The Dharmic American Community Answers Obama's Interfaith Challenge

As new Americans, while we are transplanting traditions and creating a new identity, we are blending "best practices" pulled from East and West. We have much to strengthen America.
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"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." --President Obama

The President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge will help magnify, value and encourage America's religious and cultural diversity. The initiative will engage the rich, pluralistic diverse communities in partnerships for the common good. It will empower them to be innovative in providing services (seva) to communities in need. The Campus Challenge can build social cohesion and bring together America's increasingly diverse religious society and help advance peace (ahimsa) and justice at home and abroad. It can also foster future collaboration, negotiation and innovation, which can create jobs and promote economic growth and diplomacy.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

For most new Americans, the point of reference for civic engagements is based on their traditions. I studied the infrastructure needs of Hindu/Dharmic/South Asian communities during my tenure as member of President Obama's Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I also examined the Asian American Pacific Islander community in New Jersey, under the Clinton administration. I concluded that many Asians, South Asians of all faiths (e.g., Hindus, Jains, Sikhs or Buddhists) are not fully engaged in the civic process, much less on college campuses. It is not that the students and the community members do not want to participate, or even that their diverse religions do not encourage it. They don't know how; they don't always have the necessary knowledge and tools from an American context.

HASC is working to bridge the knowledge gap to sustain Dharmic/Hindu faith based approach to development. To impact change and encourage new service ideas, HASC is sponsoring a widespread civic and service participation essay contest as part of a conference Energizing Dharmic Seva: Impacting Change in America and Abroad from July 29 - 31. We encourage all, particularly youth, to participate.

While we are transplanting traditions and creating a new identity as hyphenated Americans, we are blending current "best practices" pulled from East and West, then and now. We have much to offer to strengthen America.

Many of the spiritual and cultural practices of the East have been embraced in the West. Phil Goldberg, author of American Veda, aptly says in his book, "Starting from the 1840s, Vedic Hindu philosophy has impacted American philosophers from Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation." The eastern traditions (such as yoga and meditation) can serve as a connecting bridge and solution providers to mitigate major conflicts around the world.

We need to expand community service. President Obama said as much at Diwali, the Hindu New Year: "Diwali is a time for celebration, but it is also a time for reflection -- a time when we must remember that there are always others less fortunate then ourselves. This holiday reminds us all that we should commit ourselves to helping those in need."

The President perfectly captures the sentiments behind our unique in-cultural program, UtsavSeva(Festivals of Seva), as we connect the Dharmic/Hindu community to serve America.

The problem is that the Dharmic/Hinducommunity is generally not organized or governed in the same way as the other established religious-based community service groups. As a result, the service infrastructure of this community is in its infancy with little available funding. On college campuses across the country, Eastern religions and those inspired by Hindu /Vedantic Eastern philosophy are striving to find a place. Duke, Princeton, Harvard, NYU and Columbia are among only a few schools that have created space.

Most U.S. college campuses have not supported a Dharmic religious life chaplaincy or a dedicated place of worship. Systemic changes require a real comprehensive roadmap to establish and expand more local faith-oriented Seva Centers in colleges, in our houses of worship and standalone in cities, towns or rural areas. Expanding the interfaith collaboration will unite people of diverse faiths. Transformation and acceptance in the sacred and secular landscape of America with a mental paradigm shift will energize seva through interfaith collaboration.

The White House Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge highlights that what is needed today is an integrated effort from multiple sources. This is recognition of America's pluralism, where people of all diverse backgrounds and faiths can collectively contribute to an enhanced civic life.

HASC's motto to "Serve, Celebrate and Learn: Building Communities Together" is central to the mission of the Campus Challenge. We support the White House initiative, and recognize the need to build partnerships with all religious and secular educators (e.g., Campus Compact, IFYC), students and their associations who collectively must develop an on-campus seva capacity.

The idea is to nurture common service goals, promote inclusion, diversity and acceptance of all traditions, including the eastern traditions. We can then mobilize talent and resources to address contemporary social needs collaboratively, while our youth hone skills necessary for working together with diverse communities in the global 21st century.

With our small AmeriCorps VISTA team, HASC has developed interfaith service projects with students and educators on select campuses. Academia is definitely receptive to the interfaith collaboration, and we are confident that the President's Challenge will get nationwide acceptance. With our partner, Points of Light, we are working to develop prototypes of "Seva Centers" or virtual service hubs, while learning from the existing seva programs in large temples.

Some of our recent interfaith partnerships and initiatives include:

• The Health, Education and Job Creation model designed to engage college students in service learning opportunities through research, community education and public service through HASC Young Scholars Program. This model is being implemented with the Bhutanese Service Project, Interfaith Global Dialogue Series at Rutgers-Newark and in the City of Passaic.

• The Interfaith Dialogue Series at Rutgers University (Newark) that seeks to examine the role of religion and interfaith communities in advancing peace, security, stability and prosperity. The outcomes of the project include: (1) Leveraging the cultural knowledge of the diverse communities to be a bridge in engaging them in service projects in Newark, Passaic and Jersey City area, specifically within the refugee communities and multi-lingual low income communities. Service projects to inner city schools include teaching yoga, health camps and nutrition, financial and computer literacy, mentoring, and greening of temples. (2) Developing policy papers with regional working groups.

• Yoga has become a universal language of peace, harmony and spiritual exercise in the United States, crossing many lines of religions and cultures. Now, it is providing groundbreaking opportunities for civic engagement and service for the Hindu American as well as the yoga inspired communities. HASC organized the first national Yogathon in September 2010 as part of Let's Move initiative. Temples invited thousands of people of all faiths to participate in free yoga classes provided by many teachers, including Art of Livings and Patanjali Yoga Peeth. HASC also participated in the National Yoga month which is interfaith by its nature. In January, some of the community members organize Surya Namaskar yogathon.

• The Bhutanese Service and Research Project (BSRP), a research initiative launched by HASC with its partners to work with and assess the needs of the Bhutanese refugees and incorporate re-settlement best practices from other refugee communities.

• HASC, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue hosted an experimental student-led roundtable to explore ways to actively bring peace in parts of South Asia (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan). We found students of all faiths are interested in working collaboratively to bring a change in many regions in conflict.

• In Wichita, Kan., volunteers from several Indian/Asian Students Associations, local Hindu groups and Interfaith Ministries, worked to feed the homeless (such as through the Lord's Diner), participate in the "Live the Golden Rule" with Global Faith in Action and are working to provide tutoring and mentoring to low income communities.

• As part of our UtsavSeva initiative the students also organized interfaith women's empowerment sessions (ShaktiSeva) with diverse women -- a Christian (Ms. Kansas 2010), a Hindu (an entrepreneur, who grew up in Africa) and a Muslim (a medical professional). Navaratri ShaktiSeva was celebrated at Hindu Temple of Minnesota. Expressions of American Shakti abound.

• HASC is working with temples, Oxford's Bhumi Project, University of Texas and others to promote greening of temples and sacred spaces. HASC recently launched "State of Dharmic Seva" research initiative to address Security Concerns of Dharmic Places of Worship in America with colleges.

• HASC is also reaching out to the Military and their families to develop community support programs. DoD does not have a Hindu Chaplain as yet..

The efforts show that interfaith collaboration to serve and build communities, leveraging the talent of America's pluralism, is in our national interest. Increased innovation, collaboration and world peace while mitigating crisis, really does begin at home, in our own communities in our neighborhoods.

"Be the change you want to see in the world." --Mahatma Gandhi

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