A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cultural Identity and Immigrants - Part I

I got a book entitled Destination America from my local library and then went to this website as it relates to a PBS program of the same name: www.pbs.org/destinationamerica/ - the book tells the stories of various ethnic communities that have made America their destination. There is a wide range of reasons for people to have come here - Destination America delineates this into five Freedoms - to Worship, from Oppression, from Want, from Fear, to Create.

While the book and program website are wonderfully illuminating and fascinating, I was surprised and disappointed about what info was provided in the book regarding India and Indian Americans. In almost every state listed in the appendices, foreign-born (FB) people from India are in the top ten, and yet a mere *two* pages are given to the topic of immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East. This is in significant contrast to the number of people in those regions and the number of immigrants from those regions that come to the US. The number of pages that are devoted to understanding other immigrant communities/countries is not proportional to their representation in society. Why is this important? Knowledge - and not misinformation or misconceptions - helps us live together more harmoniously.

Knowing the stories of the peoples who make up America is critical to our future - the individual threads need to be woven together through a deeper understanding of each other to develop a fabric that is strong and resilient. While we are all "going global" around the world, there is a challenge that technology and ease of travel bring to the story of America. I appreciate the Ethnicity in Michigan series - the first one is a slim volume by Arthur Helweg and Jack Glazier which so clearly underlines the challenges we face today. The authors lay out the stories of what ethnic communities make up MI and what the migration patterns are (yahoo, they start with the native people!). Many of the most recent immigrants are from South Asia and the Middle East, whose story Destination America doesn't lay out in much detail. The assimilation and acculturation (or lack thereof) of the recent immigrants as narrated by Helweg and Glazier underlines my favorite Diana Eck quote - Diversity is a given, pluralism is an achievement.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

How to be more informed...

...about the Afghanistan war. Attending this event on Nov. 14 at Royal Oak First United Methodist Church would be one way.
Eight years of war. No end in sight. Mark your calendar and plan to attend the following special event:
Confronting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda
The Good War or American Quagmire?
featuring Professor Juan Cole
U.S. State Department representative (invited)
in a dialog on American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Saturday, November 14 from 1:30 - 3:30
Royal Oak First United Methodist Church
320 W. Seventh St.
Admission: $5.00
This event provides an excellent opportunity to hear about the issues that are rarely discussed in the media or by the administration.
About Juan Cole
U. of M. professor of history and author of Engaging the Muslim World. A regular guest on PBS's Lehrer News Hour and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Democracy Now! and many others.

He is one of the country’s foremost experts on America’s troubled relations with the Islamic world. His Informed Comment blog at juancole.com is among the most widely read blogs on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cole is fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, and has lived in various parts of the Muslim world.
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Monday, October 19, 2009

Faith and Politics

Today is my father's birthday. I write this in honor of all he taught me about faith and politics, in relation to my reading of Faith and Politics by John Danforth, and to encourage my fellow citizens to participate in the city of Troy's upcoming elections.

Some basic background on my pater - a writer/philosopher and poet/author, Dr. K. Srinivasa Sastry was born in pre-independence India, losing his father when he was two, and completing his masters (BA Honors) when he was just about twenty. He's published many books and writes copious diaries. He was generally the source of my knowledge of the Hindu faith, until I had to go find faith for myself and in myself (this is when it gets complicated, as did our relationship). Anyway, he is one of the first people I call to discuss theological and philosophical issues with, and sometimes my writing (he often reciprocates). He also loves to talk politics, and had a lot to say about the Emergency back in India when we lived in America in the '70s.

Some background on John Danforth - a former three-term Republican senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopalian minister, he wrote a book called Faith and Politics, where he quotes from the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul's Epistle to the Romans. In his book, he suggests that Christianity as a reconciling faith can be used as a way of engaging in politics, encouraging our leaders to focus on pressing problems and not on wedge issues. Danforth was a peace envoy to Sudan for G W, and highlights how we can help alleviate suffering in the world, as well as move forward together as a nation. The book, subtitled "How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together" reviews key divisive issues of the day: public religion (like me and Troy's 2005 NDP story), the case of Terry Schiavo, abortion and judicial restraint, stem cell research and gay marriage.

In the book, Danforth talks of the need to speak out and act, reminds us that "blessed are the peacemakers;" his concluding chapter is "Paul's Primer for Politics." He questions not whether people of faith should be engaged in politics, stating instead that we should not bring a certain faith-based agenda to our politics. As we could with most religious scriptures, he shows how we can use different texts from the Bible to support conflicting propositions. Danforth however, focuses on the primacy of love, humility and the guidelines for reconciliation as found in the Bible, to move forward. "If we believe we know God's truth and that we can embody that truth in a political agenda, we divide the realm of politics into those who are on God's side, which is our side, and those with whom we disagree, who oppose the side of God....We are seekers of the truth, but we do not embody the truth. And in our humility, we should recognize that the same can be said of our most ardent foes."

This reminded me of Gustav Niebuhr's statement in his book, Beyond Tolerance, about his great-uncle Reinhold Niebuhr's call to humility: "An acknowledgment that even when one professes an adherence to religious truth, one doesn’t fully know God’s mind." Danforth says we need a latter-day Reinhold Niebuhr - and I agree, given what this Niebuhr said about religion and politics, like this: "absolutism, in both religious and political idealism, is a splendid incentive to heroic action, but a dangerous guide in immediate and concrete situations. In religion, it permits absurdities, and in politics, cruelties." Much of this corresponds to what my father taught me.

My hometown of Troy - which is home to almost sixty (yes, 60!) houses of worship - has an important election coming up on Nov. 3, so faith and politics are very relevant. We are a community struggling like many before us, and many around us, especially in Michigan. The Troy Clergy Association wrote an open letter to the current Council about these issues. We need to elect officials who will lead us through these difficult economic times. We have many in our midst whose political strategy sets out extreme positions, people whose approach is black and white, and leaves no room for compromise. Twenty second sound bites and catchy phrases like "Tax Fighter" may help win elections, but where there are no new ideas, no basis for convergence of differing opinions, we will have no progress. We need public and elected officials to focus on reconciliation and compassion, identify and save the community's important services, realizing that they bring varying perspectives to the table and are open minded in their approach. I encourage my fellow-citizens to take action - to speak to the need to solve our community's problems by casting their vote for those who are willing to work with others who may not always agree with them, and who realize that they may not be the sole Truth-tellers. Read more Entry>>

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Finding Friendship and Faith at the Fourth HMEC

I just received a call from Raj Manickam, a friend I made at the HMEC last month. He was in town for a professional conference, and called to say hello. Raj is affiliated with Hinduism Today's monks, and at HMEC, we shared stories about our common inspiration - the work of the wonderful folks at the Kauai monastery (hinduismtoday.com).

What is HMEC? The fourth Hindu Mandir Executive Conference, which was attended by over 250 delegates from about 115 temples who all came to Linthicum MD on Sept. 11-13.

The website is here http://mandirsangam.vhp-america.org/ and will soon have information from the presentations and possibly videos of them as well. This year's conference was focused on engaging youth in mandirs, and began with deep prajwalan by MI representatives (myself and Sri Vishnubhai Patel who came as a delegate from the Flint Paschima Kasi Temple), and words of greeting from the host mandirs. Mythili Bachu of Durga Temple reminded me of how our Temples seek to be replicas of the wonderful architecture in India. I realized that we should plan our HMEC trips so we can visit the houses of worship in the region. Kumar Nochur talked about the “Why and How of Mandir Worship” and spoke of Ganesha not being just a remover of obstacles but also the union of shakti and shiva – energy and consciousness, which together represent Brahman. Then came a couple of critical presentations. One was by Shivi Chandra, who is a junior at John's Hopkins Univ. and affiliated with Gayatri Parivar. She spoke about youth and their involvment in mandirs being more social and less spiritual, as illustrated by a couple of her slides. She compared a Hindu student group's campus flier that invited people to aarthi where there would be free Dunkin Donuts and coffee, with a Christian flier that asked "do you make time in your life for god?" And she quoted a Hindu student's response to what are some significant aspects of the Hindu faith, that "we have garbha and bhangra!" Sri Swami Mukundananda senior disciple of Jagadguru Kripalu Maharaj of JKYog, spoke to the application of management principles to mandir management. He is an IIT and IIM grad, who said management is maya (illusion), that we should consider both paravidya (spiritual) and aparavidya (material) matters in temple management. He spoke of Kirthan, Shravan, Smaran and is the first one who convinced me that we should have (Sunday) prasad without strings attached. He also recommended that we distribute copies of aarthi when we sing it, that we invest in expansions, and establish a Hindu Credit Union. Again, his powerpoint, like Shivi's and many others' who were part of the conference, is worth being presented to entire Temple

The opening speaker on Saturday was Sri Dayananda Saraswathi who spoke of many things and was phenomenally inspiring, and reminded me of my father. Some key points from his presentation were: that mandirs are forms of passing tradition, our ancestors paid taxes to stay Hindu, that forms of passing the tradition are very important, that body is a moving temple, and that we have to understand, not just practice the rituals. On engaging the youth to be active in mandirs, he said that teaching our tradition to them is a responsibility and that we should not worry about the youth becoming involved, but that we as Temple execs and leaders need to change ourselves. In yet another session, someone pointed out that many churches were sold to temples, and as we are proliferating the structures and not able to engage the next generation, asked if will temples be sold in 30 years in a similar way.

A key speaker on Saturday morning was Anju Bhargava, on the President's Council of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who along with several people across country, including myself (I was recommended to her by folks at Harvard University who know of my outreach work on behalf of the Hindu community), has formed the Hindu American Seva Charities as a nonprofit. The mission of HASC is here, http://www.hinduamericanseva.org/home, and Anju spoke to the ongoing seva projects and partnerships we have around the country, and collecting the Hindu American service projects into a database to leverage a Hindu voice at the table.

Saturday afternoon's concurrent workshop sessions included a youth breakout session with no "adults," a session on "are we inward looking?" in which I was a panelist, another on management and administration of mandirs, and one on interracial marriages. I had been a panelist and moderator at last year's conference in MI on interfaith issues and the Outreach Committee I chair is organizing an Interfaith Family Forum on Nov. 8, so I was disappointed that I could not attend the interracial marriage session. I believe that discussions got a bit heated and there were some things I heard from several youth - who I was able to connect with quite well due to my upbringing in the US - which were quite illuminating.

From the summary of the workshop sessions, we came up with several action items, which were sent as part of a powerpoint to the attendees (I believe that these will also be available for download from the website above). Some of these are: to provide premarital counseling to interfaith couples, to contact Dr. Bapineedu Kuchipudi with issues related to priests, that we should draft a letter regarding dietary restraints for Hindus that can be used by temples to provide to local public schools, to create a list of all really successful projects that are going on at specific temples around the country (eg., the Siva Vishnu Temple in MD provides food to Martha's kitchen every month and has a great volunteer coordinator for this project!). Specifically from the youth session, it was determined that in order to retain/engage youth, we need to have them become leaders in temple activities, not participants, that we need to have seva (to the community we live in) as a critical component of mandir activities, and that we should create a youth network.

One of Sunday morning's sessions was related to the representation of Hinduism in the media and how it is important for us to become involved to correct these. Both USINPAC (usinpac.com) and HAF (hafsite.org) were there to do presentations, USINPAC being a political action committee for Indian Americans, and Hindu American Foundation, a nonprofit org advocating for American Hindus, including human rights issues for Hindus around the world impacted by
America's policies, and working with media, government and think tanks to better represent the Hindu community. The American Jewish Committee's local representatives, a Board member, the Director of the Baltimore chapter, and the staff member on Indo-Jewish Relations were a panel on Sunday morning as well. While all three spoke to our common ground and how we should build partnerships between Hindu and Jewish communities around the country, Nissim Reuben was quite memorable as he is Indian-born and Jewish. He said that India has been hospitable to all faith communities because of our principle to treat guest as god, athithi devo bhava.

Reporting on action items from past mandir conferences, there were a few significant items: the production of an antyeshti samskara (end of life sacraments) book, the initiative taken by several mandir executives to create a temple management software application, called HOMA, and a health care pool for temple employees (priests and staff). Dr. Vishnubhai Patel also gave me a free reign to buy books for the Bharatiya Temple which I did (asking me to buy books can
be a dangerous thing). One book I highly recommend that everyone take a look at is Invading the Sacred: an Analysis of Hinduism studies in North America. This is one of the challenges we have as a faith community - overcoming what is presented to our youth who take courses in college about Hinduism from non practitioners who often have misconceptions, an "outsider" perspective on our faith, some of whom look down on our practices - particularly because they may be looking at some remote or outdated beliefs.

I was honored and happy to be the Bharatiya Temple's representative, and very glad that the organizers asked me to present a topic this year also. Next year's conference will be hosted by the Meenakshi Temple and folks in Texas. All temples should send at least two delegates and we should find ways to get the other temples in MI to be part of this annual gathering. I made several other friends, such as Fred Stella from Grand Rapids MI who has the title Outreach Minister from the Temple Board, who was first exposed to Hinduism in Detroit at the ISKCON Temple as a youth. Fred is a practicing Hindu and is president of the Grand Rapids Interfaith Association. We have already begun corresponding on our respective interfaith initiatives and how we can create synergy - beginning with our common connection to Kryssis Bjork of Muskegon's interfaith network. I continue to have faith in expanding circles of friendship... Read more Entry>>

Monday, October 12, 2009

Oakland School of Business Admin's 40th Anniversary Conference

I was at an international business conference on the global marketplace, ethics, health care and education, at Oakland University here in Michigan. Again and again, I am impressed with the people that Dean Mohan Tanniru of the School of Business Administration brings together, and the vision of the SBA and Oakland in meeting the needs of the thoroughly downtrodden MI community. The two-day leadership program was held on October 8-9, and commemorated the school’s 40th anniversary.

On Friday, the sessions all related to the “The Future of Business Leadership,” and featured a diverse set of topics including ethics, health care reform, education and global leadership.

I had an opportunity to network with people looking for new direction in this dull job market of ours, and listened to several speakers on relevant topics for today. The first session was on Ethics and Social Responsibility, where Ken Janke, a Senior VP of Aflac Inc. spoke of how executive leadership sets the tone from the top, where people get accolades for doing the right thing, and shareholders vote on executive pay. He spoke of Aflac’s corporate citizenship and responsibility in supporting pediatric cancer programs and other community giving, how their corporate governance and internal systems support ethics and compliance. Next in the group was Betsy Bayha, a Senior VP at Blue Coat and their general counsel. She spoke to defining events in corporate ethics: Watergate; Enron & corporate scandals, the stock-option back-dating, and stockholder activism. I had to agree with Bayha that ethics is inherently a gray area, and while the world is flat, cultures are not aligned, there is a cost to being ethical and there is human greed to contend with. She concluded by listing three main things of what works to maintain corporate ethics – tone at the top; open door policy and raise your hand – which to my interfaith mind is ethics through action. The triangle was completed by Mike Houghton who came not representing GM, where he has been employed for decades, but to speak about ethics from Catholic social teachings. He talked of rights and responsibilities and the greater good, which prompted me to pose a question – how do you ensure that in seeking the “Greater Good” you are not lured to the “Dark Side?” I wonder how many got my obvious reference to the Harry Potter seventh book and Star Wars? I am not convinced I received an answer – nor am I sure that you can actually get one, since ethics is inherently a gray area…

While the break afforded me some networking opportunities, the next session really peaked my interest since my current consulting focus is on diversity training and global understanding. Richard Corson, the Director of Pontiac US Export Assistance Center, spoke to the need to be geocentric and not ethnocentric. Greg Garrett, Chief IT Strategist of VW of America, provided a lot of statistics for thought – over the next 20 years, 80% of the world’s growth will occur where it can’t be supported, by 2030, 25% of Europe will be over 65, and by 2025, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. What better reason to support mass transportation here in MI! Go TRU! He said that we should focus on market differentiating forces, not how many people but how much content they generate and to focus ahead of the curve. My favorite quote of the day came from Joe Tori, who quoted Alvin Toffler, "The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that can not learn, unlearn, relearn." I was disappointed in the responses to my question (asked as we ran out of time), about the impact of the $165 per pupil cut in the State’s K-12 education budget passed the prior night, and the dropping of a diversity workshop that my business partner and I had planned to provide, and what I as an individual or as a corporate entity can do to counteract this.

However, these sessions, the lunch lecture, the post lunch lecture and the tone of the SBA’s conference left me with hope that there are people in Michigan who do have a vision, who are thinking to the future. I just wish that some of these people were interacting with local governments… Troy City Council sure could use some of this forward thinking in developing our tax base so that we residents are not burdened as we currently are.

Here is a link to the official Oakland University news release about the event:
http://www.oakland.edu/view_news.aspx?sid=131&nid=5952 Read more Entry>>

Friday, October 2, 2009

Passivism or Pacifism

It’s Gandhi Jayanthi (his birthday). Gandhi’s Be the Change quote is everywhere - even on my fridge, thanks to my good friend and peace activist Rich Peacock. I take this mantra seriously; Gandhi is one of those interfaith heroes who inspire me and my actions… In the past few weeks, I participated in the Fourth Annual Hindu Mandir Executive Conference, the Troy Interfaith Group’s Book Discussion Group on the International Day of Peace (Sept. 21), the Hindu American Foundation’s DC Day, and celebrated the International Day of Peace at a Potluck Peace Picnic with diverse foods and discussion at the Community Interfaith Labyrinth in Troy. My reflections on Gandhi today are about what I am going to be doing next week, on Oct. 7 in particular - http://www.11hour4peace.org/images/Oct_7_Flyer.pdf …

Gandhi was a believer in passive resistance, but he also worked toward a world without violence. Was he a passivist or a pacifist? Am I a passivist or a pacifist? Lets look at the (Random House) dictionary first:

pronunciation: pas-uh-viz-uhm
1. the quality of being passive.
2. the principle or practice of passive resistance.

pronunciation: pas-uh-fiz-uhm
1. opposition to war or violence of any kind.
2. refusal to engage in military activity because of one's principles or beliefs.
3. the principle or policy that all differences among nations should be adjusted without recourse to war.

Gandhi said “Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.” I meditate and walk the labyrinth, and am reminded of the need to find my inner strength by the button on my handbag that says “Let PEACE begin with US.”

Gandhi said “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?” I go to peace rallies and call/write to politicians about my stance opposing war and military funding.

Gandhi said ”If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” I take my children to peace rallies and teach them to be pluralists.

Gandhi said “Peace is its own reward.” I work to find the balance between passivism and pacifism. Read more Entry>>