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Building the Interfaith Youth Core

posted Jul 16, 2012, 6:59 AM by Interfaith WS

This is the ninth and final installment in our look at “Acts of Faith” by Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core. 


Chapter 8 -- Acts of Faith:  Building the Interfaith Youth Core


        When Jeff Pinzino, Eboo’s friend from college and a partner in the Habitat project in India, returned to Chicago, he was determined to start the foundation for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).  He began gathering followers and laid the groundwork for the Chicago Youth Council and the Day of Interfaith Youth Service.

        In mid-2002 as Eboo was completing his doctorate, Jeff was feeling that his work with IFYC was over.  Eboo stepped in and began expanding the network of relationships and looking for funding.  Ron Kinnamon, a former YMCA executive, told Eboo:  “‘We in America knew something about living in a Judeo-Christian society, but we know nothing about living in a multifaith society.  I think it’s going to be young people who lead us into this new reality.’”

        Tapping financial resources in Chicago’s deep-pocket foundations was not easy.  Religious organizations were not at the top of their agenda, even if they proposed mobilizing youth to build religious pluralism.  “After months of frustration, I finally met a foundation person who saw the potential of the IFYC.  Zahra Kassam, a young Muslim at the Ford Foundation with a degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, immediately understood the IFYC’s vision and methodology.

        “When the Ford Foundation grant ($35,000) was finalized…my friend Joe Hall…gave me a gold piece of advice: a grant from a major foundation can be worth three times the amount of the actual check if you leverage it right.”  Soon, additional foundations paid attention in a whole new way, and IFYC raised more than $100,000 in a few months.

        The IFYC then was able to hire its first full-time paid staff person, April Kunze, an Evangelical Christian who had become uncomfortable with what that designation had come to mean in contemporary America.  While president of the campus Evangelical Christian group at Carleton College, she worked with students in the organization to help raise money and volunteers to rebuild a mosque that had been burned down in a hate crime.  Several members of the group refused to help, saying that it showed the Muslim community that God was displeased with their “devil worship.”  April was deposed as president, and she refused to have anything to do with organized Christianity.

        With staff help on board, Eboo reached out to religious leaders.  “They were universally apprehensive about involving their young people.  ‘We barely have enough time to teach our kids about their own religion.  It’s just not a high enough priority to spend that precious time exposing them to others.’”

        Eboo told a senior person at the Diocese of Chicago that “today’s youths…are coming into contact with kids from different backgrounds all the time.  If they don’t have a way of understanding how their faith relates to the Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Evangelicals, and others that they spent most of their lives around, then there’s a good chance that their religious identities will atrophy.’”

        So what is the IFYC approach?  Eboo calls it shared values-service learning.  “We begin by identifying the values that religious communities hold in common – hospitality, cooperation, compassion, mercy.  We bring a group of religiously diverse young people together and ask them, ‘How does your religion speak to this value?’”

        Once the door was open to meet with representatives of youth groups and with youth themselves the light began to dawn on others.  Eboo recalls one discussion with a high school student at the Muslim Education Center:

        “‘You mean, we do projects together with kids from different religions and talk about our own faith and listen to them talk about theirs?’ the student asked.

        “’That’s basically it,’” I said.

        “‘Man, what a cool idea,’ she said with a smile.”