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Author discusses religious understanding with NIU, DeKalb community leaders

DeKALB – Joseph Mitchell has watched the DeKalb area become more diverse since the early 1980s. 

Mitchell, co-pastor of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church of DeKalb, said when he moved to DeKalb with his family in 1981, there were no black churches. He said there now are probably four black churches in the area. He said he also noticed a mosque being built in DeKalb, which is another sign of the growing diversity of the city.

When it comes to crossing boundaries between faiths, the question for him is valuing religion or relationships. 

“What’s more important? Is it more important that you stand on your religion or more important you engage in relationships with other human beings?” Mitchell said. 

This was one of the many questions discussed by religious, community and university leaders Tuesday at the Newman Catholic Student Center. Among them was Eboo Patel, founder and president of Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, who visited with the DeKalb community before delivering a speech at Northern Illinois University. 

His book “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation” was chosen by NIU’s First- and Second-Year Experience office to be the Common Reading Experience book for the current academic year. Colleges and universities use common reading experiences to provide incoming students a common academic experience and to explore universal themes such as gender, race or civic responsibility, according to the office’s website. 

“Acts of Faith” touches on Patel’s life experience as well as his mission to promote religious pluralism and youth engagement. 

“This is a component of diversity we don’t talk about very much at state university campuses, but it’s important to many of our students,” said Denise Rode, NIU director of First- and Second-Year Experience. “Our goal is to bring people from different backgrounds and faith traditions together.” 

Patel said his visit to NIU showed him a range of people with different faiths. He told those who gathered at the student center that even though he had been in the area for only six hours, he was struck by the energy at the university with its engagement of religion. 

“I think there’s too much religious prejudice around the world,” he said.

While there are clear examples of religious violence in the world, Patel said he thinks college campuses such as NIU and communities such as DeKalb have a great opportunity to be models of tolerance and diversity.

One question at Tuesday’s meeting was what DeKalb is going to look like in the years to come, especially in 2020. Some leaders discussed how they could meet the needs of diverse religious and cultural groups and how they could make a difference. 

Patel suggested creating a layer of civic leadership in DeKalb to connect with youths. He said it could create a program to generate young civic leaders to address meeting future needs.  

“If you don’t have a civic leadership layer at that level, then you guys are [struggling with] communication,” he said. 

Vikas Deo, an NIU music graduate student, said he’s agnostic but agrees with Patel’s message to build bridges between religious communities. He finds no difficulty connecting with people of different faiths, which can be more divisive for some people than money.  

“I think, even deeper than economics, that is the real barrier,” he said about religious faith. “Money isn’t really a barrier; it’s just mismanagement. These are lines in the sand.” 

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