Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Wichita Interfaith Journey.... Seva and Faith in Action

My name is Rema.  I am happy to be here today, having come all the way from Wichita, Kansas. I proudly introduce myself as a federal employee, a VISTA, volunteer in service to America , working for the Corporation for National Community Service, through Hindu American Seva Charities.

Born and raised in India and having made this great country my home nearly two decades ago, I call myself an Indian Hindu American. Touched by the kindness and compassion of fellow Americans around me, I decided to lead my life true to Mahatma Gandhi’s quote—“ The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

My SEVA journey began with volunteering in my children’s schools, initially in their classrooms and later in their school libraries. Soon, I was noticed and requested to be present in ‘show and tell’ events, demonstrate how to wear a sari, talk about India, the food, arts and crafts and the cultural traditions of India. In no time, I found myself in the site council of schools and as an office bearer in the parent teacher organizations. This exposure gave me knowledge on the administrative side of the public school system in the US. Around the same time, I heard about reduced breakfasts and lunches for students in schools which exposed the fact that many families were below the poverty line in their income bracket. This was a shocking reality to my husband and self; back home in India, America is considered as a land of the riches, the abode of Lord Kubera, where one will not find any beggars. The sad reality was in America they are known as ’homeless’. Our hearts went out to them and prompted by our eight year old daughter, we started serving food at the Interfaith Inn for the homeless. ANNADHAANAM is the best form of ‘dhaanam’(service), according to the Hindu scriptures and we were happy to do it in USA. Started in 1998, we are still continuing , now joined by many volunteers of Hindu American Seva Charities.

The tragic events of 9/11 was a turning point in our lives.       I saw first-hand Hindu youth being taunted with questions like  “ Are you related to Osama Bin Laden?” or “ What race are you and why do you have monkey and elephant headed Gods ?”. At an impressionable age, many Hindu American  youth were told by their peers that “ if they believe in Jesus, they will go to Heaven, otherwise they will go to only 711, the corner store”. Many were told to go back to where they came from . I felt the need to convince Hindu American children that they are valuable citizens even though they had a different skin color, are from a different race and following a different religion. It also made me realize that making one’s home is much more than becoming a self-sufficient and law abiding citizen. I was afraid that their Hindu identity is shaken.

   To live in harmony in a diverse environment and mutually understand and respect each other, I realized that I have to do my bit to build bridges to the mainstream American society which could be used by the present and future generations of all Americans. President Woodrow Wilson said “ There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.” I committed myself to give back to the country and the community that I have chosen to live in. Rev. Sam Muyskens, the then director of Interfaith Ministries,  an advocate of the Golden Rule ,”Treat others the way you want to be treated” was a great mentor to me and my husband that we could raise our children with respect and dignity in a foreign land. We reinforced to our children that America is a melting pot of different cultures from diverse backgrounds. We all have landed in America by different boats at different times but right now, we are all in the same”BOAT”.

I feel fortunate to have had a chance encounter with Ms. Anju Bhargava, through my good friend Janet Falk of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Saylorsburg, PA. My husband and self, attended the first annual conference of HASC in Baltimore and was impressed with the goals and board members of this organization. Caring for my 90 year old mother in the nursing home, for whom I cook and serve vegetarian food every day  convinced me that I must do my bit for Hindu elders in this country. I was getting ready to take HASC’s help and my community members support to start an assisted living facility, where vegetarian food and yoga will be offered to the residents. Soon, I got a call from Anju asking me if I would like to take up a full time position as a VISTA and be a part of the Americorps program. My instant response was “no”, as I had just quit a part time position at the public library to be a better care giver for my mom. I felt that taking a full time position will be a stress giver and jeopardize my attention to my mother. I was assured that I will have a lot of flexibility and will be helped whenever necessary by the board members.  I committed myself as a ‘Volunteer In Service To America” under the auspices of HASC and went off for the orientation program in Atlanta in Aug 2010.

The reception and training that I got there made me feel so proud of belonging to CNCS and the Americorps program. They respected all the members and treated us with dignity and respect. I felt fortunate to take up this historic appointment as a Hindu, working for a Hindu faith based service organization. I met my colleagues Niki Shah and Dr. Kumud Sane there along with my Supervisor, Dr. Ved Chaudhary.  I take this opportunity to thank Dr. Chaudhary who has been a great mentor to me in community service ideas. I also thank Points of Light and Hand on Corps for their excellent support and monthly training calls. Anju’s ideas in community service, her knowledge of the Hindu scriptures inspired me to get on board the wagon of HASC.

The first event that HASC organized was on a national basis, a kick- off event, promoting yoga called the YOGATHON. Education on health and nutrition contribute an important means to eradicate poverty and build healthier communities. The invaluable support given by Lakshmi and Soumya to design flyers and volunteer during the event gave me confidence. The teachers from The Art of Living Foundation, who drove all the way from Dallas  and volunteered to teach three sessions of Yoga in a day was very generous. It was a grand success. The community demanded regular yoga classes and the teachers from Patanjali Yog Peeth  came all the way from Kansas City and have made it possible to put the program in place. Classes are regularly held at the Wichita State University, temple or the Bhakta Community center.

    Anju’s brain child, is the unique creation of UTSAV  SEVA , an interfaith “Festival of SEVAs “caught my attention. She had proposed a SEVA for each month commemorating any Hindu, Jain, Sikh or Buddhist festival. She gave an interfaith twist to it for the popular holidays in USA, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter etc.,  As a child growing up in India, I used to look forward to the festivals every month to eat sweets and savories, meet family and friends and also do some prayers together. So I felt that many children may feel the same way and felt that the best way to sow the seeds of SEVA or selfless service in young minds is to popularize the festival of SEVAS, the Utsav- Seva.

    One such event was Shakthi Seva, organized soon after the Hindu festival of Navaratri. This festival involves prayers for nine days and nights, praying for feminine strength and value enrichment within oneself. Deciding to give an interfaith touch to this event, I invited a mayor from the Christian faith, a financial planner who is a Hindu and a professor who has independent views to come and share their success stories. They symbolically represented Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi. Two of my good friends, a Hindu and a Muslim who are both entrepreneurs agreed to share their challenges and struggles which empowered those present. This event also coincided with the ‘breast cancer awareness month”. My daughter’s  suggestion to add a little glamor to the event by inviting Miss Kansas 2010 was an icing on the cake. The event was a huge success and all those who were present were empowered and thanked HASC for organizing this event. Many in the community are eagerly looking forward to the Shakthi Seva event of 2011.

  HASC partnered with Kansas Food bank to donate canned foods and got in touch with the advocacy group to end chronic homelessness. Community volunteer leaders came forward  to  organize and feed the homeless in the overflow shelter during  the winter months. Dhan Seva, Sarvadharm Seva, Kala Seva, Kalyan Seva, Vidya Seva, were all celebrated with “amazing faiths dinner”, an interfaith dialogue over vegetarian dinner, financial seminar in the public library and feeding the needy. All this would not have been possible without the help of community leaders and volunteers like Suparna Tirukonda,  Nalini Gangadhar,  Lakshmi Ravi, Soumya Bhatt, Rekha, Siva, Jaya Narsai , Bushra Sayeed, Marcey Gregory , Venkat and Nithin Acharya.  Many students from middle schools like Yash and Vikas were ready to clean our temples before the  Yogathon . Students from Asian Student Conference, Indian Students Association , American Hindu Students Association and the dancing Shocker Shakthis were a great support to make all events successful.

   The partnership with Sam Muyskens who organized the Golden Rule retreat, Interfaith harmony concert gave a lot of prominence to HASC. Pov Solve, a non- profit organization started by a high school student to reduce poverty in USA and abroad joined hands with HASC to feed the homeless. All these associations have made a name for the Hindu community in Wichita to help build healthier and enriched communities.
   In the years to come HASC ‘s focus in Wichita  will be on achieving two goals that are nearest to my heart.
  •  Building a seva center in Wichita that will serve to empower our youth, and
  • Elder care for Americans focusing on the dharmic principles of holistic healing, yoga and vegetarianism. 

I know that I cannot do this alone. So I will be actively seeking the help of organizations and individuals, particularly those in the audience today, who can help me in this effort.

Thank You !

Rema Venkatasubban 
AmeriCorps Vista Member 
Wichita State Coordinator
Hindu American Seva Chairites

1 comment:

  1. Is not praying to the idol/statue/image of the bearded person called Jesus idolatry, is not kissing and touching the cross on which a person was put to death idolatry? What is idolatry? What is paganism? And what is heathen worship? These are mere labels derogatorily assigned to spiritual practices that the breed of Williams could not understand. I would like to draw his attention to read
    to get to know what his religion's only scripture says and also simultaneously read any commentary on many/any of the Hindu scriptures and find out what they mean. Christian fanaticism has already ruined the world by stripping it of its natural varieties of cultures and heritages besides it has also taught the world the concept of aggression and atrocities in the name of religion starting from the spread of Roman Empire to Inquisition to Crusades to the worst forms of zealous Missionary misdeeds. The divine Supreme Being has therefore, created the counter parts, other equally fanatical monotheistic and mono scriptural, exclusivistic abrahamic cults to counter and check these atrocities in the name of Christian religion.
    This is has been the problem of monotheistic and mono scriptural religions that they cannot and do not want to accept and participate in other religious activities. They feel comfortable in their blinkered belief systems like the folks who are satisfied with only one type of food or only channel in television or only one website on the internet only one type of dress for all citizens. They cannot tolerate variety. Why not apply that to your daily life and see how boring it is just to have only one website on the internet, only one channel on TV and eat only bread every day. Wake up to reality, learn from other ways and others ways of life too and appreciate the natural, universal, divine variety which is what tolerance is all about.