(RNS) — Earlier this summer, Eboo Patel got a message saying an anonymous donor was interested in supporting the work of the Interfaith Youth Core, the Chicago-based nonprofit he founded in 2002.
Patel sent IFYC’s newly completed strategic plan to a representative for the donor, along with budget documents and other financials. He did an interview about the nonprofit’s work in promoting interfaith cooperation and social justice.
Two weeks later he got a phone call.
IFYC would receive a $6 million gift from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
“I about fell out of my chair when I heard,” said Patel, “with lots of thanks to God in the process.”
The grant, announced in late July, was one of 116 to a series of nonprofits from Scott, who has pledged to give away the bulk of her fortune.
Patel, an author, speaker and interfaith activist, said the grant came just at the right time.
America, he said, is facing a series of pandemics, from COVID-19 and racial injustice to the current economic crisis and political polarization. Interfaith cooperation, he said, can play a major role in addressing those pandemics and healing the nation.
Patel spoke to RNS recently about the major gift and IFYC’s vision for Interfaith America.
You’ve said that interfaith cooperation can play a key role in addressing national crises. Tell us more about how that has worked in the past?
The nation can move forward in dramatic ways, in moments like this.
In the mid-20th century, amid the crisis of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, the crisis of the Depression and World War II, the National Coalition of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice) advanced the idea of Judeo-Christian America.
We would like to meet this moment by advancing the idea of Interfaith America. The truth is that it already exists on the ground. The idea is that we welcome, recognize and respect spiritual and religious diversity from atheists to Zoroastrians, and we nurture bridges and cooperation between those people.
What will this grant allow you to do?
We’re going to be dramatically expanding our online programs. Our first major effort in this is a campaign called “We Are Each Other’s” — with an awesome opening video.
We’re going to be supporting our alums, particularly in work around racial justice. And we’re going to be launching a major new initiative about racial justice and interfaith leadership.
Does this new grant allow you to be more ambitious?
If we hadn’t just completed a plan, I think that the answer would be very different. But we’ve spent a year in a strategic planning process.
With media, the plan had us doing all of this work with online education. It had us expanding our work in helping colleges with diversity and interfaith strategic plans. So this is like a charge to the existing plan.
In every area, we get to be more ambitious.
And you’ll be doing more work on racial justice and interfaith cooperation.
That hearkens back to the beginnings of IFYC. The formative moments for me in interfaith work were racial and interracial justice work. It was in racial justice work that I discovered interfaith cooperation. It was because of my interest in the struggle in South Africa. It was because of my interest in the civil rights movement.
As I got deeper into those movements, I realized that at the heart of them was interfaith cooperation. In a lot of ways, this moment brings me full circle back to those early years of being really inspired by the interfaith cooperation on racial justice movements.
And I have to say, it is the students and alumni network at IFYC that have pushed me on this issue.
They’re the ones who’ve been out in the streets for the last five, eight years. They’re the ones that have been saying to me, you need to be paying attention to this. This is at the core of what you say your values are. They shifted the paradigm, and I am proud to be following them. Because of them, we are able to advance a really robust initiative called racial justice and interfaith leadership.
Right now Americans are divided over faith and politics — between this idea that America has been a nation where White Christians were in charge and the reality that America is diverse will be diverse and pluralistic. How can Interfaith America help navigate these divides?
This is the time for redemption and reconciliation. And the beloved community is the idea that all of us have a way forward together — I am building a world in which you will also thrive.
We use this image of a potluck supper and not a melting pot. Yeah, bring your distinctive contribution. Let us recognize your identity. We want your great-grandfather’s hummus recipe. We want your great-grandmother’s sourdough bread recipe.
And then the whole community will feast.