The Hindu America Seva Charities (HASC) held its first-ever White House conference entitled 'Dharmic Seva: Catalyst to strengthening and building pluralistic communities on July 29. The group under the leadership of Anju Bhargava, aims to mobilize the Hindu American community around public service.
Bhargava greeted attendees and said, "We are here today to energize our seva efforts and start seva centers that address the needs of the community. Our practice of Sanatana Dharma, yoga and worship strengthens the individual to carry out seva in an American context. As the Gita says, 'Service given without consideration is regarded as a nature of goodness.''
Hosted by the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the conference brought together representatives from different religious faiths and private and public institutions to promote interfaith dialogue on variety of topics; the salient ones being to erase poverty, engage youth service, promote yoga and environmental awareness and conservation.
Given that budget cuts have reduced many social service programs, the conference highlighted the needs of pluralistic communities to step in and offer their services as a way to help the middle class and poor in America.
It served as a springboard to launch the Yoga-Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA)challenge, an effort to get youth and adults to improve their lifestyle and health through yoga.
The conference began with a blending of two cultures -- a recitation of Sanskrit verses followed by the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. One verse to Ganesh translated loosely said, 'O Lord Ganesha, of curved trunk, large body, with the brilliance of million suns, please make all my works free of obstacles.'
Ravi Chaudhary, Commander, and one of 15 Hindu American service-men and woman present spoke about the many contributions Hindu's have made to the armed forces. The initiative, 'Joining Forces' begun by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, was emphasized. It's a call for everyone to reach out, connect and support military families by pledging service hours, sending thank-you notes and starting volunteer activities.
The second day of the conference, held at Georgetown University, had Captain Pratima Dharm and Uma Chaudhary, the wife of Commander Chaudhary, reveal poignant stories of Hindu military families feeling isolated and neglected by the community. Dharm relayed one experience of not being acknowledged when she went to school, in complete military regalia, to pick up her child.
"I would have liked if someone just said 'Hello' and 'How are you doing?'' Dharm said.
This sharing prompted a discussion on how Indian temples could do a better job of registering military families, building awareness of their needs by assigning volunteers who could reach out, visit them and offer gratitude for their service to the country.
The topic of reducing poverty through interfaith opportunities brought together David Saperstein, a rabbi; Joel Hunter, a minister; Dahlia Mogahed, a Muslim from the Gallup center; and Rema Venkatsubban, a Hindu HASC member. Each communicated stories of persecutions within their communities and suggested methods of counteracting such insults.
Venkatasubban from Wichita, Kansas, recounted one such experience. After 9/11, she was taunted with comments like, 'If you believe in Jesus you will go to heaven, otherwise you go to the 7/11.'
"I felt I needed to begin some interfaith charity work so this identity crisis would not carry over to my children," said Venkatasubban.
Since then she has been active as a seva provider to the underprivileged. She is now focussed on starting an interfaith service center for the old. Her efforts led her to becoming an AmeriCorps Vista member, a national service program established to fight poverty.
A successful interfaith example was shared by Thomas Jones, ambassador for Habitat for Humanity, who spoke of people coming together nationally to build homes to eradicate poverty.
A cornerstone of the conference revolved around the 1,600 Indian houses of worship: their safety and security, the expansion of their role to reach out to new immigrants and refugees, and to become institutions that spearhead eco-friendly activities such as recycling and use of renewable energy.
Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of Green Faith, an interfaith organization that helps transform houses of worship into 'green spaces' offered his services to help green Hindu temples.
This was welcome news as a recent report entitled, 'Coming together to pray, and also to find reduced-rate energy deals,' noted that if the nation's 370,000 religious buildings reduced energy use by at least 10 percent they could save a combined $315 million a year -- the equivalent of taking 240,000 cars off the road.
But perhaps the most inspiring and articulate voices came from the youth who were present because of participating in an essay contest entitled, 'Energizing Dharmic Seva: Impacting Change in America and Abroad'.
They were moved to offer their services. Sohini Sircar, 22, Georgetown University graduate and essay contest winner, said that she was interested in establishing a data base that would link service sites with volunteer groups. Her idea came from a program at Georgetown called '30 Days of Service' where interfaith groups were paired to do service. Unfortunately, often times these students would spend countless hours waiting for a service opportunity. Sircar is currently researching events for her database.
Geetika Gandhi, 24, and her friend Ragini Ventatasubban, 20, said the speeches had inspired them to make and send care packages for the Hindu personnel in the military.
"We were thinking of sending them letters, a small Ganesh statue, Chai packets, Bollywood CD's and masala chips," said Gandhi.
"Originally my idea idea was to set up health care screenings at temples, but I think this is more important."