Religious communities are never the same once they reach America. In my view, they often become even more remarkable.
As a third-generation American Jew, it is at times even challenging for me to think of Judaism apart from the American experience. In spite of hardships early on for our community, the search for common threads between the disparate Jewish groups that came in droves to America two (and more) generations ago forced us to reexamine and hone our religious beliefs. What actually bound us together?
Answering that question compelled leaders of the American Jewish movements to articulate key Jewish values for the contemporary world -- notably equality, education and the support of Jewish communities worldwide. Yet most compelling for many American Jews was, and remains, the active engagement of social justice issues.
We emerged from disempowered (and worse) circumstances in Europe as a community that lived out its faith through action in America. From the labor movement to the feminist movement to the civil rights movement to the environmental movement, American Jews found themselves disproportionately represented and often in leadership roles. Jewish belief (whether theological, ethical, or both) guided action, and action inspired belief.
As has become quite evident in the past several years, another set of religious groups, bolstered by recent waves of immigrants to America, is also looking to social justice as a possible unifying trope. Launched by Anju Bhargava, Hindu-American visionary and founder of Hindu American Seva Charities, this effort seeks to increase long-term collaboration between Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Sikh communities through religiously inspired volunteerism, charity and social services.
Together, these groups -- several of which are comprised primarily of immigrants from South and East Asia -- represent what may be described as Dharmic religious communities and a new coalition in the American religious landscape. They are seeking a unique American identity and niche for their adherents. Like other religious communities that have flourished during and after waves of immigration, they appear poised to make essential contributions to American society.
I was blessed to see the formal launch of their historic collaboration this week at a conference hosted by the White House. Entitled "Community Building in the 21st Century with Strengthened Dharmic Faith-Based Institutions," it sought to build strategic collaboration between each religious community and create a common language with which to do so.
As one of a dozen non-Dharmic participants fortunate enough to take part, I was profoundly moved by what I saw. The search for commonality among Dharmic religious practitioners was well underway, and I was witnessing these communities work to determine the values they would express through their institutions in America. It felt like a sacred moment and one of conscious transition for the religious communities involved.
I could not but see resonance between the formation of such partnerships between Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and Jains and those that had emerged within the then-disparate Jewish communities during the period of great Jewish immigration to America.
What were to be the shared goals of these communities? What was unique about each one? Could they all even come together under the banner of a religious coalition, or did some of the groups see themselves on a different spectrum altogether? Was it possible for immigrants from South and East Asia to seek common cause in spite of coming from distinct countries?
Most impressive to me was the emphasis on planning for the future. The Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain leaders present at the White House did not simply want to find common cause in the present but determine systematic ways of articulating their religious values through action in the future. While theological and philosophical differences were identified and made explicit (for example, through the presence of four different mantras and/or prayers with which to open the gathering), the shared focus of social and human issues was unmistakable. The Dharmic religious communities seem poised to singularly effect change in the American religious context and to do so in tandem.
It was an honor to see Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains not only engaging in but building upon their religious precedents for a vital and important role in America's future. Their efforts, particularly to provide much-needed social services to the aged, the unwell, and the needy, are likely to become a model from which all American religious communities can learn.
There is also growing focus among American Dharmic communities about international human rights concerns. This comes in response to growing evidence of possible kidnappings, forced marriages, and high conversion rates among Hindus and Sikhs (and Christians) in Pakistan, as well as Buddhists in Southeast Asia.
If the evidence is corroborated, what is the role of American Dharmic communities in addressing these concerns overseas? Is there some kind of protection they can provide from America for practitioners abroad who might feel at risk?
If so, this suggests a new role for American Dharmic communities not only domestically but also as leaders within their respective traditions internationally.