An Unlikely Friendship: Part 1

An Evangelical Christian Pastor and a Muslim Interfaith Leader Discuss Their Unique Relationship

Eboo Patel (left) and Nick Price (right)

Nick and Eboo have been friends for over a decade. Some might say that their friendship is a bit surprising: Nick Price is a committed evangelical Christian. Eboo Patel is an Ismaili Muslim. Nick is the pastor of a conservative-leaning Lutheran church, and Eboo is the founder and president of one of the largest interfaith organizations in America, the Interfaith Youth Core. Dominant social and political narratives would pin these two against one another; they are aware of this. However, They are out to prove that the seemingly impossible is in fact, possible: evangelicals and Muslims can make great friends.

We asked Nick and Eboo to sit down with us and talk about their friendship. Admittedly, we wondered if Nick made theological concessions that might brand him a heretic in an everyday evangelical community, while on the other side of the coin, we wondered if Eboo made moral concessions that might get him in trouble with his interfaith organization. What we discovered ran against both of these presuppositions; they both perceived their friendship to be in keeping with their deepest convictions, not in contradiction to them.

We conducted the interview at Interfaith Youth Core’s national headquarters in Chicago, IL in April 2018. This interview was performed because we (Kevin and Chris) are out to improve our evangelical friends’ posture toward people of other faiths. We co-run a growing organization called Neighborly Faith that helps evangelicals to be good neighbors in their religiously diverse neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Some of the people we’re trying to reach (an ironic use of the term, we know) don’t think that a friendship like Nick and Eboo’s is possible, or frankly even faithful to Jesus. We hear these concerns, and we hope this interview gives them something to chew on. We also hope that this interview gives you hope that evangelicals and Muslims can have a shared future together in America; one where they celebrate, rather than bemoan, each other’s presence in the public square.

Chris: Tell us a little bit about each of you, your faith backgrounds, and the journeys that led you here today.

Eboo: My name is Eboo Patel. I'm the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core. I'm 42 years old, I was born in India, and I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, not far from where Nick is currently pastor of a church and where he grew up. I'm an Ismaili Muslim, which is a small Shia community of Islam, and I went to the University of Illinois as an undergrad in the early, mid-1990s. I got very involved in diversity and social justice work, and my dad pointed out to me during one of my long diatribes at him about his lack of people of color consciousness, that for all I talked about identity and diversity, I never talked about religion, which was a dimension of identity that was really driving the world.

A variety of things in my life conspired to help me realize that my dad was right; that religion was a part of all sorts of nefarious things in the world in the 1990s like the bombing on the World Trade Center, the nuclear device tests in India and Pakistan, but also a bunch of inspiring things; how is it that I missed that? At that time, I was on my own spiritual journey, which was kicked off by learning about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, was accelerated by time with an evangelical social justice community in Atlanta called the Open Door community, and more and more aligning my personal story and what I thought the world needed, and I ended up starting this organization, Interfaith Youth Core.

Nick: I was actually not raised in church. My family didn't go to any religious community. Growing up, it was just not a part of what we did. But when I was in high school, I ended up having a group of friends who took their faith very, very seriously, and that caused me to start asking questions and just to say, do I have something similar? And I remember actually exploring pretty much every other world religion before giving Christianity a fair shake, because at that point, my parents did start to take me to church, and as a teenager, I wasn't just going to do it because they were taking me.

I started looking at all these other world religions, and they just didn't quite fit for me. And I remember a youth leader saying, "You've given a lot of these other world religions a fair shake. Isn't it at least fair to give Christianity the same hearing?" I asked for a Bible for Christmas my junior year, which my parents thought was really weird. They got me the cheapest Bible that they could find. I'm convinced the cover was made of the same plastic that G.I. Joes are made out of, but I read it for four hours every night, and by about halfway through January, I was already in the Gospels.

And really, it just kind of clicked for me. I think the thing that stood out to me about the Christian story is that as I went through the Old Testament, it wasn't filled with heroes. It was filled with a lot of losers and screw ups who made horrible mistakes. And God still loved them and pursued them and used them. And then I got to the New Testament, and it was still filled with a bunch of losers who were making horrible mistakes, and there was one guy who wasn't a loser and made no mistakes, but he loved losers who made mistakes and hung out with them, and that was Jesus. And when Jesus started saying all these great “I Am” statements about who he was, and it was just like a light bulb going off. I began to see that Jesus was God. He's the God who is with all these people through the Old Testament, and here he is now, continuing to pursue lost people. And that was kind of a wake up moment for me.

So, then I went off to college, and I joined a non-denominational church at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign that was a very thoughtful and intelligent yet very, very firm and committed to their faith, which a lot of people, at least in my experience up to that point were either thoughtful and not religious, or committed to their faith and not very thoughtful, and I loved finding a church where both those things came together. I was also involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which was a great campus ministry that encouraged both the life of the mind but also deep devotion to Christ. And so I got involved, and that was kind of when I self-identified as an evangelical. Because to be an evangelist is simply to be someone who brings good news, and that is evangelical in the best sense of the term for me, is that I get to bring the good news of Jesus wherever I go to whoever I meet, in both my words and in my actions, and so that's kind of how I self-identified in that.

I got involved in interfaith work when Eboo came down to U of I. He spoke about the importance of interfaith cooperation. At the time, I was working for Global Crossroads, which was a living learning community that brought international students and American students together, and my supervisor was actually Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, and he said, "There's this young guy coming down to talk about interfaith cooperation. As a part of your job, I want you to go listen to him," and so that's how I got to listen to Eboo, and that's how we met each other. We ended up having coffee the next day, and really just hit it off. I was very, very inspired by this idea of people who took their faith seriously also being good citizens alongside one another. I didn't think that those things were mutually exclusive, and neither did Eboo, and so that was how I got involved with interfaith work. I served with the IFYC as an intern before they actually had an intern program, but it's just kind of been a part of my journey since then.

Now, serving as a pastor, one of the great things that I hopefully get to do for my congregation is help them to understand, what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in a very diverse world? And my experiences in interfaith have helped to do that, have at least given me a framework for saying here's how we engage differences in humility, but also conviction, and still build relationships and friendships.

Chris: I want to focus again a little more on your friendship. It's really curious and amazing that you've built a relationship across such difference of religious beliefs, and firm, convicted religious beliefs as well. So, I'm curious to hear how you built a relationship despite these significant differences. Was there anything that surprised you? Anything that was hard? Anything that was surprisingly easy?

Eboo: I mean, it was easy from the beginning, and it's still easy. Look, Nick's story is my story, except I'm an Ismaili Muslim, and he's a Christian, right? So, you get a sense of spiritual hunger at some point in your life, and you pursue it relentlessly, right? And you pursue it with who you are, with a sense of ethics and justice and also intellect, right? I also had an adolescent discrimination against the familiar. Islam was the last tradition that I explored. I literally went through every other one until you know, I found a place for me around Islam. I love the idea of being thoughtful and committed, like having a crystal clear sense of the grandeur of God, and the deep conviction that part of what God gives humankind is what Muslims called Okul, which is intellect. So how am I not going to use to the highest ability that I can the distinctive gift that God gives to the creation that he charges with stewardship of the planet? Which is the Muslim belief.

So honestly, from the get, I felt the kinship with Nick. And I should tell you this a lot more, but there are like four or five things Nick has said to me over the years that are still part of my standard speech. I was in front of a thousand people at Bethel College, an evangelical school outside of the Twin Cities a couple of weeks ago, and I'm talking about Nick Price.

Nick: Well, that's a little humbling.

Eboo: It's not just one thing, right? And it's not like a feature story, it's like I talk about when you said to me for example ... I said, how is it that you think about evangelicalism in a way that is not only giving the good news of Jesus but also living out and living with people as Jesus did, people of a range of backgrounds? And you're like “Well, in the Bible, there's the Great Commission and the Great Cooperation.” That's a great line, you know? So, that's one of half a dozen things that I share, so your theology of interfaith cooperation has shaped my theology of interfaith cooperation.

Nick: Yeah, I don't think it was hard for us to become friends. I definitely connected with Eboo. At first I was just kind of sitting in the audience as he presented, and there was just something that really resonated with me. Up to that point, I had heard of interfaith work being primarily code for a bunch of universalists getting together and enjoying one another's presence. And that's not at all what Eboo articulated. He said, I want you to be faithful and deep and committed to what you believe, but I also would like to create spaces where we learn to be neighbors together, where we learn to cooperate and care for our common spaces, out of the convictions that we have. How do our religious convictions actually inform that kind of engagement? And immediately, I was just like, that sounds great! I really want to do that.

And so then we got together for coffee the next day, and we were just sharing stories. I got to hear a little bit about his journey, he got to hear about mine. At the time, I was in a class on the Sufi movements in Islam, and Islamic mysticism, and so we got to talk about Sufi poetry, which is also very fun to be able to do that. There was just a connection around this value of faith being an important marker of identity and that it should not be a barrier to cooperation, to common care for our common spaces. We worship in different spaces, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, but we also share schools and streets and libraries and neighborhoods and this world we inhabit. And that was so much a part of Eboo's vision and so much of my own heartbeat of very much loving my faith but also very much coming from a background that can appreciate other perspectives. That just seemed like a real natural connection.

And it's also fun just to, as we've gone along, talk about each other's families and get to see each other's kids kind of grow up, so the first thing as we walked in the door, he's like how's your family? And I got to ask the same. So just connecting as people, too, I think has been an important part of our friendship.

Kevin: Eboo, what is your favorite thing about Nick?

Eboo: Nick's pastoral ethos, his warmth, is so enveloping that it takes a minute to recognize just how remarkable an intellect you are in the presence of.

Nick: I don't think I deserve that, but thank you.

Kevin: Nick, what is your favorite thing about Eboo?

Nick: I love his passion for the mission that he has been given. From the moment that I met Eboo, just his curiosity about other people, his desire to build bridges is just infectious, and it's something that he just lives, and I think that that is just a rare thing. I think a lot of us do jobs because we have to do jobs. Eboo lives his career. It's his mission in life, and I very much admire that, and just the focus and dedication that he has to that. And in the midst of it all, we can still sit down and have coffee together, which I just love.

This concludes Part 1 in this two-part series looking at the unlikely friendship of Nick Price and Eboo Patel. In Part 2, Nick will share about his experiences in interfaith spaces, where evangelicals are a rare breed, and Eboo will share about his experiences in evangelical spaces, where Muslims can rarely be found. They will discuss how these experiences strengthened their understanding and appreciation for one another.

Originally published in Faithfully Magazine (Ed. 4) in July 2018.

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