Lutheran Center hosts interfaith seminar series led by Eboo Patel
Throughout the spring semester, the St. Olaf College Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community hosted a virtual seminar titled “Interfaith Leadership for the 21st Century Workplace.” Led by interfaith leader and inaugural Lutheran Center Fellow Eboo Patel and supported by funding from the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) and the To Include is To Excel initiative, the four-part seminar allowed students, faculty, staff, and alumni to learn about interfaith issues in the workplace and have discussions with one another.
Each seminar session focused on one of four interfaith competencies that are crucial for facilitating interfaith awareness and dialogue. The interfaith competencies, identified by Patel and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) — of which Patel is the founder and president — are as follows:
- Building a knowledge base/radar screen around issues of religious diversity
- Building relationships across religious and worldview difference
- Creating opportunities to bring together people who orient around religion differently
- Facilitating interfaith conversations with a religiously diverse group
Patel began each seminar session by presenting on one of the four interfaith competencies. Following his presentation, seminar participants joined Zoom breakout rooms based on their area of vocational interest, including STEM, Pre-Health, Social Impact/Education, Law/Policy/Government, Business, and the Arts. In each breakout room, a Piper Center staff member co-facilitated a conversation with several alumni, who discussed their experiences with interfaith engagement in their own places of work.
“According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), most Americans encounter religious diversity at work far more frequently than in other aspects of life. Therefore employers need employees who work effectively with people who hold views different from their own. Navigating religious diversity is critical to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion yet it is an often-neglected dimension of that work,” says Lutheran Center Director Deanna Thompson.
Most Americans encounter religious diversity at work far more frequently than in other aspects of life. Therefore employers need employees who work effectively with people who hold views different from their own.Lutheran Center Director Deanna Thompson
The seminar continued the Lutheran Center’s partnership with Patel, which began in the fall of 2020. St. Olaf chose Patel’s book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, as the 2020 Common Read. The Common Read is an annual program that brings all new St. Olaf students together around a common text. After reading Acts of Faith, students engaged in conversations about the book and attended virtual presentations and discussions with Patel in October. Since then, Patel has been named the inaugural Lutheran Center Fellow.
“We’ve loved partnering with Eboo and Interfaith Youth Core. His vision of interfaith work — to be unabashedly committed to one’s own tradition while being committed to engaging with others across religious differences — connects powerfully to the Lutheran Center’s and St. Olaf’s mission of being rooted in Lutheran tradition and engaging all traditions and worldviews,” Thompson says. “Eboo models so well being a devout Muslim who simultaneously encourages individuals and institutions to be public about their values, and to work toward a common vision for life together. Throughout the four sessions of the seminar, Eboo’s approach to interreligious engagement has invited students, faculty, staff, and alumni into new conversations about religion and the role it plays in so many of our lives, including our work lives.”
Sam Bailey ’21 attended all four sessions of the seminar. Bailey, a political science and economics major with a concentration in international relations, aims to pursue a career in public policy and international affairs. He appreciated how the seminar complemented previous class discussions on identity and personal values and added a new element — faith — to those conversations.
“One of my key takeaways from the seminar was that faith identity is often left out of diversity discussions despite its importance to many people. It is important to include interfaith work in diversity and inclusion discussions when you think about all the aspects of life that faith can shape: work and worship schedules, dietary needs, personal relationships, career motivations, and more,” Bailey says. “Obviously, interfaith dialogues are not going to lead to agreement on everything, but these discussions are essential to shaping respectful relationships.”
The breakout room conversations allowed Bailey to consider how faith identity might impact his career. As someone interested in working in the public sector and community development organizations, Bailey aims to be mindful of the diverse religious backgrounds of his future colleagues as well as those he hopes to serve.
Having some level of baseline understanding of religious backgrounds different from my own is one step toward a more productive relationship. But the next step is having an idea of how that background shapes the frames through which someone interprets and interacts with the world.Sam Bailey ’21
“Having some level of baseline understanding of religious backgrounds different from my own is one step towards a more productive relationship. But the next step is having an idea of how that background shapes the frames through which someone interprets and interacts with the world,” Bailey says. “Whether working with various business leaders in my hometown or hosting cultural exchange programs for the U.S. State Department, I am going to be working alongside people with different faith identities in addition to their racial, economic, ethnic, and gender identities.”
Mary Barbosa-Jerez, Head of Strategy for Library Collections and Archives at St. Olaf, says the seminar series was the first opportunity she has had to talk with colleagues about how shared values and beliefs can inform their work together.
I’ve often worked with people of different faiths, and have been both aware of their beliefs and spoken with them about them, but those conversations were always framed within the contexts of our private lives. What I have not talked about at work with colleagues of any faith — even though I’ve worked the majority of my life for faith-based institutions — is how our faiths, religious beliefs, and practices shape our work together, so this was the most striking thing I took away from Patel’s seminar.Head of Strategy for Library Collections and Archives Mary Barbosa-Jerez
“I’ve often worked with people of different faiths, and have been both aware of their beliefs and spoken with them about them, but those conversations were always framed within the contexts of our private lives,” she says. “What I have not talked about at work with colleagues of any faith — even though I’ve worked the majority of my life for faith-based institutions — is how our faiths, religious beliefs, and practices shape our work together, so this was the most striking thing I took away from Patel’s seminar. I’d never been offered a clear sense of what it might look like to do that. Now I feel like I have a ground on which I can build. Patel’s tying of faith to the values-in-action work of Jane Addam’s Hull House and Habitat for Humanity’s Theology of the Hammer, as well as the examples he offered of real people (the ambulance drivers in Israel, one Muslim and one Jewish, praying during their shift), really helped me think about how we can engage together not just as people who have different faiths that we’re willing to share with one another as part of knowing each other as ‘whole persons,’ but to think about the ways we can bring our faith-based values and beliefs, in clearly articulated ways, directly to the work we do together for common cause.”
Norma Charlton, the Taylor Center Assistant Director for Equity and Intercultural Engagement, says participating in the seminar has been a source of inspiration for her intercultural engagement and programming ideas for the upcoming year.
“I liked that the four-session structure took me on a learning path that went from a stage of awareness on how our religious, spiritual, or secular identity is shaping the current national landscape and how it shows up in our personal and work life, to a final action-oriented reflection on how to create inclusive spaces and conversations for connections to be developed across lines of difference,” she says.
I liked that the four-session structure took me on a learning path that went from a stage of awareness on how our religious, spiritual, or secular identity is shaping the current national landscape and how it shows up in our personal and work life, to a final action-oriented reflection on how to create inclusive spaces and conversations for connections to be developed across lines of difference.Assistant Director for Equity and Intercultural Engagement Norma Charlton
Thompson notes that creating these inclusive spaces is increasingly important.
“At St. Olaf, we have a lot of opportunities to reflect on vocation, not simply in terms of a career path but also in terms of all the aspects of identity that make up who we are and influence the paths we pursue in life. The Interfaith Leadership Seminar offers a unique opportunity for St. Olaf students, faculty, staff, and alumni to reflect together on how people orient around religion differently, not just in their personal lives but in their professional lives as well,” Thompson says. “As our workplaces become more diverse in all sorts of ways — including religiously — it is really important to think about where and how religious diversity shows up in workplace contexts, and how we might be better equipped to navigate those differences in supportive and productive ways.”