The Unlikely Friendship of an Evangelical Pastor and a Muslim Interfaith Leader

Part 1 of this article was published in Faithfully Magazine #4, and is briefly excerpted here.

By Kevin Singer and Chris Stackaruk

Nick Price and Eboo Patel have been friends for over a decade. Some might find their friendship surprising: Price is an Evangelical Christian and Patel is an Ismaili Muslim. Price pastors a conservative-leaning Lutheran church and Patel is the founder and president of one of the largest interfaith organizations in America, the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). The pair is aware that dominant social and political narratives would paint them as ideological opposites and their friendship as impossible. However, Price and Patel are out to prove that what appears seemingly impossible is, in fact, possible: Evangelicals and Muslims can be great friends.

When we asked Price and Patel to discuss their friendship with us, we wondered if the men had made any theological concessions that might cause controversy in their respective faith communities. What we discovered, however, ran counter to that presupposition; they both perceived their friendship to be in keeping with their deepest convictions, not in contradiction to them. We were intrigued.

As founders of our own growing organization, Neighborly Faith, we have been on a mission to improve our evangelical friends’ posture toward people of other faiths. Neighborly Faith helps evangelicals to be good neighbors in their religiously diverse neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Some of the people we’re trying to reach don’t think that a friendship like Price and Patel’s is possible, or frankly even faithful to the gospel. We hear these concerns, and hope this interview gives them, and other Christians who share their concerns, something to chew on. We believe that Evangelical Christians 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.

The interview  was conducted at Interfaith Youth Core’s national headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, in April. The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Stackaruk: Nick, some of our readers, like you, are Evangelical Christians who are trying to navigate what it’s like to be in a multi-faith world as well as interfaith spaces. For those who haven’t been in an interfaith space before, can you tell them a little bit about what that’s like? What should they expect? How should they prepare themselves, or not prepare themselves?

Nick Price
Nick Price.

Price: Well, the first thing I would say is that our country is an interfaith space. It just is. We live in one of the most diverse countries religiously in the world. And it’s a diversity that’s a rich kind of diversity. When you encounter people who are religious in America, they are truly religious. It’s diverse and deep, all at the same time. So, the first thing I would say to any evangelicals who are like, well, what’s it’s like to step into an interfaith world? Well, what’s it like to step out your door?

But what is it like stepping into an intentionally interfaith space, like going to say a conference or an event or something like that? I mean, I remember my first interfaith conference was with IFYC. I remember sitting down and we were having this conversation, which Eboo kind of laid out this vision for interfaith work, and he was passing the mic, and he was asking people what are some of the greatest challenges to interfaith work that you encounter as a practitioner in your own community? And this one gentleman got up, and he said, “I’m a Christian pastor, and I feel like the biggest challenge is the conservatives in my faith tradition who just, they believe that their way is the only way, and they don’t want to engage in these conversations,” and there was lots of head nodding and amens. Then I got the mic, and I said, “Hi, I’m Nick Price, and I’m an Evangelical Christian. I think I’m one of those conservatives you’re talking about.” Everybody was just like, “Hmmmm! They’re in the room!”

But it was a game-changing moment. I think that as an evangelical, initially entering interfaith space was … There was kind of a sense that I was stepping into a space where we were not welcome, but luckily, that has really changed a ton, I think, over the past decade plus. I think that what I would say to an evangelical entering into an interfaith space is, treat this as a learning opportunity. I mean, we live in an interfaith world already. This is the one space that you can step into, and you can actually learn how to not just coast along, but this is the one space where you can learn how to be an active participant in a very, very diverse world. This is a space where I can really get to ask all the questions that I’ve always wanted to ask my neighbors and not known how to. This is the one space where I can critically think about then how our faith communities can partner together in serving our larger community.

What I’d say is that when you’re stepping into an interfaith space, yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but again, no more uncomfortable than watching the news, you know? So treat it as a learning opportunity. See this as a great gift. Ask the questions that you’ve always wanted to ask. Be ready to listen and learn, and be expected to share about your own faith journey and your own faith story, because that’s the way interfaith works. If you’re not there to share your story, and if you’re not there to engage out of who you are, then we’re all poorer as a result of it, so don’t be afraid to share, but also be ready to listen. I think that that would be the advice that I would give. But it’s a great opportunity and it’s a wonderful gift to be able to step into those spaces and to learn, have intentional spaces where you can learn, because it’s going to help you be a better citizen, it’s going to help you be a better faith leader.

It’s actually going to encourage your own reflection on your own tradition. That’s one of the things I love about interfaith work. When I hear a story from another person about their faith tradition, how my faith tradition calls me to pursue things like social justice, or how we think about the role of family, or how we think about what it means to be an active citizen, or what it means to pursue peace in a world of violence, you then have to kind of go back to Scripture and say where do I see that? I do think that you become richer as a result of doing that. So, that would be the advice that I would give. There will be some discomfort, but that’s life, you know? And that’s okay.

Eboo Patel
Eboo Patel.

Patel: Yeah. So, I want to say that evangelicals are in lots of interfaith spaces. That I think you all don’t give yourselves enough credit for that, right? So, in political movements for example, if you are involved in Republican politics, you’re working with for example Catholics and Mormons. There’s no small amount of theological divides that you’re bridging, right? So, the fact is there are two interfaith movements in the United States. There is a progressively-oriented interfaith movement, there is a conservatively-oriented interfaith movement. Evangelicals are very much in leadership roles politically speaking in conservative oriented … Which by the way, I might disagree with politically. I still respect the theological commitments and the important bridge-building taking place.

Having witnessed some of that up front, like I happened to be … I was speaking to evangelical college presidents, January 27, 2017, which is the day of the pro-life rally (March for Life) on the National Mall at which…Vice President (Pence) spoke. It was an historic moment in that movement. So, that might not be my personal political persuasion. I still have respect for it, right? I feel like it comes out of people’s faith identity, and I’m at a hotel where there’s a bunch of evangelical, Mormon, and Catholic high school and college groups with all these kids walking around with Scripture talking to each other about Scripture and the rally they’re going to the next day. Again, I don’t have to agree with that to recognize that as an interfaith movement that I have respect for.

A couple of other things. So, I want to go back to Nick’s point that we share libraries and sports fields and schools together, and the theological note that Nick began with, which is Jesus was perfect, and he hung out with losers and he brought good news to them. So, here’s the question. If you’re the coach of a little league team, and y’all win your three o’clock game, and now you’re in the 6:30 p.m. championship, and somebody’s got to make a food run for dinner for the kids, and one of your kids is named Rahul, and he’s Hindu, and he doesn’t eat meat, what’s the good news for Rahul, right? Are you going to get hamburgers and chicken nuggets for everybody? What if Rahul is like on a 13-person little league team, like number 13, and he already feels kind of like a dope? Who’s spreading the good news to Rahul?

What happens if you’re a gym teacher at a junior high school, and you have a rule, no headgear, in your gym class? By the way, all of these are personal stories, like I’m watching religious dynamics all the time, right? No headgear. And you’re constantly frustrated that kids are wearing baseball caps and hoodies. I mean, they’re seventh graders, right? They’re eighth graders, right? And you’re constantly like no, take that off, take that off, take that off. And there’s a girl named Sima, and she’s from Somalia, and she wears a hijab. She’s kind of on the outside of things, and so as a bunch of kids are taking off their baseball caps, they’re like how come Sima doesn’t have to take off that thing on her head? And you’re an Evangelical (Christian) teacher, so what’s the good news for Sima?

Price: Exactly. And that’s the great thing about interfaith work, this is a place where those questions are asked and talked about, and you can develop the appreciation to be a leader there. I mean, I think that’s the thing about interfaith leadership. When people say, “Oh, are you an interfaith leader?” Sometimes it’s easier to think about well, do I work for the IFYC? Am I constantly going to interfaith rallies or events? That’s not what it means to be an interfaith leader. Being an interfaith leader is being that gym teacher who has an appreciation for the kids and their backgrounds and where they’re coming from and the values that they hold, so that they can feel included, so they can feel like they’re a part, because that is what we’re called to do.

So just on a Christian note, we’re called to extend hospitality, the same hospitality that God shows to us. God meets us where we’re at. That’s the incarnation, right? So what is that good news for those kids? So I think Eboo raises a really, really good point. We inhabit these interfaith spaces all the time. Being an interfaith leader is being able to appreciate that and be a voice there and an advocate and someone who shows what hospitality really does look like in all these different spheres.

Singer: The feedback Chris and I get most often by far is that Evangelicals cannot be good interfaith neighbors because we care so deeply about sharing the good news about Jesus with others. What do you think?

Patel: I’m going to go back to something that a great theologian named Nick Price once said to me, which is there’s the Great Commission and there’s the Great Cooperation, and something else that Nick taught me … I feel like I’m tape recording some of our conversations in my head. Nick and I, when were back at our Van Buren address, six to eight years ago, and Nick was working for InterVaristy at (the University of Illinois at Chicago), [he] did a little Bible study with me. We talked about the Good Samaritan story. And Nick points out that the Good Samaritan story is typically exegeted as a generic other.

Nick, I think you literally opened a Bible, and you pointed me to a chapter called “The Woman at the Well.” We read this together, right? And it is a chapter on Jesus arguing with this woman at a well. They’re having a theological dispute. “You pray to a God you do not know.” Who’s the woman at the well? She’s a Samaritan woman. So who is the Good Samaritan? It’s not just a generic other, it’s not somebody from the village across the river. The Samaritan is somebody who has a different doctrine than you. The Samaritan is somebody who worships and believes in God differently. And Jesus was saying go and do likewise. The story begins “How do I attain eternal life?” Right? There is no more cosmically imbued theological question than how do I attain eternal life, right?

So, my response to this person would be if you want to put 99 percent of your energy into the Great Commission, go for it, right? But please do not pretend that the Great Cooperation is not also a Christian thing to do.

Price: Right, and I would actually argue even more strongly than that from a Christian perspective. I don’t think you can faithfully do the Great Commission without having that posture, honestly. This idea of that “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is such a powerful one because the Samaritan is other in every sense of the term ethnically, culturally, religiously, and that’s the hero of Jesus’ story. And he says, “In the kingdom of God, my people are people who go and do likewise.” So it’s like okay, so your very identity as a Christian is contingent upon you having the exact same posture that Jesus had. I mean, there is no other greater divide than the Divine God coming into our world and becoming a human being. You want to talk about getting outside your box and embracing the other, God himself does it. And Jesus says this is what my people do.

If someone is like well, I’ve got to do the Great Commission, and that’s more important, I’m just like obviously you can’t do that without this piece of being able to cross divides, loving and caring and embracing someone who’s different than you, and learning to serve them well. And that’s the thing that I just love about even at the base, between Jesus and the woman at the well, it’s a theological debate, and yet he loves her in so many great ways. He’s not even supposed to be there talking to her, and he sits down at the well and talks with her. He sees her pain. And he actually names it, and says, “I’m here to put that pain to an end.”

Patel: One thing that I love about that is Jesus is clear about who he is, right? There is a viewpoint which is that Jesus is all things to all people. And actually in this story, Jesus is willing to say, “You pray to a God you do not know.” And I love gentle clarity, right?

Stackaruk: I would love to hear from each of you: what do you think evangelicals have to offer interfaith work as it is, such as what Eboo is doing with Interfaith Youth Core?

Patel: I mean, there’s a whole bunch of things, right? So, one of the things that struck me, there was an article in The New York Times a few years ago about this group of Syrian refugees being resettled in Alabama or Mississippi or something like that, and the people who were showing them around Walmart were Evangelical Christians who had voted against them coming. I love that. That did not surprise me that much, right? There is a civic generosity in Evangelical Christians that does not express itself politically. And while I disagree with those politics, and I would like to have that conversation, I am going to appreciate the civic generosity.

What’s interesting to me is it’s a hyper-organizationally sophisticated generosity. The amount of social capital that evangelicals have built … One of the reasons that happens in Mississippi and Alabama is because a thousand people showed up at church that morning, and the pastor was like, “Hey, we’ve got a bunch of new neighbors. I need a couple dozen of you to sign up for every 30-minute shift.” So, you have built the institutions of civic generosity. And that’s something that I greatly appreciate.

One of the signal moments in my interfaith journey was being at the Open Door Community in Atlanta with Ed Loring and Murphy Davis. They are a social justice community where they live as Jesus did. They live with the destitute, and so there’s like 50 people living in this house, people sleeping on the floor, people sleeping in the backyard, there’s meals twice a day, and I stayed there for five days after my sophomore year in college in kind of this tour of larger Christian social justice communities. I was so moved by what they were doing that I asked Ed if I could come back the next summer and spend the whole summer there.

And he looks at me, and he says, “You’re not a Christian are you?” And I’m like, “No.” And he says, “And you’re not really interested in being a Christian are you?” And I’m like, “You know? I’m not.” He’s like, “I’ve been watching you. You close your eyes during prayer and you kind of hum along as best you can to our songs, but if I got the sense that you wanted to be Christian, I would make a proactive invitation, but I get the sense that you stand at a right angle to our faith. And the truth is, being here is really hard. It’s really hard. And we drink from the well of the Christian faith. You can come next summer if you want, but it is the well of the Christian that strengthens us to do this. My suggestion to you is you go and find the well that you drink from, and you choose the work that requires that kind of strength.”

I viewed that as this beautiful, generous, clarity and invitation. He wasn’t saying don’t come. He was saying this is who we are. If you want to be here, you probably have to partake in this, right? I’m not saying this to you as a requirement. I’m telling you this out of my experience. This is our well. We think it’s the best well. There are other wells. If you drink from that other well, you should go do that.

Price: Your original question of what can evangelicals offer interfaith, I think Eboo answered it great. I am simply going to reframe it. I will actually flip it on its head and say what can evangelicals gain from the interfaith movement? And I think that’s really important, and I would say I think there are a couple things you can gain from the interfaith movement. One, you will learn to understand and appreciate your neighbors better. I think two, you will gain a deeper understanding of your own faith tradition because you’re going to be challenged to reflect. And then three, you have an opportunity to see where there are areas for you to improve your community that were far outside your immediate frame of reference. You’re going to discover partners and friends that you didn’t know you had in trying to make your communities a better place.

And so I would say get involved for those reasons. There’s so much to be learned by doing that. As the church we have a responsibility to this world to bring forward tastes of the kingdom of God, and you’re not going to do that on your own. You’ve got to learn how to engage that world well, and I think interfaith provides a great opportunity, interfaith spaces provide a great opportunity to do that and to learn how to do that.

Stackaruk: Thank you both for the important work you do.

Price and Patel’s friendship is genuine, honest, and built upon a surprisingly similar vision for a religiously-diverse America in which people of different faiths live alongside one another in their neighborhoods, places of work, and the public square. For Price, and for all Christians (especially evangelicals), living a “neighborly faith” toward people of different religions is what living one’s faith and obeying Scripture looks like in a society that is increasingly diverse. This is where the Spirit is calling the church, and extraordinary friendships like Patel and Price’s should become much more ordinary in all of our churches. No matter the depth of our conviction or zeal to share the good news, we must learn to live it out in this multi-faith world.

Part 1 of this article was published in Faithfully Magazine #4, and is briefly excerpted here.

Kevin Singer is co-founder of Neighborly Faith and a Ph.D. student at NC State University, where he serves as a research assistant for IDEALS, a national study of college students’ attitudes toward other worldview groups. Find him online at Chris Stackaruk is co-founder of Neighborly Faith, a Ph.D. student at University of Toronto/St. Michael’s College in Theology, and a curriculum designer for Moody Bible Institute. Follow him on Instagram: @cstackaruk.

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