Patel: Acts of Faith (2010)

If authenticity would be a race Eboo Patel would probably win in his category. This was the main reason I loved his “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.” He had  a simple thesis that he deduced from his own life experiences and he lived up to the principle built around it. It also helps that I can wholeheartedly agree with his idea. It was, as stated on page XVI of the Introduction:

This is a book about how some young people become champion of religious pluralism while others become the foot soldiers of religious totalitarianism. Its thesis is simple: influences matter, programs count, mentors make a difference, institutions leave their mark.

The book is an autobiography of a “life examined”, which is worth living and already made a difference. The introduction states the thesis and supports it with a few examples then the eight chapters follow Patel’s story as he learned and acted the lessons of his life, one building onto another. In the first chapter he covers his high school years and activities with the YMCA Leaders School. The lesson he internalized then (page 16)

The YMCA’s secret is simple; it stems from a genuine love of young people. The conventional wisdom is that young people are scrambling for their place in the world. The YMCA knows that, deep down, young people need more than just a place.[…] It’s not a place young people need so much as a role, an opportunity to be powerful, a chance to shape the world.

In the second chapter he goes on discovering and building his identity, including his first relationship, with Lisa, a practicing Mormon girl. In the third chapter he encounters identity politics in college and how it segregates students based on ethnicity and/or race. He learns a lot from his college sweetheart, Sarah, a Jewish woman, not just about Judaism, but also what religion can mean for a person. Next, in the fourth chapter he starts doing some real world activism, inspired by friends, mentors and readings. (Side note: The latter included Wendy Kopp‘s (the founder of Teach for America) “One day all children…“. I received a copy at an event where Ms. Kopp spoke several years ago. Now I am inspired to read it. If Patel recommend sit I am more interested in it than I was beforehand.)

The fifth chapter covers Patel’s experienced in India, where he reconnected with the American part of his identity. It’s also hear that she learns about the compassionate part of his Muslim and family heritage: his grandmother has been helping abused women for decades, of which he knew nothing of. Why does she do it: “That’s what Muslims do.” In the sixth chapter he discovers what Islam can mean for him. By the end he discovers his calling: starting an interfaith youth movement: the Interfaith Youth Core. In the last two chapters he builds them and finds the love of his life, with whom he can build a Muslim life as not just their values, but their religions are also aligned.

As I was reading the book, I felt that he is the kind of person I could be friends with.There are lots of similarities between his life learning life experience and mine. The relatively late discovery of religion, the learning through relationships with women of different faith, but ultimately ending with one of the same, the appreciation of multiculturalism and multi-religion, the inspiring effect of the change of scenery or country. There are significant differences between us, of course but they are easier to spot.

I recommend this book if you want to be inspired about youth, religion and understanding. It is written in an easy to follow style, while filled with deep self-reflection. I wish I would have the persistence to think and write the way Patel did.

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