By Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Esq.
On Tuesday June 19, Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus (Sadhana) inaugurated its support for the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) at Bhavaanee Maa Mandir in Brooklyn, New York, the first Hindu temple to ever host a PPC event. PPC is a nationwide movement to continue Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight against poverty, racism, climate change, and violence. It is well known that Dr. King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. The Poor People’s Campaign embraces the method of non-violent resistance, which was a hallmark of both Gandhi and King.
Sadhana, which means “faith in action,” is a grassroots social justice organization primarily working in the New York City area. While Sadhana members can often be seen cleaning up Jamaica Bay locally, the organization exists to serve an even broader mission: inserting a progressive Hindu voice into the social discourse of our times, times which, of late, have become increasingly alarming. Just this past week alone, the country hit an appalling low point, with children snatched from their parents, kept in cages, injected with psychiatric medications and flown to completely unfamiliar places. Religion was even used to justify these actions. In times like these, Sadhana felt it important to uplift love, and promote justice.
For the past few weeks, Sadhana members have been travelling to Albany, the State Capitol, to rally with the PPC. Sadhana will also be participating at a national PPC march this Saturday in Washington, D.C. Why did Sadhana as well as the Bhavaanee Maa Mandir join the PPC? The values at the heart of the PPC are the same as those Sadhana believes are at the heart of the Hindu faith – non-violence (ahimsa) and ekatva (oneness of all) are some examples. The Poor People’s Campaign could strike a chord with individuals that Sadhana regularly engages, including New York City’s Hindu community. The community is comprised predominantly of South Asians hailing from Guyana, Trinidad, India, Bangladesh, and Suriname. While South Asians, which include the subset of Indo-Caribbeans, are often perceived as a “model minority,” a significant percentage live at or below the poverty line, according to the latest available U.S. Census data.
Contrary to the common stereotype, South Asians in America are not just lawyers, doctors and IT specialists. They also assume lower-wage jobs. They are the taxi cab drivers who zealously ask for customers outside of the Lefferts Boulevard and Liberty Avenue train station. They are the restaurant workers at local eateries including the dozens of roti shops in Queens. They are the construction workers who build mansions in South Ozone Park and other parts of the City. They are the ones who cash you out at the grocery store. They fix your cars with knowledge brought over to the U.S. from vocational training back home in the Caribbean. A train ride to the Upper East Side would reveal how many Indo-Caribbean women are nannies to children in Manhattan. A bus ride to JFK airport would show you how many Indo-Caribbean men, some well into their old age, go to work each day as security guards, porters, and other lower-of-middle income jobs.
While many of our people, and immigrants in NYC overall, struggle to pay for things like housing, healthcare and education, you’ll rarely hear any call themselves poor. Among many reasons for this, pride prevents people from calling themselves poor. Being low-income is akin to being a failure for many. “Poor” is often treated like a four letter curse word. There is great stigma around poverty and the world is often stratified along class lines between “the poor” and the “non-poor.” People in poverty can inevitably end up feeling socially ostracized. They are balked at and blamed, and live in shame. This stigma can do long-term harm to a person. It can result in depression, substance abuse, low self-esteem etc. It can be so traumatic that it is debilitating, leading to someone having a tough time ever getting out of poverty. Being poor is often also a trigger for profiling by law enforcement and other injustices. While we can tell ourselves that we’re doing okay, the truth is that many of us are living in poverty, barely squeezing by. Many live “doubled up” in the basements of family members because they can’t afford to be anywhere else. Many work two jobs just to pay the bills. We are located in one of the epicenters of wealth in the world, and many of us move down South – not simply because the climate is similar to the Caribbean, but because “the rent is too damn high.”
Bhavaanee Maa Mandir opened its doors on Tuesday to leaders from PPC and Sadhana in efforts to raise the visibility of PPC, a campaign that is particularly relevant to immigrant communities. The temple is located along the border of Brooklyn and Queens, and is one of the oldest Indo-Caribbean temples in New York City. The majority of Hindus in New York City are located in Queens, where dozens of temples exist. Indo-Caribbean Hindus are an ever-growing population, with Guyanese being the second largest immigrant population in Queens according to the New York City Department of City Planning.
Tuesday night was a time to celebrate shared stories in a religious space that was welcoming to the diverse individuals who attended. Priest-in-Charge Pandit Mahendra Doobay, a prominent pandit in the New York City area, delivered an opening prayer, asking God to “lead us from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality.” A panel, facilitated by Kevin Kang, Member of PPC’s NYS Coordinating Committee, featured reflections from Rev. Claudia De La Cruz, Poor People’s Campaign Leader, Rev. Clyde Kuemmerle of Ecclesia Ministries, and Lara Tobin of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. Pratima Doobay sung several bhajans and songs.
Rev. De La Cruz spoke about growing up in the South Bronx, a neighborhood bisected by the Cross Bronx Expressway, where a child whose parents couldn’t afford to get them a nice pair of sneakers would resent their parents. Being poor meant living with shame, for De La Cruz. Rev. Kuemmerle spoke about the distortion of Christian teachings by religious extremists who are missing the point: Jesus preached a message of love. Tobin, who didn’t always feel comfortable identifying with religion, spoke about her work to engage affluent Jews in helping Jews who are impoverished. She explained how cathartic it was to be speaking at Bhavaanee Maa Mandir, a space of great spirituality.
On Tuesday, religion was not used to rip people away from each other, but instead it was used to bring people closer together, not through hate, but through love, a universal tenet of every major world religion.