Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Few Lessons Learned: Faith, Friends, The White House, and So Much More

Incidents like the Sikh temple shooting in Milwaukee compel me to find a target, somewhere to point the finger at, someone to blame, someone to claim responsibility for six innocent lives... and the hundreds of thousands of ripples . The fact is, nobody could have known the chaos that was going to descend on the innocent community center and place of worship at Oak Creek. It is unthinkable for such hate and violence to be inflicted upon a peaceful and loving community. It is just not fair.

I applied to attend the Next Generation Seva Leaders Conference in order to further explore my faith and my heritage. I knew I was going to hear from remarkable men and women at this conference: it was co-sponsored by a powerhouse of organizations including the Georgetown Campus Ministry, Hindu American Seva Charities, and the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I was hesitant at first because I really had no formal education on Hinduism. I was worried that I would feel out of place, but I was drawn to the opportunity to work with Bhutanese refugees, interact with the impressive line of of speakers, and obviously regard the esteem of being at the White House. Since I already had a focus for secular community service and social justice through school organizations, I was interested to learn how I could tie that to my family's religious background with faith-based service or seva.

My experience fundamentally changed the way I viewed my family's faith, my faith, and all faiths. I heard from inspiring panelists that were the spiritual leaders of the next generation. They were experts at understanding the millennial “dash Americans”: Jewish-Americans, Sikh-Americans, Hindu-Americans, or anything else. They shared with us the passion, understanding, and patience that is required to grapple with a developing spiritual identity. They encouraged us to educate ourselves about our roots and our traditions through academia and mentors, but they also empowered us to have courage and blaze our own trail. Religion, evidently, is not exempt from moving into the twenty-first century.

As a testament to that inevitable truth, the conference also invited speakers that addressed social justice issues that had previously been considered taboo or were rarely mentioned in the context of Hinduism. Domestic violence and LGBT issues were discussed with compassion, not awkwardness. The connection between the obesity epidemic and the exercise of yoga was an unorthodox but creative one. Even the government's “My Plate” nutritional initiative found a South Asian “My Thali” counterpart, yet another effort spearheaded by the Hindu American Seva Charities. These topics were everything I could have ever hoped to see changed in the world, and they were related to my roots.

We were also honored to interact with the Bhutanese refugee students from the American Vivekananda Academy (AVA). From the moment we started working with one another during the food drive, the students conveyed their intelligence, friendliness, and sense of humor. We were eager to hear their stories, and they were eager to share. Hopefully, we have done them justice in making their voices heard by listening and working with them in the future. 

When I think back to the conference, I think of a single snapshot that someone uploaded onto Facebook with their phone. It shows a White House official, teenagers from New Jersey, and refugees from Bhutan all sitting on the ground and sharing a meal. Who knew paneer and naan could act as such powerful equalizers?

This conference made me realize that faith can bring people together to advance social change. What we believe and how we believe are secondary to our empathy for the human condition, but it is those who believe that will be united.

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