Eboo Patel believes in “the holiness of diversity.”
As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, where he earned a doctorate in the sociology of religion, Patel was searching for faith, he said. And while reading from the Quran one day, a particular story “grabbed me by my throat.”
It was the Islam creation story, in which God forms Adam from a lump of clay and His own breath. The angels, however, refuse to honor a creature they think can only cause destruction; so God challenges them to tell Him all the names of creation. The angels can’t do it, but Adam can.
What struck Patel was the plurality of “names.”
“There is not one name to creation. Creation is not a monoculture. ... Creation is diverse,” he said.
Patel shared the Islam creation story while speaking during a Sunday, Jan. 28, devotional held at the Institute of Religion just off the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City. Young adults turned out to hear Patel’s message of peacemaking and bridge-building.
Also in attendance were University of Utah President Taylor Randall and Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and the Church’s commissioner of education.
Elder Gilbert described Patel as a leader, speaker, thinker, writer and good friend. “I hope you’ll feel his personal warmth.”
Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America, “the leading interfaith organization in the United States,” according to its website. He also served on former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council, and last year was named a University of Utah Impact Scholar.
Elder Gilbert called Interfaith America a “gift to the country” and said he admires how Patel models his Muslim faith.
“I’ve learned a lot from him about how to work across faith boundaries. ... I admire him for how he builds pluralistic bridges in an increasingly polarized climate,” Elder Gilbert said.
‘The call of your faith is the need of our moment’
Patel shared examples from the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s life of times that people of other faiths helped him, from a Christian monk to a Jewish rabbi to an ordinary pagan man.
Throughout the story of Islam, Patel said, “there is this theme: ... creation is diverse, [and] diversity is sacred. And that means a special responsibility for you. I speak to compatriots in that effort.”
Patel said he sees the way that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak about diversity and peacemaking, such as Church President Russell M. Nelson’s April 2023 general conference talk, “Peacemakers Needed.”
In that “remarkable address,” Patel noted President Nelson’s comparison of contention to evil and poison.
Again quoting President Nelson, Patel said being good stewards of diversity means building bridges with all kinds of people.
“The call of your faith is the need of our moment,” he said.
Patel also spoke about “affective polarization,” which occurs when someone hates another person more than they love themselves.
Unfortunately, this kind of polarization undermines the very foundations of America, Patel said. He cited recent examples of dialogue breaking down in communities, from parents walking out during a school board meeting after arguments about curriculum to a library permanently closing after controversy surrounding who could host readings.
“You cannot have a civic life in a diverse democracy if people with diverse identities ... cannot have conversations at school boards or libraries or city councils,” Patel said. “The definition of a diverse democracy is that we have enough unity ... that it can hold together our ... divergent ideologies.”
To move forward, America needs “a peaceful army of bridge builders,” Patel said. And Latter-day Saints can play a significant role in that.
For instance, after watching students scream at each other, university leaders might ask themselves if a Latter-day Saint institute is near their campus. When dialogue falls apart at city council meetings, local leaders might ask if there’s a Latter-day Saint ward in their community.
“So when somebody sends you that message ... [can] you follow the call of your faith and be able to [facilitate peaceful conversation]? When the city councils and the school boards and the library groups send you the message and ask you to come, will you have the skills?” Patel asked.
Other important aspects of bridge building include being truly curious about who other people are, not assuming someone is too stupid to listen to, and appreciating the contributions of others, regardless of who they voted for or what they believe.
“The dopamine rush of quick judgment is not worth knowing less about the world,” Patel said.
His invitation to Latter-day Saints is to actively build bridges, he continued. And he’s “totally confident” they can rise to the challenge.
“I admire your faith,” Patel said. “I admire the seriousness with which you take it. I admire your devotion to it. I admire the way it expresses itself in family cohesion. I admire the way it inspires you to serve others. The nation needs you to serve like this now.”
Young adults share their reactions
Following the devotional, local young adults shared their reactions to Patel’s thoughts.
University of Utah student Lucy Randall said Patel’s ideas on diversity are especially important to her as a college student — a phase of life that offers her many, many ideas and opinions.
“I think it’s important to just find common ground ... . I think that’s where improvement and really cool opportunities arise,” she said.
Carly Randall, another University of Utah student, said she loved when Patel talked about how differences are special. As someone attending a secular university, she doesn’t always feel she can share her faith; but Patel’s devotional helped her realize “you don’t have to hide that you’re religious ... even though not everyone appreciates it.”
University of Utah student Abbie Allen added that she particularly appreciated hearing from someone who belongs to a different faith. “We can all find common ground and connection with one another.”
Riley Walburger and Adam Jackson, who live in the Salt Lake City area, said they also appreciated Patel’s ideas on diversity and peacemaking.
Walburger said what stood out to him was how similar people are when they take time to understand each other.
“I honestly just want to go talk to more people right now and understand more people,” he said.