Champion by huangyuarong



      The Interfaith Movement at the University of Illinois
An in depth study of the Interfaith in Action RSO and it’s involvement on the UIUC

                              Tiffany Champion
                        EUI Research Project Spring 2011
                                   AAS 256


         There are two things you should never talk about in mixed company: religion and

politics. In today’s society, that age-old axiom has become an accepted guideline for

conversation. So what happens when a registered student organization (RSO) confronts

one of those forbidden topics head on? Interfaith in Action, roughly eight years old, is

still a relatively new addition to the long list of RSO’s at the University of Illinois. While

Interfaith movements have been going on for over a century, it has been slowly gaining

more momentum in the past couple of decades. University of Illinois alumnus Eboo Patel

is one of the leaders of the movement. Eboo is the founder and executive director of the

constantly expanding Interfaith Youth Core, which works with college campuses to

establish the ideals of the Interfaith movement. These still evolving organizations were

recently thrust into the spotlight when President Obama came out introducing the

Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge. For such a fresh movement to be

getting such monumental attention, I felt it deserved some research. What exactly is the

Interfaith movement, anyways? How does it relate to our campus? And, most important,

why should we care?

         I discovered that there is a core group of people leading the movement on the

UIUC campus. My interviews included Amy1, current president of Interfaith in Action

(IIA), Pip, who is the President for the next school year and also was an Intern at the

Interfaith Youth Core headquarters last summer, Harry, who is the Treasurer and Vice

President of Community Outreach and four-year-veteran of IIA, Carlisle, who works at

the U of I Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Resources and is the university advisor for

1   All names have been changed


IIA, and a member of IIA who works at the Women’s Resource Center. Each person

provided a unique perspective on the importance, successes, obstacles and outlook of IIA.

I noticed many common themes such as apathy, structure, funding, inability to

communicate and an unfocused mission came up as things IIA must work against in order

to grow.


                                   A little bit of context.
       The idea of Interfaith is to create positive and cooperative interactions between

people of faith and non-faith backgrounds. Followers hope to foster respect and

understanding across religious and non-religious communities to end violence and to

promote a common good.

       One would be remiss to talk about the Interfaith movement, particularly as it

pertains to the U of I campus, without mentioning Eboo Patel. He graduated from U of I

and went on to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. In 1998, Eboo attended an

Interfaith Conference at Stanford University where he realized that he and his friends

were the only young people in attendance. Together, they questioned the absence of any

religious movement led by the younger generations. As a solution, they came up with the

Interfaith Youth Core, which was incorporated in 2002 with just one staff person. Since,

IFYC has grown.

       Its main mission is to have people of different faith and non-faith traditions come

together to combat a common goal (such as hunger or environmental concerns). IFYC

believes that these meaningful encounters can foster religious cooperation instead of

conflict. This idea comes from observations that throughout many religious texts, a


similar message surfaces: to give back to those in need. IFYC focuses on this similarity to

foster a common ground across religious and non-religious traditions. My interviewees

also stressed the importance of storytelling to the Interfaith Movement. Storytelling not

only provides the opportunity for someone to learn about another person’s life

experiences but it allows the storyteller to re-evaluate and analyze their own story as

well. For that reason I’ve decided that in some situations I will refrain from paraphrasing

the words of my interviewees and, instead, allow them to speak for themselves.

       Though IIA is not a subset of IFYC, the two are very connected. Members have

attended IFYC leadership institutes, have worked as interns at the IFYC headquarters in

Chicago, are alumni coaches for other campuses and are Better Together2 delegates. As a

result, the world of IIA does often mirrors the mission of IFYC.


                       What exactly is it? What have they done?

       Legend has it that Eboo Patel founded the Interfaith in Action organization, but

President of IIA Amy says this is most likely just wishful thinking. The organization is

actually only seven or eight years old. Amy comes from a religiously eclectic

background: her father was a Buddhist and her mother was a Mormon but they decided to

raise their children as Lutheran. Now an Agnostic, Amy majors in religious studies and

has been a member of IIA for two years. Last year she participated in the Million Meals

for Haiti event, which garnered national attention.

2 Better Together is a yearlong campaign where students work on a service project
that can 1) Empower Students to be leaders 2) Create a campus that is heavily
involved in the Interfaith Movement 3) Spark a global movement.


       Million Meals came from the mind of Harry, a U of I alumnus that is now an

MD/PhD student. He remembered being chided as a kid for not eating all the food on his

plate, listening to his parents remind him that there are starving children that would

appreciate what he had been given. Well, he thought, why not just send it to them? And

ultimately, that’s exactly what they did. In just twelve hours, people from all different

backgrounds helped package 1,102,640 meals to send to the devastated Haiti.

        Harry: We originally set out to raise $6,000, which was a lofty goal. But then, as
the idea spread, we were met with a lot of enthusiasm and caught a lot of support in the
community. That project, at least in my mind, is the pinnacle, the climax of Interfaith on
our campus. That was an event where we had 5,200 people come through and do a
service project together. I think ever since then we’ve really been riding in the wake of
that event. Two things have happened now – we’ve gotten a bit of a reputation on campus
and the other thing is that we have a bit of a reputation in the broader Interfaith
        Over and over again, I heard about the reputation Interfaith in Action had earned

from this event. Million Meals for Haiti was hailed as a hugely successful Interfaith

project and U of I, Eboo’s alma mater, suddenly became a poster-child for IFYC. In my

fourth interview, I once again asked the question about the successes of IIA and once

again was directed to Million Meals. What started to pique my interest was the fact that

singing the praises of Million Meals, an event that took place over a year ago, drowned

any words of what has been happening since. Has U of I been maintaining it’s image as a

leader of the Interfaith movement on college campuses? I went back through my notes to

see what I could find.


        Pip was an intern at where she was trained in the methods of spreading the ideals

of IFYC to UIUC. Next year, Pip will take on the role as IIA President and is currently

the Vice President of Campus Outreach.

        Pip: Right now, we’re targeting religious education around identity. Because no
one is talking about it, no one really knows what that means. They have a vague idea and
maybe a stereotypical idea. We’re trying to combat that lack of awareness through
sustainable events. Just get people talking about it so they go back to their roommates
and start talking about it and eventually it becomes normal for people to ask questions
about faith. I feel like U of I is in a bubble and I get this impression that it’s stagnant.
There’s no change, there’s no growth, it’s still pretty segregated. It’s not actively trying
to stay segregated it’s just that no one has addressed how we change it.

        The sustainable event Pip refers to is the Speedfaithing Series. This semester, IIA

held a regular event that focused on a new religion. The beginning of the dialogue would

consist of a presentation of the basic tenants, beliefs, and stereotypes of the religion and

then the rest of the time was dedicated to having a conversation with everyone in

attendance. The Speedfaithing Series covered Roman Catholicism, the Rastafarian

movement, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism and Paganism. IIA found that in holding these

recurring dialogues, they retained more people and heard more interest in the idea of

interfaith from attendees.

        Otherwise, the events held by Interfaith have been somewhat scattered and

nowhere near the scale of Million Meals. Amy says they’ve focused heavily on the

Muslim experience this year, holding a somewhat heavily attended event (around 40-50

people) surrounding Park51, putting together a panel discussion on the Muslim and Sikh

experience post 9/11 as a response to the shooting and protests in California, and then the

subsequent Speedfaithing events about these two religions. She says they’ve paid


particular care to this topic and will continue to do so in the fall with the tenth

anniversary of 9/11 coming up. I noticed their programs were very reactionary, relying on

world events to give reason for putting on a program. The Speedfaithing Series, new this

semester, was the most sustainable and pro-active event they held and, what I believe to

be no coincidence, it had the most success. Though IIA is one of only two RSO’s that

target Interfaith (the other may dissolve after only one year of existence, urging members

to instead join IIA), very few people know that IIA is around and even fewer know what

it’s about.

        A possible turning point came when President Obama announced the President’s

Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. To encourage Interfaith efforts on

a collegiate level, he offered White House recognition to the universities that best

combined community service and religious education in a yearlong project. The members

of IIA immediately set to work to make the University of Illinois a contender for this

recognition. Even though members of IIA lead it, this initiative will actually be a separate

entity from the RSO. With the carrot of national recognition hanging in front of the

university adminisration, it has responded quicker than any other initiatives put forth by

the RSO on it’s own.

        Amy: We’ve been given the go ahead as long as we partner with other groups.
We don’t want this to be an Interfaith in Action only initiative. We want this to become
part of the university that other students can lead and take charge. It’s really a university
program because that’s the goal – to have universities become Interfaith, not just to have
a small group of students.

        Coming together in this project is the U of I Office of Volunteer Programs (OVP),

Volunteer Illini Projects (VIP), Illini Union Board, Office of Vice Chancellor of Student


Affairs, and the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations. They have already

submitted a letter of intent and are now in the process of meeting with RSO’s to set up an

advisory board.

       The members of IIA see this as a step towards legitimizing the Interfaith

movement on campus, a factor they cited as being an obstacle to getting their message

out. While IIA has a strong executive board, their general membership is inconsistent.

Some events attract 50 people while others only have the board members in attendance.

       Harry: It was fall of my Sophomore year where I held a film screening at Altgeld
Hall in the big lecture…and three people came. I was the fourth person in the room. And
one of those people attending was my roommate, another was a friend of mine and a
third was some girl that I didn’t know. So, in some respect, there was only one outside
person attending this film screening. To me, that was sort of the low point of the
Interfaith movement on this campus. That’s not to say that our campus was extremely
bigoted at that point, it’s just that the involvement of Interfaith dialogue at that time was
very low from our perspective.

       The image of success that IFYC has placed on IIA doesn’t quite seem to mesh

with the still-evolving RSO struggling to find its place. But why?


                             What are the problems of IIA?
       If Interfaith could pull off such a monumental event, what was stopping it from

continuing in a pattern of excellence? It functions successfully as an RSO but not, in my

observation, in a manner to maintain any outstanding prestige. But then, as Harry points

out, IIA is just an RSO.

       Harry: The obstacles we run into as a student organization are typical student
organization obstacles. We don’t have much money, we don’t have great organization,
we have busy leaders who can’t be at everything and can’t keep up with everything


necessarily. We don’t always communicate as well as we should. If you could correct all
those factors, we could do incredible things. Things beyond what we’re doing now. One
of our biggest obstacles is just knowing how to do things.
        When I asked about obstacles, one resounding response was the sheer magnitude

of the university. It seems counter intuitive that a campus so rich with resources would

provide the least response but as Amy has found while talking with other Better Together

leaders, it’s the reality.

        Amy: Because the University of Illinois is such a large campus, one of the way we
differ is that on smaller private campuses there might not be enough students for there to
be, say, a Muslim Student Association, a Sikh Student Association, or a Hillel. So
Interfaith may be the only place that they have to engage their faith and meet other
people of their own tradition. While we have a lot of students who are really passionate
about Interfaith, we have such large communities of Muslim students, of Jewish students
or Christian students that are so large and so self-contained that they don’t need us to
facilitate any dialogues for them.
        The students are simply spread too thin. Compound that with what my

interviewees label as apathy and a general disconnect, IIA struggles to maintain the

attention of more than a handful of people at an institution of over 40,000. For Pip, she

sees this as a major resistor to their cause not only in regards to the student body but also

within the university structure. Pip has stayed connected with other IFYC interns and has

observed the differences between the Interfaith movement at UIUC as compared to other

campuses. She’s also noticed some areas where the Interfaith movement itself needs to


        Pip: A fellow intern went back to his university and they already have added an
Interfaith part of the administration. They named him the Interfaith chair and he’s in
charge of Interfaith programming. There are even Interfaith housing abilities. There’s a
really big differences in how small colleges are accepting and how this large university


is. And I’m not going to lie: I think this is low on the list of priorities. Right now, I think
it’s dealing with an identity issue and there’s not a lot of money out there. We’re
basically just trying to survive.
        I think the Interfaith movement needs to understand what is at stake with other
movements. Women’s rights are not fully granted, minority rights aren’t fully granted.
These are all issues that are at risk and all kind of stem from not being included in
America’s fabric right now. They aren’t completely exclusive and they at least need to be
recognized and addressed and I feel like pretending that they are exclusive sometimes
hampers the point or the communication that Interfaith could have with other people on
campus. Those issues are already pretty established and those people will be more likely
to say that yeah, women’s rights are an important part of democracy and so are religious
rights. Because they’re both being marginalized, why could you accept one and not
accept the other? The argument is that if you talk about too many things then your
argument dies off. It doesn’t have to mean that Interfaith doesn’t have to be a fighter for,
say, women’s rights. But Interfaith could recognize that, like women, religious people are
being secluded. That some religions aren’t being allowed full access to society.
        Pip also looks at the demographic of the students at U of I. She says that other

campuses may have a specific identity that attracts students whereas at UIUC, many

students just come to get their degree. For Harry, geography is also a contributing factor.

He believes that students can’t see beyond the cornfields, that Champaign-Urbana is so

isolated that it’s difficult to muster up any passion on topics not directly relating the

student body.

        Harry: I look at the organizations on our campus and, in my mind, there are very
few that have a mission as important as what we do. At an event we held recently, a
student commented that news about these things don’t reach our campus. To me, that
means this student isn’t picking up the free versions of the New York Times but it also
reflects something that I think describes a good part of the student body. There really is
no effort to listen to what’s going on in the world around us. There are boundaries
around our campus, geographically. I can go 20 minutes in any direction and find a


cornfield. A college campus that is in a large urban setting…you can’t escape the
overlap. It’s easier to go out and interact with people in the real world. It’s hard to do
that in a town that is only a college. That’s not an excuse – there are plenty of ways to
listen to what’s going on in the world around us. Look at what’s happening in Northern
Africa. That happened because people came together to protest. You can’t do that here,
you can’t do that on a college campus. You can’t get people to come together and protest
something happening in the rest of the world because there’s not enough people in
Champaign Urbana who have this broader impact on our nation or our world. That sort
of a demonstration here wouldn’t mean anything. We lose that interest on our campus
because this isn’t a place where things are happening in politics and major world events.


    Why is the Interfaith Movement important anyways? And why should UIUC
                                    students care?
      I asked all of my interviewees this question to gauge where, or if, they think U of

I needs to improve on the level of Interfaith. The one definitive event that was brought up

was Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, an event from last year. While I am going to

leave this section to the voice of my interviewees, I want to preface with what this event


       It all started with an episode of South Park. Artists planned to have an episode

depicting major religious figures and they decided to include Muhammad. As depictions

of Prophet Muhammad are against Islamic beliefs, the episode was pulled. Fast forward

to a little cartoon artist who felt that this was a violation of free speech and created the

idea of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (which is exactly how it sounds). The idea

exploded and took place all over the country. U of I was the stage for one of these events.

One member of IIA was directly part of the decision making for the event as she attended

the meetings of the RSO that put it on (Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers).


        Member: I was a big resister of the idea. Some of us had written the Muslim
Student Association to let them know that is was going to happen and that we were trying
to stop them. I don’t think the University responded very well to that event. I think part of
it is that there is, besides the religious workers association, there really aren’t units right
now that work specifically on religious diversity. There really wasn’t a governing body at
university to give guidance to how that should be addressed at the university level. There
were people who would never consider themselves Islamophobic who participated in that
event. They drew stick figures and labeled them Muhammad. Their response was that it
was just a stick figure and yeah it is, but a swastika is just a couple lines and the
Confederate flag is just a flag. We give objects meaning. I think it’s a lack of literacy but
at the same time it’s a lack of empathy and a lack of caring. It’s hard to change people’s
minds who just don’t have it in their value system to care.
        Here, I asked her if she felt that UIUC was more progressive or more

conservative. Looking out the window, she chuckled.

        Member: I’m smiling because as you’re saying this, there’s a guy walking near
the Alma Mater with a big sign that says “Trust Jesus”. I think that’s very reflective of
our campus. There’s such diversity here that it’s hard for me to say it’s one way or
another but I will say that I think the climate here is not great. I think there is serious
racism in our community, which bleeds over into everything else. [If someone were to
have the same sign that said “Trust Allah”] there would be rallying in the streets. This
would be a terrorist campus. That is, apart of just calling it Islamophobia, that is
Christian privilege. That is being able to stand on the quad and shout to the heavens who
you are and have nobody be concerned because you are not a threat. But it is a threat –
it’s a threat to justice and equality on the campus. It’s just not being mindful. It’s thinking
that you are the only person that matters, that you are the only person you need to be
conscience of. They’re the people standing on the quad telling you that you should be like
them, that you should believe what they believe, yet they’re already the most
privileged…it’s just so ignorant. You already have this space! You already own this
university! You can walk wherever you want and nobody will give you crap. If somebody
held up a sign that said Trust in Allah, there would be people calling in saying they were


scared, that they were being attacked. Do I think that would be different on any other
campus? No. That’s the unfortunate climate of our country.
         What she is reflecting on is the idea of Christian privilege, that the University was

created with the Christian in mind and all other beliefs must find ways to adapt. This was

a common theme that arose in my interviews – not only the presence of Christian

privilege but also the apathy and lack of interest in acknowledging/changing it. Carlisle

goes even further in explaining why it’s important for majority members to become

acquainted with minorities.

         Carlisle: without the ability to have real relationships and dialogues and
conversations with folks of different faiths, you don’t understand your own. You
ultimately fracture your community. You say, “oh, my community is only these people
within this space but the fact of the matter is you could live in some Christian gated
community I suppose but that’s not going to be the reality. You’re going to have to move
out into the world and be more thoughtful than that to what it means to be a citizen. The
incentive is being more firmly grounded in your own identity and who you are.
         Carlisle works at OIIR and teaches a class on religious identity. I felt that his

response to the question of the university needing to participate more in topics regarding

religion provided an interesting perspective.

         Carlisle: I worry sometimes, I know that there are a few instances that have
happened since 9/11 but I worry that there’s some underground hostility towards Muslim
students on campus that as an institution we don’t know a lot about. I had a conversation
last semester with a student who wasn’t Muslim but was representative of a group with a
lot of Muslim students and she confided in me. She said, “you know, I’m the only one who
came because the Muslim members of the group don’t believe the university will help.”
I’ve heard that from other minority groups, that mistrust of leadership, of administration,
of criminal justice systems. I think that set off some bells for me. That’s what makes me


       When it comes to our students in particular, Harry sees a distinct calling for the
Interfaith movement. Not necessarily because it’s an intolerant, disrespectful campus but
instead because it’s a campus filled with potential.
       Harry: All you need to do is call up the alumni association and ask them what U
of I alumni are doing, how they’re influencing our nation and trying to change the world.
You’ll find the reason why Illinois students need to be doing Interfaith work. Even though
we start in cornfields in Champaign Urbana, we’re sending students all over the world.
Those students are doing important things. People leaving this campus are people that
are going to be leaders in ten years. I look at the news and read the papers and can’t
think of anything more important than learning to build peace and do positive thing with
people of other faith traditions. It’s still important because we are training the future
leaders who need to be equipped with the tools of Interfaith dialogue and understand the
importance of breaking down these barriers that keep people from working together and
that are causing conflict. I don’t think it needs a conflict on our campus to show the
importance of that.

                            Where are they going from here?
       This year seems to have been a time to settle, to better refine and define what they

plan to accomplish. After floundering in the wake of the monumental success of Million

Meals for Haiti, IIA is working to find a balance. Towards the end of the semester they

seemed to have gotten closer to equilibrium with their Speedfaithing Series. Through trial

and error, they’ve also developed what they call a ‘strategic plan’ where they’ve

concretely defined their mission, the executive positions and the manners in which they

will accomplish their goals. One of their newest perspectives is to get into housing.

       Pip: Freshman year, you come in and everyone gets corralled into Assembly Hall
and some person talks to you about why U of I is so good and diversity and blah blah
blah. But, no one really pays attention and barely remembers what was talking about.
Whereas in housing, I feel like this is where you’re living. You probably have a better


relationship with your RA than you do with that person at Assembly Hall. Those are
places where I think this could be talked about a whole lot more. We’re talking to
housing right now but everything is still in the pre-planning stages. It’s doable and not a
lot has to be changed. And that’s something I’ve noticed – things tend to be more
successful when you’re not trying to completely take something out of thin air. You’re
just adding something.
        Harry wants to see not only changes here but in the language of the university.

        Harry: We want to imbed the spirit of Interfaith into the University’s
infrastructure. We want the language of Interfaith dialogue to be in the vocabulary of our
student affairs professionals. We want our RA’s and our MA’s to know how to facilitate
Interfaith dialogues in a formal setting and also in an informal setting. I think it’s
something that hasn’t reached the level that it should be at yet. I think that it has not
gotten to the level where religion is an ok thing to talk about but you look at how
important religion is to the identity of students on this campus and it should be something
that we talk about. Just in the way that we talk about race and ethnicity and sexual
orientation and all of these different factors of identity. Because of the way that religion
is often a taboo topic that we need something a little more direct in order to bring about
the inclusion that is already implied in our campus’ statement on inclusivity.
        Both of these main goals involve institutionalization. They need direct
support/affirmation/recognition from the university. These would be great launching pads
to propel awareness. However, the level to which the university will partake in
conversations about religion is questionable to me. As a public university, I wonder if
they won’t be wary to endorse Interfaith for fear of coming across as enforcing a
religious perspective on the student body. Thus far, the campus challenge has moved with
the approval of the university but even in these early stages, the university seems to be
moving away from the religious aspect and trying to over-emphasize the service aspect to
compensate. The original list of suggestions for RSO’s to get involved included the
PanHellenic council (Greek Society) but mysteriously lacked any groups based on



         In all of my interviews, I was left with the impression that Interfaith in Action is a

toddler trying to run in shoes two sizes too big. The core group is very passionate and

dedicated to the movement but that doesn’t seem to be enough. In stepping into relatively

uncharted territory, a little RSO has taken the reins in leading a new social movement. It

seems as though all of the things that are touted as positives for U of I are actually

working against them. Yes there is a large student body but they can’t communicate to

everyone; Yes it’s diverse but people tend to fall into segregated groups; Yes it’s a

campus town but they find it difficult to inspire people on topics on the other side of the


         The Interfaith movement is definitely still growing and I don’t think we’ve seen

its climax yet. When IIA does reach out to new people, they are met with interest and

support. I definitely see room for growth as long as they maintain their momentum.

However, I wonder how reliant they can be on institutionalization and at what point they

have to start making big moves. While interviewing my subjects and asking about these

bigger ideas and concepts, it was easy to lose track of the fact that this is just an RSO. It’s

comprised of college students that are trying to balance classes, a social life and their

extra-curricular activities. This core group is dedicated and passionate and willing to

sacrifice their time to see their goals come to fruition. However, if they don’t organize

and recruit and spread their message, I wonder how long they will be able to truly many

an impact on the UIUC campus.


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