06/17/2010 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To the Class of 2010: Find a Wild Religious Mentor of Your Own

Stanford University has always played a unique role in the American imagination. It is a symbol of the American myth of openness and innovation, and it produces the reality.

It has also played a very special role in my life: the idea for the Interfaith Youth Core first hit me at a conference at Stanford 12 years ago. So I considered it a particular honor to be the Baccalaureate speaker at Stanford's Commencement ceremonies this past week. Here's what I told the Class of 2010:

About six months after I graduated from college, a time when I was fully consumed with my career, God saw fit to place on my path one Brother Wayne Teasdale. I met him at the piano recital of a high school friend. A slight man with gray hair and the kindest eyes I'd ever seen, Brother Wayne turned to me at the reception and said, "Music is our gateway into the interspiritual age."

This was not how I was accustomed to conversations beginning.

Brother Wayne peered at me intently. "I can tell you understand what I'm saying," he continued. "I'm a professor of religion. Why don't you come visit me."

Brother Wayne lived in a small apartment in the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. Books on Catholic theology, pictures of Hindu deities and CDs of Indian classical music were strewn everywhere.

Soon after I arrived, Brother Wayne announced that it was time to meditate. A ticking clock bothered him. I heard him get up to put it away. When we were done meditating, I saw him retrieve it from the freezer.

"Time for a walk," he said. We pulled on our sweaters and headed south down Cornell Avenue. We passed a dog. Brother Wayne bent down and rubbed the dog's head. The dog wagged its tail and barked. "That is a very spiritual dog," Brother Wayne told me as we continued on. "I know most of the dogs in this neighborhood," he added.

We kept walking until we came to a man wearing a heavy winter coat and carrying a black garbage bag with aluminum cans. "Hey Wayne," he said. "Ralph, it's so nice to see you." They caught up. Brother Wayne took out his wallet and handed Ralph a twenty. "Ralph is a very spiritual man," he said. "I know most of the homeless people in this neighborhood."

In between greeting dogs and homeless people, Brother Wayne told me about his work with international interfaith organizations, his hope that more young people would get involved, his dream that we would live into God's vision of interfaith cooperation. Then he turned to me and said, "I think you can play a leadership role in the global interfaith youth movement. I can tell you are a very spiritual person."

"Sure," I said. I mean, he had shown such good judgment with dogs.

Brother Wayne is part of a tradition of people who live at a slight angle to the universe, who see the world through kaleidoscope eyes. Others in this line include historical figures from St Francis of Assisi to Shams of Tabriz, literary characters from Zorba the Greek to Don Quixote. And as I was thinking of what I might say to you this morning, my mind wandered back through this lineage.

College graduates hear other people's hopes for them, seemingly ad infinitum. Let me share in those important hopes.

I hope that you take great pride in this day. That each of you has much worldly and material success. That you discover ways to serve that both bring your heart great gladness and address the world's great need. That you find and keep true love. That you cultivate your inner capacities for faith and reflection.

But I wish for you something else, too -- that you have at least one person in your life who is, well, a little bit crazy. Who thinks that windmills could be giants. Who cannot pass a flock of birds without stopping to preach the Gospel. Someone willing to take on the Big Nurse so that the loony bin can watch the World Series. A person who insists on lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest because he can't stand the Aunt Sally's of civilization. I wish for each of you your own Brother Wayne -- a person who, as Ani DiFranco says, has "eyes like neon signs, flashing open, open, open all the time."

At the very least, a Brother Wayne would bring a new dimension into your life. He may even totally transform it.

Consider the story of the great Muslim figure Rumi. Rumi trained as a scholar of Islamic law, and was famous for his careful analysis and stern lectures. One day, while Rumi was preparing to teach his university class, a man in rags appeared, pointed to his scholarly books, and asked innocently, "What are these?'"

"You wouldn't understand," responded Rumi scornfully.

With a wave of his hand, the man in rags set the books on fire.

Shocked, Rumi asked, "What was that?"

"You wouldn't understand," said the man, and disappeared.

In that flash of magic Rumi found a moment of clarity in which he recognized his deeper purpose. The man in rags was Shams of Tabriz, and he became Rumi's mentor on the path of Muslim mysticism, the path of sufism. Their friendship inspired Rumi to write poetry some have called "the Qur'an in the Persian tongue," poems that are loved all over the world today.

Brother Wayne never magically set any books on fire, although he did once singe the curtains while lighting a meditation candle. What he did was transform my life.

It occurred on this piece of earth 12 years ago, almost to the day. Brother Wayne sent me to an interfaith conference at Stanford University in June of 1998. "They are all very spiritual people," he said of the senior religious leaders and theologians who gathered to draft documents and plan further conferences -- "but they are spiritual and over 60." That was Brother Wayne's way of articulating urgency. In his soft way he was saying: If religious extremism is a movement of young people taking action, and interfaith cooperation continues to be a movement of older people talking, we lose.

Something about being Brother Wayne's emissary, something about a plot of ground that has nurtured young dreamers from John Steinbeck to the Google guys, caused for me a kairos. I woke up one morning during that conference with a clear and obvious vision: if the Prophets and teachers of all traditions command their adherents to serve others, if the young people of my generation are volunteering in record numbers, if our world cries out to be served, if serving together is a way to build understanding and trust between people of different backgrounds, why not a movement that brings young Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, Hindus and humanists, together to build houses, clean rivers, tutor children? I called it the Interfaith Youth Core.

Brother Wayne whooped like a child when he heard the vision. "Don't be shy about it," he commanded me.

And we weren't. We told everyone. As the vision spread, people in South Africa, India, Spain, Sri Lanka asked us to come and work with them on interfaith youth service projects. The Dalai Lama heard about it and asked us to visit him in Dharamsalla. Bill Clinton heard about it and asked us to present at his Clinton Global Initiative. Queen Rania of Jordan heard about it and asked us to launch projects in the Middle East. Tony Blair heard about it and suggested a partnership with his recently-formed Faith Foundation. President Obama heard about it and made it part of his administration's work in interfaith cooperation. The best young people of this generation heard about it -- Anand Venkatkrishnan and Ansaf Kareem -- and took it to a new level here at Stanford.

Brother Wayne passed on a few years ago, but I catch glimpses of him here and there. When I watch the way that my three-year-old son sees magic in the world, I think of him. Whenever I see a happy dog wagging its tail I know that it's a very spiritual dog.

I think maybe I've become a little crazy myself. In fact, I've learned to iterate on craziness. Here's my most recent one. Previous generations created new social norms. Civil rights is a social norm. Environmentalism is a social norm. Human rights is a social norm. All thanks to young people. Why can't this generation make interfaith cooperation a social norm?

And so Brother Wayne is not quite gone. He is in my blood and my bones, in my dreams and my duas, coaxing me to think a little bit crazy, comforting me when things don't quite turn out, whispering in my ear that cosmic line from Rumi: "Start a huge foolish project, like Noah."

Stanford Class of 2010, I wish for you nothing more than to find your own Brother Wayne.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.