Thursday, August 11, 2011

Seva conference reflections... of a High Schooler...

Seva  conference reflections... of a High Schooler...
by: Shreekari Tadepalli

As a Hindu teenager in the Midwest, I have seen my share of ignorance, prejudice, and general antipathy towards the Dharmic religions – and a temple community that doesn’t always do its best at responding to society. I arrived at the Baltimore airport on Thursday evening, unsure of what to expect. A large gathering of Hindu-Americans – what exactly were we all hoping to accomplish? I’d heard names tossed about – Dr. Pankaj Jain of North Texas University, Phil Goldberg of American Veda fame, Gopal Patel of the Bhumi Project, and of course, Anju Bhargava, the visionary founder of Hindu American Seva Charities. I was interested to hear what they had to say, and not entirely sure what I had to offer. The following days provided me a snapshot of what Hindus across the country involve themselves in – I was overwhelmed.

One of the first things to catch my attention was the number of second generation Hindu-Americans who are involved in seva initiatives all over the country. From climate change projects to Bhutanese refugee support networks, youth are taking an incredibly proactive role as Hindus in seva.
One of the most exciting panels was the first one, on Friday morning – Youth: Ambassadors of Dharma, Hope and Seva. Moderated by Khyati Desai, the three panelists were Sonali Tatapudy, president of Dharma, Harvard's Hindu Student Association, Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, and Vineet Chander, Hindu chaplain at Princeton University. Everything they said really resonated with me – about a generation redefining Hinduism, taking ownership of their faith and practices, and bringing Sanatana Dharma into the Western world with full force. Over the course of the next two days, I got to know some of the students better, and made friendships that I'm sure will last a very long time. We face common issues, share similar experiences, and our struggles with identity unite us as a generation. Despite the enthusiasm I felt from many, there was still something that bothered me – why was it that nearly every time the word “youth” was brought up, it was in reference to college students? As a junior in high school, I've wished on more than one occasion that at least some of the opportunities available to those in college were extended to my age bracket as well. Now that I'm back home in the Midwest, I'm determined to start something that centers around the efforts of my fellow classmates, because we should have a voice, too.

There were several initiatives launched at the White House during the conference, and many projects, groups, and coalitions were brought up in the course of the panels. While each cause had its own merit, two in particular had an exceptionally powerful impact on the audience, sparking numerous conversations and fresh ideas. Lt. Col. Ravi Chaudhary's talk on Friday about Hindus in the Armed Forces, followed by Capt. Pratima Dharm & Uma Chaudhary speaking on Saturday about military families reached many hearts. In addition, the final panel, on Sanatana Dharma & the environment, had a profound impact on all present. Whether it was two strangers meeting and coming up with a new seva plan to support Hindu soldiers overseas, or my returning home full of ideas and potential connections to make my temple greener – the repercussions were felt almost immediately, and I know that these two particular movements will continue to grow. 

There were two other panels that spoke to me, personally. One was the interfaith panel on Friday – with a number of layleaders and clergymen from various traditions (Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu) – and the other was the interfaith panel of Saturday morning – with Philip Goldberg, Rev. Eric Shafer, and Kusumita Pederson. All the speakers encouraged Hindu-Americans to become involved in bridging gaps between religions by doing service work together, and while I see this as a worthy effort, something didn't quite fit. In my Michigan experience, most of the community service work is already being done by large, typically evangelical churches, who seek to proselytize. How then, I asked, can Hindus work with these Christians? They have all the resources, all the infrastructure – but they don't accept us or our beliefs. My question was posed to both panels, and the only solution given was to simply not work with those people. Or confront them, if they tried to convert me. I heard a similar question later Saturday, asked to the panel on college seva initiatives. The number of people who came up and introduced themselves after I spoke out told of how many see this as a major issue. It made me realize that we as Hindus need to bring the topic of proselytization out more often, because it is only in discussing the difficult questions that we find solutions. I hope to see more conversations about conversion – both in America and around the world – happen in the coming months. 
When it comes to conversations – there was no shortage of them! I met so many people, who had so much to say – and it wasn't all one-sided, either. Whether it was discussing Wendy Doniger on the streets of downtown D.C., or grappling with identity over dinner, or even crossing generations late into the night – the conversations that I had at this conference are unforgettable. It really struck me that despite the fact that we come from widely different backgrounds, there is a lot that we have in common, as Hindus in the west. I hope that these relationships are maintained and furthered, because we have so much to give as a community, both to each other, and to the world outside. I went in knowing that the important names would have a lot to share – and I came away realizing that we all have something important to offer, after all, even me.

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