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Religious Identity in a Diverse World

The quotes from Eboo Patel are from Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), pp. xviii-xix; Copyright (C) 2007 by Eboo Patel. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.

The story of Mary Ellen Giess was written by Mary Ellen Giess and used with her permission.

Eboo Patel

In the introduction to his book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo Patel shares the following story:

Change happens internally before it takes place in the world. My transformation was catalyzed by a moment of failure.

In high school, the group I ate lunch with included a Cuban Jew, a Nigerian Evangelical, and an Indian Hindu. We were all devout to a degree, but we almost never talked about our religions with one another. Often somebody would announce at the table that he couldn't eat a certain kind of food, or any food at all, for a period of time. We all knew religion hovered behind this, but nobody ever offered any explanation deeper than "my mom said," and nobody ever asked for one.

This silent pact relieved all of us. We were not equipped with a language that allowed us to explain our faith to others or to ask about anyone else's. Back then, I thought little about the dangers lurking within this absence.

A few years after we graduated, my Jewish friend reminded me of a dark time during our adolescence. There were a group of kids in our high school who, for several weeks, took up scrawling anti-Semitic slurs on classroom desks and making obscene statements about Jews in the hallways. I did not confront them. I did not comfort my Jewish friend. I knew little about what Judaism meant to him, less about the emotional effects of anti-Semitism, and next to nothing about how to stop religious bigotry. So I averted my eyes and avoided my friend, because I couldn't stand to face him.

A few years later, he described to me the fear he had experienced coming to school those days, and his utter loneliness as he had watched his close friends simply stand by. Hearing him recount his suffering and my complicity is the single most humiliating experience of my life. I did not know it in high school, but my silence was betrayal: betrayal of Islam, which calls upon Muslims to be courageous and compassionate in the face of injustice; betrayal of America, a nation that relies on its citizens to hold up the bridges of pluralism when others try to destroy them; betrayal of India, a country that has too often seen blood flow in its cities and villages when extremists target minorities and others fail to protect them.

My friend needed more than my silent presence at the lunch table.

He concludes the introduction to Acts of Faith saying:

This is a story of returning to faith, of finding coherence, of committing to pluralism, and of the influences I owe my life to.

This "moment of failure" was the precursor to self-discovery, strengthening his own faith identity, and searching for an interfaith youth movement that combines faith and social action. When he didn't find what he was seeking, he created it himself—the Interfaith Youth Core.

Mary Ellen Giess

Mary Ellen Giess shares this story about her Unitarian Universalist upbringing and the struggles she faced during college to hold onto and articulate her faith in the face of opposition.

Growing up, my parents and I were active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation outside of Philadelphia, which was an integral part of my upbringing and felt like a home away from home. I remember my Coming of Age experience vividly, and the empowerment that I felt as a result of the responsibility I was entrusted with to define my own spiritual path.

When I went to college in North Carolina, I encountered a very different type of religiosity—conservative Christianity was everywhere I looked, from my close friends to the pro-life demonstrations on campus. One day there were two men on campus holding huge signs listing all of the people who were condemned to hell: Muslims, feminists, Jews, Democrats—the list went on and on. I was shocked, hurt, humiliated, and angry. I saw myself on that list, and not only that—I saw people I cared about. Furthermore, I didn't feel that I had a strong response to their argument—I had never been forced to defend my own beliefs before. When trying to explain my concept of truth to friends, I found that my concept differed so much from theirs that they interpreted the freedom within Unitarian Universalism as us not taking a firm stance on anything. At that particular moment in time though, I was so angry and hurt by this kind of religious belief that if someone had tried to convince me that religion was dangerous to society, I would have almost certainly agreed.

Then I found myself at a crossroads, stumbling upon a different path simply because I went to my Unitarian Universalist campus community for solace and solidarity. The campus minister was adamant that the kind of Christianity that I saw on campus was not representative of all religious belief or even all Christian belief. She pushed me to see the intricacies of religious belief, and in doing so, forced me to re-examine my own assumptions and beliefs. In my moment of anger, I had been quick to judge, the same way that those men carrying signs had judged me. I was able to reclaim my Unitarian Universalist identity, which transformed me into a more understanding person and has become a real source of strength in my life.

While articulating that identity to the world has never been easy, since we Unitarian Universalists are challenged to find our own paths and belief structures, I am stronger as an individual and deeper in my belief than ever before. More than that, I am proud of my tradition: I have had the opportunity to make it truly my own. What I found in this faith was a sense of identity that I could affirm for myself.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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