Friday, August 05, 2011
At the White House with the Hindu American Seva Charities, July 29 & 30, 2011
My work with Odyssey Networks has given me two opportunities to attend conferences at the White House. Some months ago I attended the first of these with the Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/. Last weekend, I was privileged to attend and speak at the first-ever Hindu conference at the White House, sponsored by the Hindu American Seva Charities – http://www.hinduamericanseva.org/. Both the Interfaith Youth Core and the Hindu American Seva Charities are members of Odyssey Networks.
Meeting under the theme “Impacting Change in America and Abroad,” the Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) event was a "family gathering" for Hindu Americans. It was a great privilege to be one of the few non-Hindus in attendance.
The first day of the event, Friday, July 29, 2011, was held at the White House in the auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The theme for this day was “The Whole World is One Family” and it really felt like a Hindu American family gathering!
A major part of the morning was spent with Hindu American military leaders, American heroes really, from several branches of the US military. The US flag was waved proudly. Our National Anthem was sung. US Hindu pride abounded. The first Hindu US military chaplain, a young woman named Pratim Dharm, was introduced. It was all very sweet.
Then the winners of HASC’s essay contest were announced and honored – high school and college aged youth and even older adults were brought on stage to accept their awards. The contest theme was the role the Hindu faith plays in service in their communities and we heard many examples of the work Hindu temples and other local groups are playing in their communities, serving the needs of the poor and much more.
Faith, family, service, America – I could have been anywhere in the USA but I was at the White House with Hindus, Indian Americans – a rare privilege for me.
But a rarer privilege came to me the next morning when the conference continued at nearby George Washington University on Saturday, July 30, 2011. This day’s theme was “Strengthening Local Communities, Impacting Poverty and Advancing Global Development.” I helped open the day on a panel with three others speaking to the theme of the “Pluralistic Landscape of America.”
The other three panelists were Hindus – I was the only non-Hindu and, as far as I could see, one of only three non- Hindus in the auditorium this day. I asked to speak last. The others gave eloquent talks on this theme, outlining the history of interfaith relations in the USA and the Hindu contribution to these relationships.
Two of the speakers before me referenced documents that their relatives had received in years past from the time when the United Kingdom ruled India. Both of these documents stated something like “Despite being a Hindu, so-and-so is a good person.” This example was stated without rancor, just part of life for Hindus in India in those days.
I wanted to share some basic information on faith in the USA in 2011, statistics that I love to share from the recent book, American Grace by Putnam and Campbell. But, I felt it best to begin by saying something like this:
“With the poor history of Christian treatment of Hindus and other American religious minorities, I feel I should begin by saying something like I hope someone would say to you of me, “Despite being a Christian, Eric is a good person.”"
That statement drew the first of several moments of sustained applause from the group. I have never had this sort of experience, having my remarks so wonderfully received with applause interruptions! When I shared Putnam and Campbell’s statistic that 89% of all Americans now believe that more than Christians can go the heaven, including 81% of evangelical Christians, I was again interrupted by applause as I was when I said that I recently shared in a sermon that I could not believe that Jesus Christ would deny the afterlife to 2/3 of the world’s population! (They also loved it when I noted that I was once criticized by name by Jerry Falwell, but that’s for another blog post!)
During the brief question and answer time, one young woman asked how to respond to Christians who feel obligated to try to change her from her Hindu faith to Christianity. Other panelists suggested that she remember that this was a basic tenant of their evangelical faith and that they should not be offended by these efforts, but use them as a teaching time to tell them about the Hindu faith. I asked for their understanding and prayer for these people.
By this time we were far over our time slot (we had begun nearly an hour late – "India time" I was told) and I had to leave to catch my train back to Manhattan. As I tried to leave I was followed by a crowd – people who wanted my business card and a copy of Odyssey’s new brochure, people who wanted to share their faith story and even the sad treatment they had received from Christians. It was all very moving and sobering. I left honored to have had a small chance to say that most Christians would honor their Hindu faith and celebrate that they/we were all people of faith.
What a privilege it is to work for Odyssey Networks and have the chance as a Christian to witness to the commonalities among people of faith – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, AND Hindus!
Note – my dear friend, Josh Stanton, another of the non-Hindus at this event, wrote a wonderful blog on the Huffington Post about this event, “Hindu Community Makes Its White House Debut.” I recommend it to you – see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-stanton/hindu-community-white-house_b_910474.html?view=screen. More details of the conference are online on the Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) website at http://www.hinduamericanseva.org/events/seva-conference.