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

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...

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