Thursday, May 17, 2012

Acts of Faith, Part I

I just finished reading the book Acts of Faith. It is the autobiography of Eboo Patel, an Indian Muslim, who details his lifelong journey of discovering himself in pluralistic America.

His story starts in the suburbs of Chicago, during his childhood, when Eboo begins recognizing how different he is from his peers: immigrant, Indian, tan skinned, and Muslim. Being a youth, he naturally wanted acceptance by his peers but found his ethnicity an obstacle. He'd ask himself, "What can I do to make the popular white kids at school accept me?" and "What's the big deal [with eating pork?]" (p. 23). If there were any satisfying answers, they had to support him blending into his surroundings -- the "land of gray snow and white Catholics" (p. 21). Otherwise, he was busy losing his distinctness by ridding "the last vestiges of tradition" (p. 24) from his identity. He made it so after years of considerable effort. Transforming into his peers, Eboo even "adopted their sneer" towards anyone seemingly too ethnic; viewing such people as an "inferior breed" (p. 23).

Erasing his culture paid off initially. For example, he obtained his first all-American white girlfriend, Lisa, a Mormon, in high school. Their "relationship lasted just over a year" (p. 35) and was the typical teenage romance filled with movie going, dining out, parks and kissing; it was also his first deep exposure into the world of different religions. He couldn't eat pork, but, she couldn't drink soda pop. Sometimes they discussed the Book of Mormon and who goes to Heaven according to her theology. Would he? Would his devout Ismaili grandmother? Surely, Lisa "wanted nothing more than [Eboo] to convert" (p. 35); he was receptive to her religious overtures but it wasn't in his heart: "I was in love with a Mormon, but agnostic about Mormonism" (p. 36). He was nominally Muslim and had no religious aspirations, but Lisa was devout and determined -- perhaps destined -- to live according to Mormon principles. Without his conversion, did their relationship have a future? He realized not and "cried like a baby" (p. 36) upon their separation. Their core values were just too different to remain a couple. As high school ended, so did they.

College surprised Eboo. Suddenly he was surrounded by men and women who embraced their own ethnicity and culture. In fact, it went beyond that; students voluntarily segregated themselves and were "fiercely proud and protective of their own zones" (p. 38). Some even dropped their English name for their native tongue. Many were in the process of "de-whitening" to reclaim their original heritage. Eboo neither understood nor internalized these choices until he smiled at a beautiful white girl who rebuffed him with a look of disgust. "The problem was not with my skin," he theorized, "it was with her eyes" (p. 39). Dawning was the realization that he spent all his teenage years idolizing so-called white culture, trying so hard to be white, and yet was still an outsider. Frustrated, he adopted the prevailing Marxist attitude of his college peers, who believed that Western civilization was an oppressive power structure built to benefit white men and demean all else. "My response was to rage" (p. 41) at all injustice, he said, and all injustice he perceived through the lens of identity politics.

Although his "head was swimming with radical theories" and his "spirit bursting with anger" (p. 42), Eboo's new-found politics benefited nobody. It was all ethereal. He was not improving anyone's life by simply debating political theory. Desiring to complement his theory with practice, he decided to perform community service: playing guitar for the elderly, cooking for women in shelters, and delivering baked goods to the Salvation Army. This brought him satisfaction. Oddly, Eboo's college peers dismissed his efforts as simply perpetuating "the system" (capitalism). Unless the solution was radical, like totally destroying current social structures, they were not interested. However, this criticism did not dissuade him; Eboo saw an undeniable connection between performing service and bettering society. Building a house, for example, was a step towards ending poverty. Furthermore, organizations that sponsored service brought "together people from different racial, ethnic, class, and geographic background" (pp. 43-44).

Out of his different service activities, Eboo met Sarah, a beautiful Jewish girl, who would become his "second serious relationship" (p. 45). Judaism was central to Sarah's identity but she was not a strict adherent. In contrast with Lisa "whose religiosity was based on notions of truth, Sarah's was based on commitment to peoplehood and social justice" (pp. 46-47). This relationship exposed him to the truths of religious persecution and genocide -- especially the Holocaust. Even he found a personal connection with the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia's then-present civil war. Slowly, Eboo was discovering religion. He was also discovering that religion was curiously absent from all his sociopolitical theories.

"Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place?" wrote Dorothy Day. Eboo discovered the writings of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. She was captivating; her integration of service and politics was exactly what Eboo wanted. Whereas Eboo had mutually exclusive friends for each, her community brought the two aspects together. When he went to visit Catholic Worker houses, he marveled how loving the service workers were to the people. They were humble, relied on prayer, admitted to being "adequate instruments for Him" (p. 51), and deferred their success to God. Their attitude stood in direct contradiction to the "anger and self-righteousness" (p. 51) of his Marxist friends. Those friends "deified the individual" (p. 53); they relied on their own strength to remedy society, but love for humanity was absent.

During this time of religious awakening for Eboo, Sarah was also deepening her Jewish roots. She took a semester in Israel, delved into Jewish history, and explored the sufferings of the Palestinians. Sarah "was heartbroken" (p. 55) to find suffering existed on both sides. She also found pressure to strengthen her Jewish identity and preserve her traditions. When Eboo came to visit, she admitted to struggling with their relationship: "The most important thing to people here is that you marry another Jew" (p. 56). Why not rebel against the pressure? Why let someone tell you how to live? This made no sense to Eboo, at first, but "then [he] realized something: Sarah wanted that" (p. 58). Sarah wanted to embrace her Jewish identity wholly, which meant enjoining herself to the rules of her community. He "started sobbing" (p. 58). As college ended, he found another relationship ending due to divergent religious paths.

Back in the States, Eboo befriended Brother Wayne, a Catholic monk, who "had spent years at an ashram in India, where he took vows in a Hindu monastic tradition" (p. 59). This man was involved in the interfaith movement. He was convinced "the great religions of the world would come together and affirm their common values" (p. 61) soon enough, but the movement needed new blood. He suggested Eboo play a leadership role; Eboo assented. In the meantime, Eboo and six activist pals decided to form a community dedicated to service. They rented a vacant convent from a nearby Catholic parish; they lived together at night and were "actively helping others through [their] professional work" (p. 68) during the day. For example, Eboo tutored high school seniors with fifth-grade reading level skills. Something was still missing: "I loved my work as a teacher, and I loved the people I was living with, but however I combined community, justice, and creativity, it did not add up to identity" (p. 69).

Still looking for himself, Eboo and a friend, Kevin, began attending interfaith events with Brother Wayne. One time after Brother Wayne finished a talk, he introduced them onstage as "the next generation, a Muslim and a Jew who are building the interfaith youth movement" (p. 69). Eboo had two problems with this description. First, he did not identify himself as a Muslim; both actually wanted to become Buddhists because of Brother Wayne. Second, where was Chicago's interfaith youth movement? It didn't exist! This fact didn't trouble Brother Wayne; he encouraged them to continue "dreaming out loud" (p. 71) so to make it a reality. They did just that. Ironically, Eboo was back to the ethereal.

Bemoaning talk after talk, Eboo and Kevin were about to quit. However, their lagging interest was halted by an international interfaith organization inviting them to a conference at Stanford. Rather than more "excruciatingly boring" (p. 71) speeches, this organization wanted to "network various local interfaith groups and coordinate their activities" (p. 72) to achieve global social justice. This greatly excited them. At the conference, Eboo encountered young men and women from other countries and other religions. Like him, all had a common experience: "faith formation had occurred in the midst of religious diversity, and serving others was a core part of how we lived our religions" (p. 73). He reflected back on his past and realized how his service work lacked religious diversity. Hoping to continue this interfaith experience after the conference, he drafted plans to form service communities based on religious diversity. It was a hit with everyone he told! This confirmed that "anger-based activism goes only a fraction of the distance that compassion-based approaches do" (p. 75).

It was now time to discover his roots. He and Kevin boarded a plan to visit his extended family in India. Would he finally feel at home? Would his Ismaili grandmother and cousins validate his identity? The journey provoked surprised feelings of anger towards America. Eboo lamented America as a place "that seduced me into adopting its styles and its scorn, forced me to sacrifice my true heritage.... I would never be anything but a second-class citizen there" (p. 78). Landing in Bombay, his first line of business was to strengthen his Indian identity by wearing native garb (pajamas). This greatly bemused his extended family; blue jeans were now the common Indian fashion and, naturally, "the best blue jeans you get [are] in the States" (p. 79). Undeterred, he went out to shop, which exposed him to the real India. His idealization of "home" slowly frayed: neither drivers nor pedestrians obeyed road signs, chickens and goats rode on public buses, everyone spoke Hindi but him, and anyone marginally wealthy had servants.

His grandmother had three servants. They "slept on thin mats; ... swept the floors; cleaned the bathrooms; did the laundry and the dishes; cooked and served and took away the food" (p. 83). Eboo felt great discomfort over this fact; he felt like a "slave driver watching them go" (p. 84). Even more of a fact is how deeply ingrained class structure was in India; it dictated not only your job but your destiny. For example, her servants lived to be servants, and they did not aspire a better lot. Working in America meant you wanted to get ahead; working in India meant you were lower class; Indians of higher class did not work. Eboo was powerless to fix India's class system, but, by seeing his land of heritage personally with all its inequalities, he began to appreciate America in comparison. Thinking back to his college days, when students separated themselves into (racial) classes and formed a society of strict boundaries, that idea better resembled India than America. Nay, America was about "rejecting separatism in favor of the hope of pluralism" (p. 89) that betters society for everyone. Pluralism was home; thus America.

After returning from India with newly kindled Muslim belief, he went to earn his doctorate and establish his dream youth interfaith organization. In between all this, he was about to meet his future wife. "She's a civil rights attorney, she's beautiful, she's Indian, she's Muslim" (p. 151) were the words of Kevin. He knew a woman, Shehnaz, for Eboo to date. They grew up around Chicago, grew up as Indian Muslims, went to the same college together (unwittingly), and have grandparents from the same part of India: "Gujarat, land of merchants and mustaches" (p. 172). Both practiced Islam of a different tinge; him Ismaili and her Sufi. In a way this was another interfaith relationship for Eboo. Perhaps fearing a repeat of Lisa and Sarah, he did ask her to convert. She refused, "It's actually not a small step to adopt the Ismaili position. It's like a Protestant becoming Catholic and adding to her belief in Jesus and the Bible the idea and authority of the pope" (p. 173). However, Eboo found comfort in their shared prayer life and grew to appreciate their diversity.

Eboo and Shehnaz were married in Bombay, India.