will initiate a series of yearlong themes that will include diversities of race, socio-economic status, culture, gender and politics. Next year’s focus will be religious diversity and interfaith relations.

“Religion is a form of diversity often not named, especially in academic communities, but it is clearly present in tensions in the world and on college campuses,” says Burk. “While this may be an unexpected approach to diversity, we think it is an important lens for looking at diversity because it taps into all the other tensions of diversity — politics, sexuality, race, culture, socio-economic status.”

A Focus on Religious Diversity

To help accomplish the goals of the year-long initiative promoting interfaith relations, the Interfaith Youth Core will research and evaluate the current climate of interfaith diversity on campus through surveys and visits and then make recommendations for improvements.

 “Although it was never a goal of the College to create a religiously diverse student body, the Earlham of today has incredible religious diversity, and this presents us with a unique opportunity to reach deeper levels of understanding,” Burk says. “We can learn to have respectful dialogues that can go below the surface of politeness to engage one another on the difficult topics.

In 1966, the Earlham student body was 82 percent Protestant, whereas in 2009, only 27 percent of entering students identified as Protestant. The remaining 73 percent in 2009 includes Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shinto, Wiccans and a host of other religions, as well as 37 percent who identify as having no religious affiliation, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey.

“It is clear that the diversity of religious faith has grown substantially during the past 40 years,” says Nelson Bingham, provost and professor of psychology.

Part of that growth comes as a result of an increased international student population — nearly 18 percent of Earlham students are from countries other than the United States.

“Quakers have long valued respectful engagement with those of differing faiths or no particular faith,” Bingham continues. “Such relationships have grown out of the Quaker belief in ‘that of God in every person.’ This belief gives rise to long-standing Quaker commitments in such areas as social justice, education and peacemaking, which have been pursued regardless of the faith affiliations of others with whom Quakers have pursued these concerns.”

In addition to the IFYC appraisal, highlights for the 2013-14 interfaith initiative include a kick-off event and concert with Sweet Honey in the Rock on September 6. Interfaith service projects, guest speakers, panel discussions and opportunities for structured dialogue will take place throughout the year. A group of students and faculty will attend an IFYC leadership training June 21-23 in Chicago, and a student intern will be hired to plan interfaith activities.

Creating Interfaith Leaders

“Equipping students to go out from here into the world with the potential to be leaders in interfaith cooperation,” Burk says. “This is a less common skillset than many people realize. People are bombing each other over these differences.”

Bingham says the long-term goals of the continued series of yearlong diversity themes are to promote the development of attitudes of genuine respect for differences, to foster mutual understanding across various forms of diversity, and to build competencies for acting in a world where diversities are part of everyday life.

“This is at the very heart of what it means to be a liberally-educated person,” Bingham says. “Along the way, we expect that it will enrich the Earlham experience by translating demographic diversity into everyday practice.”

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