Yajna Purusa Dasa of the Bhakti Center in New York City will join other faith leaders for a public Panel Discussion at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue on May 25th, organized by the group “Local Faith Communities of the East Village.”
The Brahmachari monk, who started Manhattan’s Bhaktivedanta Ashram in 1998, and then the Bhakti Center around six years ago, will be joined by twelve other faith leaders from the East Village.
These include Rabbi Greg Wall of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, Father Arthur Wendel of the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, Imam Abu Sufian of Madina Masjid Mosque, Lama Pema Dorjee of the Nechung Foundation, and Sam Ruiz of Iglesia Alianza Cristiana y Misionera, among others.
The event will begin at 7pm, with each faith leader sharing the story of his or her personal spiritual journey, and explaining how they came to their understanding of what spirituality means to them. The histories of some of the local faith institutions, as well as information about what they’ve been doing for the neighborhood, will also be told.
Finally, the discussion will be opened up to the audience—consisting of the general public as well as members of each faith’s congregation—who will ask questions and also get a chance to share realizations from their own spiritual paths.
“This kind of discussion is important because it encourages people of different faiths to become more broad-minded by seeing the similarities between their own stories, and the stories of others who were attracted to serve God,” says Yajna Purusa Dasa. “It will help people to see, ‘They’re worshipping the same God as I am, just in a different way.’”
The upcoming panel discussion is just one of many public and private faith meetings organized by the Local Faith Communities group since its inception in Spring 2009.
Interestingly, the group was the inspiration of a man who is not affiliated with any particular religious group, but is, as Yajna Purusa says, “a very spiritual person.”
Now 58, Anthony Donovan has lived in the East Village since 1990, and conducts historical tours there. He had been attending programs at 26 2nd Ave, where Srila Prabhupada started ISKCON in 1966, as well as at many other churches, synagogues and mosques in the East Village. Wanting to connect all these neighbors, he approached their leaders with his idea, and many—including ISKCON of course—enthusiastically accepted.
“We stand against the prejudice, divisions, hatred and wars in our many names,” says Donovan on the group’s website. “We share the same missions to serve people in our community, especially in times of need and crisis, and also to help celebrate our unique heritage. We rejoice in our traditions, without losing sight of our undeniable common ground, and our common goals to do good and to serve others.”
As well as Yajna Purusa, eleven other East Village religious leaders joined the group—including rabbis, imams, Catholic and Russian Orthodox priests, Episcopal and Protestant ministers, a Spanish Evangelical pastor, and a Tibetan lama. They meet monthly, rotating sites and sharing their spiritual spaces each time. At these private meetings, they discuss issues facing their congregations and how they can work together to solve them.
For instance on one occasion, just as Ramadan 2009 was beginning, a huge billboard sprang up directly across from the entrance to the Madina Masjid Mosque on 11th Street, advertising a new TV show with an image of five larger-than-life naked teenagers, just barely covering their private parts. When the Mosque brought this up at a Local Faith Communities meeting, and asked if there was any way to help, the concerned group contacted the TV station in question as well as their ad agency in California. Understanding the impact on the community, the company apologized and took immediate action, changing the billboard the very next day.
Several months later, the same Mosque suddenly lost access to their building for Friday prayers, attended by over 350 people. The group sent out an urgent request, and soon the local St. George’s Ukranian Catholic Church stepped forward, warmly opening their doors to the Mosque’s congregation and showing great hospitality and community spirit. Welcoming the members of a religion often portrayed as their “enemies” to pray, they asked nothing in return—except “Could you say one little prayer for us too?”
This caring interfaith group also helps each other with lighter issues—for instance, when cooks at the Bhakti Center’s new Bhakti Café wanted to make their food not only vegetarian but also kosher, Rabbi Greg Wall of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue stepped forward to assist.
While this May’s panel discussion is the first of its kind, the group has also had several prior public events.
“In December for the past two years, we’ve held an evening of interfaith recitation and music called Spiritual Sounds,” Yajna Purusa says. “Each faith organization from the neighborhood makes their own musical presentation, and we hold it at a different church, temple, synagogue or mosque each time.”
The group also held a series of Open Houses every Thursday evening in summer 2009, welcoming the public to enter any of its member institutions, get information, or simply contemplate quietly in the special spaces.
“Numerous people spoke of ‘never being in a synagogue,’ or a church, or a mosque, etc,” says Anthony Donovan on his site. “Those of the public who wandered in expressed how they loved both the idea, and the reality of this openness and sharing.”
On May 5th 2010, a special version of this Open Houses evening was held wherein leaders walked with each other as well as members of the public to each institution—visiting a mosque, a synagogue, a Tibetan temple, a Vaishnava temple and several churches, all in one evening.
The next Open Houses is scheduled for September 6th of this year, while the next Panel Discussion is also expected to be held sometime in September.
“At the next one, each member will share their faith’s approach to Death and Dying,” says Yajna Purusa. “As we do with our private meetings, we’ll rotate the venues every time, so the next one could be at the Bhakti Center.”
In the future, Yajna Purusa also hopes to hold a regular program wherein he introduces leaders of different faiths to the Bhakti Center’s congregation.
“Interfaith events like this will certainly create awareness that we exist, and may inspire more people to find out what we’re about,” he says. “But they’re also a good way for our congregation to interact with people of other faiths, hear their stories, and in so doing decrease the sectarianism and fanaticism that naturally comes along with any faith. Getting to know people of other faiths, meeting them in person and hearing their stories, is very powerful.”
For more information, please visit www.LocalFaithCommunities.org.