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Eboo Patel offers keen insights during interfaith panel

As the Beehive State continues to grow, one area that leaders have been especially interested in understanding is how the increasingly diverse groups that make up the state’s population can best work together to strengthen Utah. To that end, the University of Utah is leading efforts to create better understanding and collaboration among the state’s many faith communities.

Recently, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute hosted a panel discussion as part of its Newsmaker Breakfast series, highlighting prominent issues impacting Utahns. Moderated by institute Director Natalie Gochnour, the panel included Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, a leading national interfaith organization based in Chicago; Mary Ann Villarreal, Vice President of Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion at the University of Utah; and Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. 

Among the topics of conversation during the morning session was the impact interfaith synergy could have on community practices, helping to build greater harmony among Utah’s religious populous. 

“I am a believer [that] positive social change …happens when we defeat the things we do not love by building the things that we do,” said Patel. He noted that healthy, resilient communities tend to have strong institutions, “universities, hospitals, high schools, 4-H clubs [that] welcome a wider variety of people [and ensure they] feel comfortable and safe.”

Patel, who was recently named a University Impact Scholar, added that being an interfaith leader is excellent training for building those kinds of institutions—and that “[building] bridges of cooperation between people of different identities” is often critical to this work. But he also challenged the notion that America is a “melting pot” and noted that most Americans want to retain their cultural identity and be part of the communal whole.

No one wants to melt their distinctive identity. Whether you’re a Muslim or a part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or a secular humanist or a Catholic or Jewish, you don’t want to melt that distinctive identity into something that is homogeneous,” he said. “You want to be who you are and bring your individuality to the table. A better metaphor than melting pot is a “potluck” that relies on the contributions of a community. You don’t want everybody to bring the same dish to a potluck, you want people to bring different dishes based on their different identities.” 

“We want an enriching mix of dishes,” he said. “And in the case of interfaith, you want there to be amazing conversations that are enlightening.” 

Villarreal noted that another key theme of the interfaith discussion going forward will be for the community to build together—and she said it must come together in its goals for long-term cooperation and growth. During the dialogue, she mentioned how she had grown up in a rural Texas community with segregated churches. She said that experience showed her that religious diversity is not enough to create the change needed.

“It is (only) when we know who we are in the practice of our faith and we learn about each other that [this understanding] helps us build collaboration,” she said. She added that interfaith practices also can help us dismantle bias by giving us the opportunity to “unlearn and reset our perceptions of religious understanding.” 

“We have some ideas about what an interfaith cooperation looks like from models of Interfaith America. But what they would look like for the state of Utah, we don’t know,” Villarreal said. “We have to be ready to be surprised by what we do, what we build together.

Gochnour said Patel’s leadership on the issue of interfaith cooperation can help bring new perspectives to what has historically been a community steeped in religious values and principles.

“We can acknowledge that faith communities, people of faith, are an important part of Utah, an important part of our campus, and by having Eboo here and his contributions, we’re basically adding faith to the types of things we share together. That’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “We can take our commonalities. take the things we can build together and fight division by unifying in ways that we haven’t in the past.”

Among those audience members in attendance at the Thomas H. Monson Center in downtown Salt Lake City was U alum and Salt Lake businessman Zachary Smith, who said having Patel as the newest Impact Scholar will help elevate the conversation around interfaith as well as highlight the importance of listening to diverse voices on critical community issues. 

“As a society, if we can leave our egos at the door and see each other and hear each other, there is no problem that can’t be solved,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, we all want the same things, a safe place to lay our head, opportunities for our children and economic prosperity. So, our goals are aligned, we just think different things and use different words to get there.”