By Loretta Fulton
“Let me tell you a story.”
It’s the way Eboo Patel beings a speech. And, it’s the perfect beginning for a talk by Patel, a gifted storyteller. He proved that the evening of Oct. 11 when he presented a talk at McMurry University that was attended by members of the Abilene Interfaith Council and other Abilene residents.
A packed Mabee Room in the university’s campus center heard several stories from Patel, a Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, located in Chicago. He was invited to McMurry by the university’s Better Together Alliance to speak to students and faculty who are involved with an interfaith initiative on campus.
The subject of several of Patel’s favorite stories is Bob Roberts, Jr., an evangelical Christian and founder of NorthWood Church in Keller. His church hosts a Global Faith Forum, which Patel found intriguing.
“How did you come to be who you are?” Patel wanted to know.
Roberts told Patel that he grew up surrounded by a message of love, except for Catholics and Vietnamese. A member of his church invited him to accompany him on mission to Vietnam to deliver supplies to Vietnamese living in mountainous regions.
“God is not fear, Roberts was told. “God is love.”
Once they met the Vietnamese, Roberts discovered that he actually liked them, surprised because of his upbringing.
“Everyone he met, he liked better than the last,” Patel said.
While there, Roberts mentioned that he had always wanted to start a school where one was needed. His friend took him to a local school and hospital–run by Catholics.
He had to face the reality that he really didn’t hate the Vietnamese or Catholics like he was taught. Back home, he began hosting Vietnamese children in his home. When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hit, whispers began about how that was just the sort of thing Muslims would do. A child at the breakfast table looked at Roberts.
“Is this a little bit like the situation with the Vietnamese folks and the Catholics?” he asked Roberts.
Roberts began to wonder, “Is there a Muslim I could like,” just as he had come to like, even love, the Vietnamese and Catholics.
True to his spirit, “Bob grows as foot-long beard and heads to Afghanistan,” Patel said. He took with him a conviction: “If I have fear in my heart without knowledge, it’s my fault, not theirs.”
Patel said one of his favorite stories comes from the Cherokees, who teach that the heart has two wolves, one filled with fear, hatred and prejudice, and one filled with love.
“Which one grows,” the Cherokee asks. “The one you feed.”
What is the cost of feeding the wolf of fear, Patel asked. Part of the price is that we violate our own American tradition, he said, noting that the United States was the first nation that believed a religiously diverse democracy was possible.
“That is the creed upon which this nation is founded,” he said, citing George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport (Rhode Island)” and the fact that Thomas Jefferson made donations to all the religions represented in Philadelphia.
When Patel teaches at seminaries in Chicago, students tell him their favorite Bible story is the one of the Good Samaritan.
“It’s about embracing the other,” Patel said.
But the story of the Good Samaritan goes beyond embracing the “other,” it’s about embracing a person of another faith.
“The Samaritans were religious ‘others,’ not just random others,” Patel said.
The story is Jesus’ response to a question from a lawyer who asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus asks the lawyer what is written in the law, to which the lawyer replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your should and with all your strength and with all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself.”
Wanting a way out, the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
The Good Samaritan story follows. At the end, Jesus has a final word for the lawyer,
“Go and do likewise.”
Interfaith cooperation lies at the heart of Christianity, Patel said. In fact, he said, the first person to recognize Muhammad as a prophet was Christian monk in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia.
Following Patel’s talk, a student asked about how to face the inevitable friction that comes with interfaith engagement. Don’t demonize the other, Patel advised.
“It is better to address fire with water,” he said, “than fire with fire.”