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Sacred Ground: Book Discussion Guide

Discuss Eboo Patel's book on campus or in your community

Discuss Eboo Patel’s book on campus or in your community

Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America
By Eboo Patel (Beacon Press, 2012)
A Book Discussion Guide Created by Interfaith America

Published by Beacon Press



“The idea is that serving others is a common value to all traditions— including secular ones—and when religiously diverse young people engage in volunteer projects together, they become both committed to the cause of interfaith cooperation and ambassadors for its importance. I was coming to the realization that these activities were necessary but not sufficient. We needed new strategies, new approaches that could give rise to a new narrative, a tale that spanned the ages and included people of all religions and cultures, a story about the magnificence of putting the high ideals of pluralism into concrete practice” (pp. xi-xii).


What parallels do you see between Cordoba and the United States?

What stands out to you about the themes of Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America?


Tell the story of what led you to read this book.

Why do you think Patel says interfaith service isn’t enough to advance religious pluralism?

Application – Interfaith Literacy

Building interfaith literacy can start with reflection on your own values and practices: Discuss how your religious or ethical tradition calls you to practice service.

After listening to the group answer the previous question, what common themes emerged? Were there any clear differences?

Part I

Ground Zero

The Muslim Menace

The Evangelical Shift


“Listening to Fatima speak of the work she did as an American Muslim on behalf of the LGBT community, I thought of a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “No one of you truly believes until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.” It is an ethic central to Islam. It is an ethic, in a hundred languages and in every conceivable form of prayer, that has built America” (p. 22).


Describe some of the interfaith relationships that broke down barriers in Part I.

Patel articulates one of the central arguments against religious diversity in America, saying, “Replace “Catholic” with “Muslim” and “church hierarchy” with “sharia law” and, fifty years later, the pattern is repeating itself. Like the anti-Catholic movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the central argument of the forces of Islamophobia is that the very nature of Islam is in conflict with American values, especially freedom of religion and the separation of church and state” (p. 46). What parallels do you see between the stories of prejudice against American Muslims, and those against Catholics?


In a nation founded on freedom and equality, why are there so many conflicts when it comes to religious differences?

Have you discussed your personal religious or philosophical beliefs with friends or family who think differently than you do? How do your interfaith relationships and discussions about religion align with Putnam’s research cited on p. 54 about cultivating positive knowledge and relationships?

Application – Interfaith Literacy

Where in your life and community can you take active initiative for positive interfaith relationships?

Pastor Bob Roberts overcame his prejudice of Catholics by starting a conversation with a Catholic priest and discovering their shared value of helping the Vietnamese people. Roberts reflected, “Maybe there’s no such thing as enemies, just people we don’t know and haven’t met” (p. 60). How can you take the simple step of starting a conversation with someone who believes differently but shares one of your passions?

Part II

The Science of Interfaith Cooperation

The Art of Interfaith Leadership


“The more I studied this area, the more I started to see attitudes, knowledge, and relationships as three sides of a triangle. If you know some (accurate and positive) things about a religion, and you know some people from that religion, you are far more likely to have positive attitudes toward that tradition and that community. The more favorable your attitude, the more open you will be to new relationships and additional appreciative knowledge. A couple of cycles around this triangle, and people from different faiths are starting to smile at each other on the streets instead of looking away or crossing to the other side” (p.79).


List people or stories in Part II that demonstrate the elements of the “interfaith triangle”:
1. Appreciative knowledge
2. Positive behaviors/relationships
3. Positive attitudes

On pp 95-96, Patel describes the four parts of interfaith literacy (that lay the foundation for interfaith leadership. How do these four parts support the three sides of the interfaith triangle?


The interfaith triangle can also cycle the opposite way: “People without much knowledge about other religions and with little contact with people from those communities are far more likely to harbor negative attitudes toward those traditions and communities” (p. 78). Have you seen examples of or experienced this cycle?

The Dalai Lama and Chris Stedman both give inspiring examples of people from other religious traditions that have influenced their perspective. Which aspects of interfaith literacy do you see in these two stories, and how are they important to interfaith leadership? Patel describes the four parts of interfaith literacy on pp. 95-96 as an:

Appreciative knowledge of other traditions

Ability to identify shared values

Understanding of the history of interfaith cooperation

Articulation of one’s own theology or ethic of interfaith cooperation

Application – The Science of Interfaith Cooperation

Patel has a breakthrough when he realizes, “Movements aren’t built by a single person running himself [or herself] ragged through a thousand places; they’re built when a diverse network of people internalize a central message and are able to communicate it effectively to their various communities (p. 103). How can you cultivate interfaith leadership in yourself? How might you keep this task from feeling overwhelming?

Part III



American Muslim Child


“We were too busy reading critical race theory to pay attention to any of this. The problem of the color line blinded us to the coming challenge of the faith line. We even ignored the religious dimensions of obvious issues. We talked a lot about Cornel West the Black Panther, and not at all about Cornel West the black Baptist. We viewed the university’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek, as a racist symbol but knew almost nothing about the spiritual role that chiefs played in Native American religious culture. And for all our talk about the importance of identity, of the personal being political, of knowing one another’s stories, we knew almost nothing about each other’s religious lives.” (p. 114)


Why does Patel think youth have such an important role to play in building interfaith cooperation?

What are the qualities of colleges and universities that Patel highlights as prime opportunities for building interfaith cooperation?


IFYC concentrates its efforts on college campuses because, “All the positive social capital in our broader society—faith based groups, volunteer programs, educational opportunities, forums for discussion and exchange—exist on campuses in concentrated form” (p. 123). Discuss what you see as the opportunities and challenges of interfaith work with young adults on college and university campuses.

Application – Interfaith Literacy as an Ongoing Process

Throughout the entire book, Patel discusses current events, historical movements, and social reformations related to religious pluralism in America. As a group, scroll through a news website or flip through a newspaper and identify current events that touch on topics of religious diversity and identities. This might include conflict among groups, the identity of public figures, legislation being debated, or communities serving during a tragedy. Discuss your findings.

Patel describes his son Zayd receiving a book about the Prophet Muhammed from a Hindu friend on his birthday, reflecting, “…nothing seemed to interest Zayd in his own faith as much as the idea that his friend from a different tradition respected it” (p. 162). Together, make a list of how you can demonstrate respect for the different traditions represented in your discussion group or community.



“I made friends with all these people from different faiths at Interfaith Youth Core. I couldn’t stand thinking that members of my church were insulting good people they’d never met because of these lies in a chain e-mail. I mean, every week at Interfaith Youth Core, I went and did a service project with Muslims, Jews, and humanists. It was a great experience. I just didn’t know how to take it back to my community or how it related to me being a Christian. Well, these last few days, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot, and here’s what I realized: Sending that e-mail and standing up for Muslims was the most Christian thing I have ever done” (pp. 168-169).

Pluralism, Prejudice, the Promise of America

You have discussed many stories and perspectives about identity, community, and action. This group has wrestled with the complexities of religious pluralism on a micro-scale. By coming together like this, you have been involved in building interfaith cooperation. Building interfaith cooperation requires young interfaith leaders to build relationships across identities, tell powerful stories to bridge divides, and act together on issues of common concern. The identities we hold, the stories we tell, and the actions we take all help contribute to the interfaith movement.

Final Reflections

How do you see yourself contributing to the “promise of America”?

What have you gained from the different perspectives represented in your discussion group? Take a moment to share specific examples with one another of how you have each been impacted by hearing one another’s perspectives.

Action Steps

A community interfaith service project is a powerful way to build pluralism and introduce a different kind of conversation about interfaith identities into society. Are there ways this discussion group can serve the community together as a follow-up to these conversations?