St. Olaf College | News

All-Community Read provides a timely reflection on dialogue and community

Screenshot of four students discussing a book over Zoom.
Max Clifford ’22, Ella Koenig ’22, Grace Allen ’22, and Eugene Sandel Jr. ’22 (clockwise from top left) discuss Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel as part of the All-Community Read.

St. Olaf College students, faculty, staff, and alumni joined together over the past several months for an All-Community Read of Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

The book details Patel’s personal development as he searches for identity and acceptance as a Muslim in the United States and the development of his vision of religious pluralism as a topic of unification, not division. 

“I think through the All-Community Read we were able to have fruitful conversations not only about Patel’s struggle, but the obstacles that many community members face in terms of figuring out their own identities in America,” says Jasmine Alvarado ’21, a Spanish major at St. Olaf who led book group discussions on campus. 

This is the college’s first All-Community Read, and it was open to all students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents, and friends of the College. Participants read the book within their affinity groups and participated in guided conversations over Zoom. The All-Community Read builds on the Common Read, a college tradition that was revived at St. Olaf in 2019 to provide incoming students with a book that encourages deep thinking on social issues.

This year’s All-Community Read — sponsored by the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community, with support from the College’s To Include is To Excel grant — aimed to foster connection and dialogue among all students, faculty, staff, and alumni. A survey last spring indicated that many students were feeling disconnected from campus and the St. Olaf community after being sent home in March due to the pandemic. That prompted the Lutheran Center staff to brainstorm ways they could help foster connection and community, and the idea of the All-Community Read was born.

The All-Community Read comes ahead of Patel’s virtual visit to St. Olaf on October 29 and 30, which all are welcome to join. In addition to his keynote address on October 29 at 7 p.m., Patel will meet with campus leaders and students to hold broad discussions about race and interfaith issues.

Students who were interested in taking a leadership role in the All-Community Read were paired up with a faculty or staff member to help them curate their own ideas and lead dialogue among their peers. 

Emma Rosen ’23, a music major, found that her most valuable takeaway “is that we as youth are capable of making change even if the obstacles seem insurmountable.” She also noted the depth of her group’s discussion of the role of faith in everyday life and the potential pitfalls of assumptions about the belief systems of others. 

Corina Rahmig ’02, leader of the West Coast’s book club, expressed her appreciation for Patel’s message of oneness as well as the chance to reconnect with other alumni to discuss experiences beyond her own. “This was a blessing in disguise, because it’s not a book I ever would have picked up on my own or been drawn to! [I was] exposed to different types of writing, cultures I know little about, and topics I rarely think about,” she says.

Lutheran Center Director Deanna Thompson ’89, the Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy, called Patel’s Acts of Faith “the single most influential book I’ve had the privilege to teach,” and affirmed that students often feel the same, identifying it as “one of the most transformative books they read in their college career.”

In addition to his role as an author, Patel is also the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that works toward “an America where people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions can bridge differences and find common values to build a shared life together.” Patel is also a member of former President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. 

Kathleen Maxwell ’17, who has followed the work of Patel for a while, led the Midwest book club. She was grateful to read the book alongside other alumni and discuss themes that were surprisingly familiar yet different from her own. “The book gave me a lens to see the Chicago suburbs, which I grew up in, from a vantage point I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I think Patel’s story is important, and I think it’s especially important in a world of increasing polarization and exclusion.”