We Must Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy

Eboo Patel
Beacon Press, 224 pages | Posted May 10, 2022

How can I build my congregation to strengthen our wider community through diversity? This question sparked my curiosity about the new book by Interfaith America founder Eboo Patel We have to build. True to its subtitle, it is full of field notes that reflect practical wisdom gained through personal experience, social activism, and organizational leadership. I have decades of formal involvement in interfaith work, but reading this book I often felt like an outsider listening to a conversation aimed at younger generations of activists. Nonetheless, my perspective hasn’t stopped me from gaining valuable insights as our current landscape expands.

The book opens with Patel’s journey from youth to interfaith leadership through generative critique and enriching academic encounters. Patel offers a vision of America as one big potluck, pitting America against Trump and America against Obama, and concluding by highlighting the source of creative inspiration fostered by communities of faith. The final section of Patel’s book combines field notes with powerful illustrations to accompany practical aphorisms drawn from his years of experience.

Like most pastors, I am mindful of the growing segment of America that identifies as spiritual without involvement in religious communities. However, I am witnessing a growing interest in movements for change, whether it is a collective movement for justice or simply a personal desire to move with the spirit in Sunday morning yoga. Society’s estrangement from the religious community worries me because I know that religious communities have been a source of transformative movements throughout American history.

Patel pinpointed this concern and placed it at the center of his book. “As the number of people involved in these religious communities decreases, the strength of faith-based agencies also decreases. There are fewer volunteers, less money, lower morale. Patel acknowledges this concern but adds that “there are also reasons for hope. Part of the genius of religious communities lies in how they adapt to changing times.

A historical example of this genius is the creative use of wagons as chapels in the 19e century, reaching churchless communities on the western reaches of the US border. This same creative spirit regularly serves as an incubator for citizen energy; an energy that “does not stay within the confines of the religious community; it is offered to society at large. This led me to ask, “How will our congregation go beyond our familiar boundaries today?

This is where field notes come in. For example, in “Stand Up on the Balcony and Think of a Hedgehog,” Patel leans on Ronald Heifitz and Jim Collins to remind leaders to rise above the “dance floor” to better imagine and build. It also challenges the reader to call out and claim a single big idea (hedgehog concept) to define our effort.

Patel writes We have to build through its lens of self-reflective insight. It targets leaders who need to evolve beyond passionate activism to a posture that creates lasting change while guiding more seasoned builders who embrace diversity and are passionate about action.

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