April 11, 2023
Grounded in their faith communities and ethical traditions, four panelists discuss how their beliefs provide hope and inspiration to build a diverse democracy.
More than ever, the world needs builders – people ready to roll up their sleeves and build solutions for the challenges we face. In this season finale episode, Eboo Patel, Founder and President of Interfaith America, speaks with four leaders already building Interfaith America. Grounded in their faith communities and ethical traditions, these panelists respond from their beliefs to provide hope and inspiration.
This panel discussion was a part of the opening plenary at the 2022 Interfaith Leadership Summit.
The Interfaith Leadership Summit (the Summit) is the largest gathering of students and educators with a commitment to American religious pluralism. Join the hundreds of people who care about the future of our religiously diverse society as they learn to bridge divides and forge friendships across lines of religious and worldview differences. Learn new skills and return to your campus inspired and ready to build.
How do our beliefs inspire us to build a diverse democracy?
Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America podcast and I’m Eboo Patel.
My favorite metaphor for a diverse democracy is a potluck dinner. A potluck relies on the distinct and delicious contributions of diverse people. A potluck tries to create a magical space where there can be creative combinations and enriching conversations. I had the opportunity to talk about a potluck dinner and how it serves as a metaphor for diverse democracy with a group of terrific people at the 2022 Interfaith Leadership Summit in Chicago.
The panel included Nisha Anand, activist and CEO of Dream.Org; Sarwang Parikh, interim director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship; Allison Josephs, founder and executive director of Jew in the City; and Dr. Ulysses W. Burley III, founder of UBtheCURE. I’d like to thank LaTanya Lane, the director of the Interfaith Leadership Summit, for setting the table for these guests and I to have this terrific conversation. Before I began the Q&A with this panel, I offered some remarks of my own on why potlucks are so special and why we should think of them as symbolic of diverse democracies.
For more information about our guests and the Interfaith Leadership Summit, please check out the show notes. Now, onto the episode.
Speaker 1: Please welcome founder and president of Interfaith America, Eboo Patel, to the stage.
Eboo: Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim. The first year after college was the loneliest year of my life. The looks on your faces right now totally priceless. You’re like, “Really, I’m doing all this work to get to that?” No. I swear it was just me. Everything’s going to go great for you. By the way, it got better for me too. You start with what you have. What I had was two friends in the City of Chicago, a little apartment on the border of Lincoln Park and Logan Square, and the need for community.
I was a teacher at an alternative school at the time. I remember my salary well, $12,000 a year. I was not hosting a dinner party because it would have taken my whole paycheck. What do you do? You ask your friends to bring their friends and everybody to bring a dish. It was the potluck. First one, February 1997, frigid night, I made my mom’s famous masala potatoes. Made famous by her not me, by the way. In my Indian American Ismaili Muslim household growing up those potatoes were a side dish to the salnas and curries and naans that we typically ate.
A South Indian Hindu who came that night said that actually, those masala potatoes would fill the dosas and crepes that her family would eat both at home and back at home in India. A Jewish person brought this most wonderful bread, challah bread, and explained how the challah was broken on Friday nights, Shabbat dinner, how a special prayer was said. A Lebanese Catholic who was there that night, a friend of a friend, she was like, “I brought my grandfather’s amazing spicy dip.” The dip was made more amazing by the Jewish person’s challah bread.
It was like that. Things happened week after week. There were always surprising combinations between the most delicious dishes. Somebody would bring an item that they were really proud of, and they would share a story about it. Somebody else would say something like, “There’s a story like that in my tradition too.” As I listened to the stories and as I tasted these dishes, it occurred to me that so many of them were about faith. I’ve been a part of all this diversity work as an undergrad and so little of it was about religion. When you ask people when you crack that open, that rabbit hole goes deep and there’s an awful lot of pride there.
Folks would say, “This was the food that we would eat during Advent season in the Philipines.” “This is the dish that my mom brought to the welcome table next to the Baptist Church.” What I found so interesting was the stories of feasting. These feast foods, they were never separate from service. This is what we did on Eid. These are the families that we visited and gave food to. This is what we did on Christmas. These were the families that we loved and made sure they had Christmas too. These feast foods, this faith, this diversity, never separate from serving others.
It happens so frequently that I started thinking, “Maybe it’s not chance. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe I should wonder what’s the design here. Maybe there’s something about a potluck that just brings out the best in pluralism.” I’ve grown up with a melting pot metaphor. Who grew up with a melting pot metaphor? I grew up with it in my history books, but also in my life. After about eighth grade, we stopped having turkey on Thanksgiving. In my household, we had biryani, which is an Indian Muslim feast food. Do you know how many people I told at school that we were having biryani for Thanksgiving? Anybody guessed the number? Zero. Melting Pot.
Then there was a time when I thought diversity work was a battlefield and the only thing I had was wounds. I quoted Ani DiFranco, “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” Then started thinking about that, “Tools build things. Weapons hurt people. Do I really want to walk around the world hurting people instead of building things? Am I really just wounds? Is my identity defined more by hatred of Islamophobia or the inspiration of Islam?” I’d say the inspiration of Islam. I don’t really want diversity work to be a battlefield, a place where I only tell one story about myself. I only look for one way to engage with you.
What about something different? Not a melting pot, not a battlefield, what about a potluck? What was happening right in front of me, this Tuesday night event that starts really out of loneliness. I just want to keep on saying that. I didn’t have 800 friends, not all of you. I was a 20-year-old, just out of college, trying to figure it out, lonely. I had two friends and an idea. Then 8 became 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 and I started thinking, “Maybe this is what diversity work looks like, people bringing the dish that they are proud of, people sharing the story from their tradition, people finding these creative combinations.”
I started reading some years later the work of a woman named Danielle Allen. Is that familiar to anybody? That name familiar to anybody? She was at the University of Chicago for a long time. She is now the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, the first African American woman to hold a university professorship at Harvard. She talks a lot about potlucks and power. She says a couple of things that I think are especially striking. Number one, she says, “Everybody brings their best dish to a potluck.” I’m going to say that again. Everybody brings their best dish to a potluck, especially if the invitation is right.
Second thing she says in a book called Talking to Strangers, she says, “Own your political majority.” She means it as power. Own your power. Host the potluck. Everybody brings their best dish to a potluck. Own your political majority. Don’t let anybody tell you you don’t have it. Host the potluck. I love that. Why? Number one, it assumes we are all contributors. We bring the distinctive contribution of our diverse identities. Who wants a potluck where everybody brings casserole or honestly, everybody brings biryani? As much as I like biryani, it’s not a knock-on casserole, it’s a knock-on homogeneity. I want to try your casserole, really.
You don’t want all the same thing at a potluck. It’s not interesting. You don’t want to assume that somebody didn’t have a dish to bring. Of course, they have a dish to bring. Everybody brings their best dish to a potluck. Second thing, create a space that facilitates inspiring resonances and creative combinations. It’s not chance, it shouldn’t surprise you. There’s a design there. The way you create the space, that’s what facilitates those conversations. That’s how the challah bread finds the Lebanese dip. That’s the new stuff that happens.
I love it when a spiritual seeker shares a story and a Shia Muslim is like, “We have something like that. I’ve heard a story like that from where I come from, let me share.” Number three, focus on what could go right. Focus on what could go right and maximize for it. There are a million ways for a potluck to go wrong, okay? I remember my friend Jeff Pinzino was like, “Hey man, I became a vegan. I’m bringing a crew of vegans with me to the next potluck.”
I lost sleep, I don’t know, for five days. I was like, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen? Blah, blah, blah.” Somebody was like, “Just send out an email. There’s a crew of vegans coming to the potluck. Be aware of that. Label your food. Maybe don’t put cheese on the salad. It’s going to be fine.” Focus on what could go right. Most people want to get along with folks. Most people want to learn from each other. There’s no reason to lose sleep over this. There’s a million ways a potluck could go wrong. It almost never does. Focus on what could go right and maximize for it.
Number four, subtly encourage the community to take responsibility for the health of the whole. Listen, a potluck doesn’t start without a leader. Doesn’t start without a host. Nothing starts without a leader, but if that leader does his or her or their work, they subtly encourage the community to take charge. The preacher gets the choir to sing louder and louder and louder, and the choir members become preachers and go have their own choirs, but it doesn’t start without a leader.
Someone has to issue the initial invitation, arrange the furniture so people can talk, set out the dishes and the silverware, clean up at the end. I could do that for eight people those first couple weeks. I loved it. As it got to 30, 40, 50, harder to do that. We wound up starting an intentional community called Stone Soup. We had 250 people at potlucks some Tuesday nights. One person can’t do that. One person shouldn’t have to do that. If you create the space right, the community takes charge for the health of the whole.
Sure enough, folks started coming early on Tuesday nights to help set up. Folks brought dishes and silver to make sure there was enough for everybody. Folks arranged the furniture. There was a crew of people that stayed after to help clean up. The community took charge of the common space of the health of the whole. I want you to keep this in mind as you go through this conference. Honestly, as you consider this country, what it is, what it should be. This rapidly diversifying nation, this impossible country, most religiously diverse nation in human history, most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere, you can bring a dish to the American potluck.
You can invite other people to join. You can host the event yourself. You can nudge the nation towards more than it is, closer to what it might be. Not a melting pot, not a battlefield, a potluck where everyone is invited, everyone is valued, everyone is a contributor, where our best dishes are made better by other people’s best dishes, where we become more fully ourselves in relationship to others and in service to an idea called Interfaith America. Thank you.
Panel, come save me. Join me, whatever. Nisha, thank you for bringing your son. I’ll try to bring mine next time. If I had known you were coming, I wouldn’t have let him sleep in. Welcome to all. We are going to have a great panel. Okay. We are going to talk about potlucks and contributions and America and some reality. I so appreciate these folks. They are powerful. They have owned their political majority. They have hosted the potluck. I’m going to let them introduce themselves, and I’ve asked them all to tell something of a 90-second story of that introduction. If it’s okay, I’m going to start with my friend Nisha.
Nisha Anand: Sure. I was thinking about this, the best way to introduce myself, and I realized that I would not be here today, quite literally alive today if it wasn’t for people trying to do exactly what you’re trying to do in your communities, on your campuses, and here today. My father was born in 1945 in India. He is a child of the partition. For a quick history lesson, I swear I can keep it under 90 seconds, Eboo, as the British were leaving India, they just drew a line, which we call the partition. That was the line that divided India and Pakistan. My family happened to be a Hindu family on the Pakistan side of the border.
This was the largest forced migration in human history. On either side of the border, if you were of the other religion on the wrong side of the border, there was a mass migration. My family went into hiding because, at that point, people were being killed, brutalized. You couldn’t escape. It was terrifying, all sides. The story I grew up with was that my dad being very young started crying and he risked the lives of the whole family. My grandfather decided in this moment, while they were hiding, he would have to sacrifice my son to save the whole family. My grandmother, as moms do, shook him really hard and he stopped crying at just the right moment.
The other thing that was true was it wasn’t just our family at risk. My family was hiding with their neighbors. The Muslim family that they had grown up with their whole lives took my family in and hid them, to great risk to themselves. My family, when they tell this story now, you still see the tears in their eyes as they recount that at one point when one of the roaming militia groups was running through and asking, “Are you hiding any Hindus in your house?” this family swore on the Quran that they had nobody in the house and my family lived, and they made it out.
My parents know what a risk that was to do. They’re alive today for that, that ability to see our shared humanity in the times when you had no reason to do so. In fact, you could lose your life for doing that. A family stood up for my family and we’re alive today. I’ve been committed to that vision, that we are so much more together, our shared humanity unites us. Everything that’s been created to divide us is not as strong as what’s there to unite us.
Eboo: Thank you, Nisha. As from South Asia, I-
-feel that very deeply. Thank you. Sarwang.
Sarwang Parikh: Thanks everybody for letting me be here. Nisha, that story resonates with me as well. I came as an immigrant to this country as well when I was five years old. A lot of that was through the pressure of economics to make it as you know a lot of immigrant stories start. Part of where we danced around in the States we landed in South Carolina, not too far from where Nisha’s family apparently was. Growing up as a brown person, a South Asian immigrant, Hindu raised originally within the deep South was a complex process, as you can imagine.
It was hard to know where I began and what I’m supposed to be. I think part of that was even more activated by my brother who went through a major mental health challenge. Those forces of trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be inside of a place where I don’t see a reflection of myself and having a fracture of mental health around me really had me question what am I supposed to do with all of this pain, what am I supposed to be in the wounds? It was through that journey that I saw faith, thought practices within Buddhist practice and yoga, and really recognized there’s a way in which to be able to see some sense of, as teacher says, brilliant sanity in our own self.
That there’s healing capacity, and that brought me into psychology and spirituality and into this particular seat of trying to find a marriage between those two practices in this particular day and age where we can really recognize a brilliant sanity, that we all have something really beautiful that’s shining within us, and how we can access that with each other and in ourselves, and that that’s not something outside of us that’s going to really normalize us, that we really have to accept that part. Thank you.
Eboo: Thank you. Allison.
Allison Josephs: I just want to say that this is so inspiring to be here. I know when my heart gets touched by a message, it’s because it’s true. Your speech and the video, my heart is so touched. I’m honored to be here. I grew up Jewish, but not too Jewish. I grew up seeing a certain type of Jew as being too Jewish. My grandfather was one of the more Jewish Jews and his journey away from being too Jewish probably began when he was a child in Ukraine.
Some local anti-Semites lined up his family to see how many bullets would go through Jews or how many Jews a bullet could go through. There we go. They lined up his whole family to see how many Jews their bullet could go through. Just in the nick of time, some Cossacks came riding through and disrupted this impromptu program. My grandfather’s family got out, came to America and he moved away from his Jewishness. While I always had a proud Jewish identity, I looked at the Orthodox community as being other weird and nothing I wanted to be a part of.
When I was eight years old, a girl in my school was murdered by her father. He had some severe mental health issues on the night before he killed the entire family. On a cold fourth-grade morning, I walked in and discovered my classmate was dead. Suddenly I was launched into this major existential crisis trying to understand why do I exist. What’s my purpose here? Do I bring anything with me when I leave? My parents were successful people, but when I asked them the most basic question of existence, they just stared back at me.
After about seven years of off-and-on insomnia and panic attacks, I connected with an Orthodox teacher at an afterschool Hebrew High. The idea was not to actually become more observant at this school. I was meant to just meet a nice Jewish boy and eat cheeseburgers with him just so the Jewish people could continue because of pilgrims and the Holocaust. My mother would sometimes invoke the Spanish Inquisition if she really wanted to guilt us.
What I discovered from this teacher was that he was not a rock-throwing one, the subjugating extremist as the media had told me he would be as an orthodox man. He was a nice, normal guy living in the world with spiritual practice and wisdom and faith to wrap his arms around. I felt betrayed that my parents had given my sisters and me everything and I didn’t even know my own heritage.
I came to believe that media had really caused a lot of that misinformation, really only highlighting the creeps and extremists of my community and never showing anyone decent. I decided 15 years ago, it was actually our 15th year anniversary of starting Jew in the City, that I was going to take the media on. Started on social media, in the last year, we built a Hollywood bureau of Jew in the City. We are now literally talking to all the networks and telling them our story and asking to be seen as we see ourselves and not their version of it.
Eboo: Thank you. So powerful.
Dr. Ulysses Burley: Thank you. I am from Houston, Texas, born and raised. I grew up Lutheran, fourth generation Lutheran. For people who look like me in the South, that was uncharacteristic. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America statistically is the whitest denomination in America at 96% with 1% membership of persons of African descent, but my family, particularly on my mom’s side, were third-generation Lutherans. Although my dad was Baptist, my mom said, “I want my children to worship Lutheran.” We did. To this day, I still do, while struggling with the dynamic of being a minority in a majority-faith institution.
I am an immunologist by primary training. I founded an organization, UBtheCURE, which operates at the intersection of faith, health, and human rights. That founding was really as a result of an experience that I had during my medical training in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where for one year I was caring for people living with HIV and AIDs. As I would encounter these people, I would begin to learn their stories. It became clear to me that everybody had a backstory that was connected to their medical diagnosis, stories of poverty, stories of discrimination, stories of substance misuse, stories of religious persecution, stories of racism and homophobia and transphobia.
It became clear to me that no matter what I did for patients in my care, I would always have to send them back out into a world that made them sick, so I began to reflect on what it really meant for me to be a physician, for me to be a healthcare provider if I could only manage illness in the context of a hospital and not in society where it manifests. From that experience, I decided that I was going to be the kind of physician that treats people and not just disease.
The way in which I was able to marry my work in HIV and my faith was through that very Lutheran church that I grew up in, that had an HIV and AIDS strategy before even our country did. Today, as a result of my faith, but also as a result of my vocation and my training, I do this work full-time at the intersection of faith and health.
Eboo: These are such powerful stories. Thank you.
One of the things I just want to underscore is so often faith and philosophical communities get there first, or they risk everything. They feel called. Listen, what dish do you bring to the potluck? From your tradition, faith or philosophical tradition, what do you contribute? What’s your best dish to the potluck? I say, as an Ismaili Muslim, this Quranically is, I love the line Rahmatul lil Alameen, that the Prophet Muhammad may the peace of blessings of God be upon him, to be nothing but a special mercy upon all the worlds.
I love so many things about the Islamic tradition and the Quran, and that’s up there with anything else. That we were meant to be nothing but a special mercy upon all the worlds. Not any mercy, not one world, special Mercy, all the worlds. Nisha, what do you bring?
Nisha: I was thinking about the sense of commitment my parents had. A lot of our traditions, you’re committed to your family. Indians definitely have a very extended idea of family. Anyone that is an uncle or auntie, you are going to ride or die for them. That’s true. The commitment that I think was instilled for me from a young age was your choice. Whatever you choose every day you wake up to commit to it fully. I think this is why all of it has a shadow side.
There is obviously a shadow side to arranged marriage, but I think about with my family, even my brother had an arranged marriage, there’s this, you wake up in the morning and you commit to being able to love this person day after day, work in it, work with it, that’s the choice you have. For me, when I bring that to the table, it’s that commitment that I know tomorrow can be better than today. It’s that commitment that if we work together and we work hard, we can actually create that more perfect union, which you mentioned in your speech like, “What could be.” That’s what I commit to.
That optimism, my staff counts on me for optimism. Even in these really dark times, they’re like, “Let me find out what Nisha’s take is on this because maybe there’s something good in what’s happening right now.” You can count on me for that. My optimism, I don’t think it’s naive. It’s because of that determination. If I do it today, I can create the future tomorrow. There’s no other way to create the future but doing today what you want to see in the world. That’s that choice and that commitment that I think we bring.
Eboo: You defeat the things you do not love by building the things you do. One of the first things you ever said to me was, “The awesome people in the world will beat the awful people.” I’m like, “I don’t know if that’s true but I believe you.”
Nisha: There are a lot more awesome people than they are awful, that’s true. If we focus on just the awful people, which you need to do, you miss the point that we actually have a lot more awesome people. We’re the majority.
Eboo: Yes. Look at the room. Sarwang, what dish do you bring to the potluck?
Sarwang: It’s a good question. I was talking about this with my fiance who’s over there. There’s just something that part of our love story got brought in through this aspect of this practical pathway towards liberation that Buddhism offers. That there is a way of cultivating presence, especially grounded in unshakeable love. Unconditional, unshakeable love. That it’s accessible and innate in all of us. That liberation is actually just a part of us being here. We have a right to be free, liberated, and that inside of each of us there’s this aspect of a heart that is able to love unconditionally in this particular practice.
You mentioned this in that beautiful video of these practices of love and kindness, the word is meta within the poly script, and it translates to love and kindness or unconditional friendliness. A friendliness that is towards all beings and all of life irregardless. That you meet the stranger with friendliness just as you would meet your beloved friend. That you meet a tree with just as much friendliness. There’s beautiful stories of massive rage from a line elephant raging and charging at the historical figure of the Buddha. It said that as that elephant was approaching him he put up his hand and that it emanated this meta this field of loving kindness that just completely calmed that being.
It continues to be a place that inspires me. How do I meet the world around me in times of so much suffering, so much antagonism and othering? How do I actually allow that love to be like, “This is my other me”? This is a part of my own being, that we’re interdependent, and as great teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh mentioned, we inter-are. We are interbeing and interwoven together. There’s no separation. That itself is a point of delusion. I really appreciate that practice itself.
Eboo: We talked about this. Thích Nhất Hạnh was central in my Interfaith formation and the book Being Peace in the mid-late 90s and his line “The poet can see a cloud in this piece of paper. I would stare at the piece of paper. It’s beautiful like sharing our dishes and being like, “Oh, I can learn from that.” You can learn from something and find it beautiful and not believe it the same way somebody else does. Allison
Allison: It’s hard to pick one, but since this is a community of future leaders, I went with a leadership direction. I guess it’s really just for all of humanity. It’s brought down in Proverbs from King Solomon and it’s also expounded upon in the Talmud, which is the oral tradition of the Torah that was written down between 200 to 500 CE. It goes like this, “Sheva yipol tzadik v’kam.” Seven times a righteous person falls and gets up. I’ll dig into that a little bit more how it’s brought down in the Talmud. The story here is allegorical, not meant to be taken literally.
God is sitting around with basically the greatest Jewish leaders of all time and it’s time to say the grace after meals. In the Jewish tradition, we say a blessing before we eat and a second one after we’ve eaten and been satiated. The grace after meals always has a leader to begin the grace. God starts offering up to Abraham first, the first Jew, “Will you lead grace after meals?” Abraham starts talking about why he’s not worthy enough. Then goes down to Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Aaron.
As all the different leaders are being offered this chance for this honor, they all tell God why they’re not worthy enough to lead grace after meals because they made this mistake and that mistake. Then King David comes around. In our tradition, King David was known as having some problems. He committed adultery, he had Bathsheba’s husband killed in war. He made some mistakes and he said I will lead the grace after meals and I’m the most worthy one here.
Why? Because seven times a righteous person falls and gets up. My message to you is that we may often think that greatness comes about through not making mistakes, through perfection, through being born in a certain way that’s better than other people, but my tradition teaches that is in the act of falling and falling and falling again but getting up and getting up and getting up again, building that muscle, that that’s how greatness can be achieved.
Eboo: I love that story. Thank you, Allison. All of you. Ulysses.
Dr. Burley: Potlucks were a major thing growing up in the South for sure, especially at church. I really appreciate this question because as a follower of Jesus Christ, for me, the dish that I bring to the potluck is justice because I believe that Jesus and justice are the same things based on the teachings of Jesus. If you look at his sermon on the Mount, he talks about the poor and spirit and the merciful and the meek and those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst and the peacemakers. That’s a sermon about justice for people who have been prevented from experiencing justice and equity.
I think that translates really well to your parallel of potlucks. I don’t know how many of y’all have ever participated in a potluck but the biggest fear is that you are going to bring something that somebody else has already brought.
You don’t want to be the person that brings another mac and cheese and people have to choose between the two mac and cheeses.
Then you get there and yours is the one that is least eaten.
The ways in which you avoid that is through diversity of dishes. The only way that we can ensure diversity of dishes is through equity and justice, making sure that everybody has an equal opportunity to be represented at the potluck. I think justice in many ways ties a lot into your dish of love. Dr. Cornel West said that justice is what love looks like in public. I would really encourage all of you not to just love in private but to love in public because when you do so that is what justice in its truest sense resembles.
Eboo: Thank you. I’m just meditating on too many mac and cheeses at the potluck. I want to go two directions at once here and ask you all to split up and answer these two different questions as you see fit. The first is this is a leadership training, not just a participation training. People need to feel empowered enough to bring their best dish to the potluck, but as Danielle Allen said, you already have that. You’re already a participant. You already should feel empowered to bring your best dish to the potluck. Leveling up skills a little bit, how do you invite other people? That’s a skill.
We’re working both in the realm of the concrete here, but also in the realm of metaphor. How do you invite other people to make their best contribution? Who’s got this one?
Sarwang: I can start. I love this metaphor of the potluck. I represent an organization called Buddhist Peace Fellowship. One of the aspects that I love, I got to do this training with them. It was all virtual right around the time of pandemic. One of those beautiful aspects of this was the messages and emails that came in. Just the welcoming was pretty much come as you are. There’s no way that you’re going to be able to come and it’s not okay. You’re just going to come as you are. If you coming in, you need to have your videos off. If you’re coming in and you haven’t gotten fully showered whatever’s there, just come as you are.
I thought that was just the welcoming of and the warmth, because there are so many potlucks, especially right now during the COVID time. It’s like, “Do I want to go to another event? I really want to and they’re yearning to connect and not feel isolated alone, yet I see the impact of these two-and-a-half-plus years of just the fear that’s in my body of getting close to others.” To have that permission no matter what, just come. Just show up as you are. Then on top of that what was beautifully sent was these little care packages. They’re mailed to all of us, coming from all over the US virtually.
They had little things like a candle. They had little things like a place to do Zen flower design, where you can pick your own flowers, go out, there’s going to be a practice. What it was doing was cultivating and curating a way in which I can participate, and then also asking, is there anything that’s in your way to come? Is there any way we can make this easier for you to get here? Even if it’s just on your computer. Do you need some tech support? Do you need this?
Having it come as you are, being able to know that I’m going to be able to participate in whatever way, that there’s a way. That they’re making out of their way as a host, to make sure that I have everything I need as a guest to even get there. Almost before I can even arrive, any part of me, any whispers like, “I shouldn’t go, I’m not going to have the bestest.” It’s okay, someone’s got you. Someone’s got you, you’re going to be okay. Just come. I think that was the most beautiful part of it, being able to set up invitation to anything that I come to. How do I meet people, and how do I meet situations that just allow people to arrive exactly as you are?
Eboo: I love especially how you highlight a Buddhist practice in the invitation. You send this flower, that’s from the tradition. That’s part of the invitation. Allison.
Allison: My organization started off on social media, but I think the reason that it became a place where different people were drawn in from different faiths and no faith at all is because the attitude that I really bring to life and that I bring to the content that we put out, which is based on my tradition. Number one, it’s the belief that all people come from Adam. Now, not all Orthodox Jews believe in a traditional reading of the Genesis story. There are parts that some of us read more allegorically, but the idea of all coming from a single man is to say that we’re all related.
All of humanity has a common ancestor, and we all have a spark of godliness that run within all of us. The most basic thing is starting those communications with that idea that we are all from the same source and are brothers and sisters on this planet. Another teaching that I love that comes from Ethics of the Fathers, “Who is truly wise? He who learns from all people.” While I’m going out and teaching what my faith is about and sharing my wisdom, and I’m so proud of it, part of my faith and wisdom is to understand that I will learn from other people. Having that open heart to say, “I’m here to share, and I’m also here to learn.”
It’s humility. Arrogance is an attitude that cancels everything. That’s the next question, I will say that, but having the humility and being ready to learn from all different types of people is so important. Just a beautiful example, my kids grew up going to Orthodox Jewish schools their whole lives. I think in middle school, my kids were learning a chapter on Christianity in their history class. One of the kids asked, “Why are we religious Jews learning about another religion?” The teacher answered back, “Because you need to know about another type of person in order to be able to respect them.” Just having this idea that through understanding other people, you’ll be able to learn to respect.
Then I will say just the last thing is that we have within our tradition two boring sides, two rabbis, two different traditions who had different perspectives on most issues that would come out. It was, “The House of Hillel said this and the House of Shammai said that.” At the end, they would say, “eilu v’eilu divrei Chaim Elokim,” that these and these are both words of the living God. That basically there is more than one way to skin a cat. There’s more than one truth out there, that two truths can be true simultaneously. Being able to live with complexity, that there’s not always a single answer to everything, and that you don’t have the entire truth.
Eboo: Beautiful. Thank you for that.
Eboo: Ulysses, because you teed up the next part. I’m going to actually ask you to take us out at the end here. Because you have fronted yourself as a potluck maestro, I’m going to ask you at the end the question of, what does it look like to be a host? We’ve just gone through, “What do you contribute?” What do you bring to the table? What does it look like to invite other people? That’s a leadership move.
We can’t pretend, as Dr. Burley pointed out, that the landscape is the same for everyone. There are barriers. There’s racism. There’s anti-Semitism. There’s Islamophobia. There’s misogyny. There are barriers to contributions. That is not internal to you, yet it is a reality that some people might say, “I’m not sure I want that contribution.” Let’s engage that reality of a barrier without fully internalizing it. Nisha, talk about a barrier to contribution, just the reality of that, and the trick of not making that who you are, not being more defined by Islamophobia than you are inspired by Islam.
Nisha: I loved what you were saying earlier about diversity shouldn’t feel like a battlefield. I think that’s really important, because in this era right now that we’re in where this phrase toxic polarization is everywhere, it is so easy then to break off into our own tribes and be with our own people because that’s where we don’t have to brush up against these barriers. That’s where we don’t have to have the hard work of understanding each other. You actually win a whole lot of points if you can point fingers at other people and place blame in this moment.
That’s not going to bring us together. To me, who I am as an optimist, that’s not going to move the country forward. I choose to take a stance where I think about not trying to win points, not trying to be right necessarily, but instead, do right. For me, the number one way is, actually this is something your team says a lot, maybe it originated with you, it’s not just the diversity-like. I don’t know where that originated from, but I’ve heard it a lot coming from the team here. That you have to invite all of the diversity, the staff you don’t know.
In my work, I do a lot of legislation. I do a lot of passing bills, a lot of stuff that you can’t outwardly see the love, but it’s all from the place of love. We do that by listening to people different than us, not just the diversity we like, and finding a place of agreement, because it’s always there. I think one of the big barriers is assuming because you have a different political belief than me, and that’s the divide I usually I’m working around. If you have a different political belief than me, we can’t find any common ground. That’s not true. You can find agreement with absolutely anyone.
I think finding that place of agreement, first and foremost, is really important. There’s always something we share. That shared humanity is so strong. In terms of barriers, I think it’s also starting with that common pain. Common pain will always lead to common purpose. I think from common purpose, you can find those common projects. We can work together. We can find something to do together. For me, that doing is everything that I’m about.
I think it’s important to communicate. I think it’s important to learn, to know, to love, to be able to understand people outside yourself. I find it’s so important to then take that and take that next leap and do, and actually work on making this country a better place, making it a place where you don’t have to bump those barriers every single time you engage. That’s the path I want to pave for the people behind me. I know that that’s what you’re doing, a lot of the folks here in this room, in your communities too, is making that possible.
Eboo: One of the best parts of this is taking each other’s quotes.
Nisha: Yes. Who’s quote is that?
Eboo: “Awesome people are going to beat the awful people.” “Common pain into common purpose through common projects.” Don’t expect common ground, you’ve got to build it. Who’s going to take responsibility to build the common ground? Nisha is like, “I will.” Part of what I love about people who do this work is you’re like, “Okay, I live in a world that’s not going to give me points for it. Fine, I’ll keep a point tally in my head.” I’ll keep a point because this is what I’m called to do. “I’m not going to get retweeted. Fine, I’ll keep a point tally in my head.” Thank you for that.
Dr. Burley, take us to the next leadership level. We’ve talked about contributing to the potluck. We’ve talked about inviting people to the potluck. We’ve talked about dealing with the reality of barriers. That’s just the reality without internalizing them. What does it look like to host the potluck? These 400 people, they’re going to go back to Habitat for Humanity, go back to Loras College, go back to Williams College, go back to [unintelligible 00:49:20]. They’re going to host the American potluck. What does that look like?
Dr. Burley: Wow. I think, first and foremost, to be a host, you have to be inclusive of all and alienating of non. That is the foundation for the diverse relationships it takes to be able to host a diverse potluck. Even more than that, in hosting a potluck, you have to make sure justice exists in your invitation. Sometimes we often confuse equality and equity. Equality would be sending an email to everyone to invite them to the potluck as you and your college mates used to do. Equity would be understanding that everybody doesn’t have access to email or Wi-Fi.
Then you need to go above and beyond in your invitation to make sure that those who don’t have access to the invitation can also be welcomed and invited as well. Responsibility of a good host of a potluck is not just extending invitation but doing so keeping in mind that sometimes your invitation has to go above and beyond for different individuals to meet people where they are because of those barriers that exist. It’s acknowledging that by going above and beyond, we build an inclusive community based on statistically significant love.
I use that intentionally as both a scientist and a spiritualist. Most of my life is predicated on data and statistics. We’re always looking at what’s statistically significant. One of my colleagues, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, who is the first religious leader in Africa to openly disclose his HIV status, talks about this statistically significant love and making sure that our love as such that it can be measured, not just privately but publicly. Understanding that while we might run out of dishes, we might run out of food, there’s more than enough love to go around. It’s a dish that we’ll never run out of.
Eboo: Just like a thousand mic drops, like statistically significant love. There’s a line in the Islamic tradition, God is beautiful and loves beauty. Just so much beauty. It’s bountiful. It’s not just meant for one community or one group, it’s meant for everyone. It’s meant for everyone. You all have shared that. You’ve brought that. I am so moved by it and so grateful for it. If we could just properly thank this set of leaders that brought beauty, that cultivated the diversity, and now is asking this community to take responsibility for cultivating the diversity of Interfaith America and the American potluck. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to season one of Interfaith America with Eboo Patel. As we continue to invest in creating and sustaining a more diverse nation, ask yourself these three questions. How do we make it easier for people to contribute their distinct dish to the American potluck? Are we doing our best to reduce barriers to contribution? Are we creating that magic space for enriching conversations and creative combinations?
I would like to thank our guests, Dr. Ulysses W. Burley III, Allison Josephs, Sarwang Parikh, and Nisha Anand for this amazing conversation. I am thrilled to say that registration is now open for the 2023 Interfaith Leadership Summit. It is the largest gathering of students and educators committed to America’s religiously diverse democracy. Join us this August in Chicago with hundreds of people who care about the future of our public nation and learn the skills to build that future on your own campus.
For more information about our guests and to register for this year’s Interfaith Leadership Summit, please check out the show notes. Don’t forget to visit interfaithamerica.org for resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse nation. I’m Eboo Patel.
Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.
Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.
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