White House staffers were treated to novel sights and sounds as the halls filled with bejeweled dancing girls and the wafting smells of curry.
The July 29 event was a precursor to the second annual conference of the Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The White House event offered a briefing and a gala dinner. Local dance teacher Maliki Ramprasad and several of her students performed a variety of Indian classical dances in the auditorium.
Invited guests and winners of HASC’s essay contest on “Energizing Dharmic Seva: Impacting Change in America and Abroad” were treated to a meal prepared by acclaimed chef Vikas Khanna from New York.
In the spirit of his documentary series, “Holy Kitchens,” Khanna stood at the end of the buffet, smiling beatifically and personally serving every attendee the final dish of the light menu, halwa. “I wanted it to be like temple food, everything on one plate,” he said about the simple dinner of stewed potatoes and various vegetables with rice.
“When you serve someone, you are serving yourself,” he said. “It becomes more than food; it is a spiritual experience. This was a great way for me to experience that.”
The White House arranged for an area of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building hallway to serve as a cafeteria. With only about 30 chairs for more than a hundred attendees, the atmosphere almost felt like India itself, with participants crowding into the stairwell and hallways to sit and clamoring over the lone, infrequently refilled water pitcher.
The conference, held July 30-31, brought together more than 200 participants for a weekend of inspiration and collaboration. The organizers, led by HASC founder Anju Bhargava, packed panel after panel into the two-day schedule, inviting prominent members of the Indian-American community and the Obama administration to discuss the broad topic of “seva” or service – from military service to environmental action to yoga education.
“The conference was a vehicle to get a lot of people motivated, to see the depth and breadth of what Hindu seva is,” HASC co-founder Ved Chaudhary told News India Times. The organization was created in response to President Obama’s 2009 “call to service” to the faith communities.
Bhargava and Chaudhary were beaming throughout the conference, which they said signaled a legitimization of the Hindu-American community as part of the American story. The backing of the White House, they said, gives the community a solid seat at the table.
Paul Monteiro, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, explained Obama’s motivation in the conference’s keynote address.
“President Obama recognized that people of faith have historically played a large part in moving forward social justice issues. He was the only senator who had, on staff, people working in outreach to the faith community.”
As president, Obama continued this outreach and Monteiro reiterated the need for faith voices in the larger conversation. “The door is always open. It’s important that the Hindu voice is a part of the conversation,” he said.
Throughout the conference, academics, nonprofit organization leaders and members of the Obama administration discussed problems, brainstormed solutions and launched initiatives. Panel topics covered issues from “Connecting to America through Seva” to “Health, Nutrition and Education: Contributing to the National Wellbeing.”
Jannah Scott, deputy director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, attended the conference as well.
Administration members such as Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Josh DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, spoke alongside community members Khyati Desai of Points of Light and Dr. Sudhir Prabhu of the Hindu Collective Initiative of North America, among many others.
Allies from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities joined HASC for a discussion on “Interfaith Opportunities: Community Integration to Build Healthier Communities to Reduce Poverty.”
“We feel ecstatic! I feel tremendously enthused that so many people and organizations are supporting us,” gushed Chaudhary the day after the conference closed.
Major outcomes from the conference include a more formalized relationship with the Department of Homeland Security, a burst of energy toward environmental action, awareness of the needs of Hindu American military families, and a “firming up” of the youth coalition, Chaudhary said.
Many participants were particularly moved by the panel “Joining Forces: Recognizing Contributions of Dharmic/Hindu Americans to National Defense and Service to the Nation,” filled with members of the armed services, a rarely discussed population of the Hindu-American community. “To see these people in uniform on stage talking about the service they give to the nation and the service they expect from us, that was eye-opening. Everyone in the audience kind of said ‘wow’ “ Chaudhary said.
Darshan Soni, vice president of Seva International, an umbrella organization of 38 volunteer chapters, was one of those moved by the panel. He had no idea of the needs of military families, who often feel isolated as their enlisted go off to serve. Soni felt motivated to act immediately. “We can mobilize volunteers by the end of the month,” to act as host families and to reach out with emotional support, he told News India Times.
Over the sweltering weekend, with temperatures dancing around 100 degree Fahrenheit, participants were also motivated by the panel on environmental action.
Titled “Bhumi Seva Initiative: Dharmic Faith-Based Approach to a Green Environment and Green Living,” it brought together thinkers who discussed ways for temples and community members to contribute to a greener world.
“In our community, on an abstract level, there is a great relationship to nature. But when it comes to the practical, it’s not there. That session brought together a need to practice what we preach,” explained Chaudhary, who is hoping to broadcast the discussion on YouTube soon.
The conference brought together leaders from all walks of life. Phil Goldberg, author of “American Veda: From Emerson and The Beatles to Yoga and Meditation. How Indian Spirituality Changed the West,” rubbed shoulders with Air Force Lt Col. Ravi Chaudhary, exchanging smiles and mutual admiration over dinner.
HASC hopes that the energy generated by the conference will propel the community toward action.
“The first generation of our community is still living like an island,” Chaudhary said. “They are going to temple and doing pooja, but are not seeing seva in the context of the United States. There are so many Governmental Departments who are out there to work with us in various ways. I hope the conference brought that awareness.”
Monteiro echoed this promise on behalf of the administration. “We are always looking to connect directly with grassroots leaders,” he declared in his speech.
“I hope this is the first of many convenings.”