Want socially engaged kids? Show them your faith.
It starts with birthdays. In India the question is, “What will you give in honor of your birthday?” In America the question is, “What will you get for your birthday?” Getting versus giving, this is the fundamental shift in understanding between our competing cultures of Indian values verses American values. In our multicultural interfaith family, we deal with this tension between giving and getting, sharing and receiving, serving and being served. By celebrating both Deepavali and Christmas, star birthdays and date birthdays, attending temple and churches we have strived to teach our children the values of service and activism.
The American view of receiving gifts to celebrate the years of your life puts the focus on the value of the individual over the value of the community. When we rather ask the question, “What will you give in honor of your birthday?” we shift the focus to our community and ways we will want to contribute to others. When we are planning an Indian wedding, birthday, or anniversary gathering we first think about the elaborate ways in which we will give to others who attend. While there is an aspect of gift exchanges, we also spend a good deal of time planning for what we will give in our gift bags. What sweets, snacks, clothing, sarees, veshtis, jewelry, or even silver items will be ceremoniously given to our guests? How might they leave this gathering feeling glad to have been a part of God’s blessing in our lives. We believe that our guests are extensions of God coming to bless us. And as we host our honored guests, we imagine that we have welcomed the Goddess Laxmi in our midst. In Sanskrit the phrase, “Atithi Devo Bhavaa,” which means that the guest is godlike. This is not unlike in the Christian tradition when we hear Christ’s words in scripture, “whenever you do this for the least of these, you do this for me.” When we give, we may be encountering Christ.
In my extended family, we also plan for seva or our sacred service to others as well. Our budgets and planning reflect a caring for others as we celebrate the auspicious occasion of a birth or a marriage. Will we give a large donation to a school for children in the village? Will we provide a full meal to be cooked and given to anyone who comes to the Hindu temple? Will we ask for donations to build wells in India and Uganda? Will we volunteer at the local animal shelter or donate toys to the domestic women’s shelter? In our family we have made it an annual tradition to cook for the community in honor of our Amma and Appa who are no longer with us. Seva turns our attention toward others and away from ourselves—a value that is much needed in our world today.
Our Hindu Indian cultural values blend nicely with American Christian ideas of volunteerism and social activism. When we learn to think about and care for others in our community as part of our annual birthday and holiday celebrations, what we give becomes more important than what we get. Learning to care for the marginalized other therefore is not far behind. Social engagement and activism, speaking out and speaking up becomes an extension of that sacred duty to care for the whole community, not just myself or my family.
Giving gifts of survival packs to the men and women on the streets of downtown Chicago is a summer high school project. Cooking for the local Homeless Shelter is something that you plan for your Saturday. Raising money for clean water for kids in South India is what you want for your birthday. When this is a natural part of growing up in a multicultural household, then of course #BlackLivesMatter. Then of course you would organize a #MarchforOurLives school walkout. And it follows that you would also care about who is elected to your local, state, and national offices. Seva leads us to Social Activism. Our religious values have social concern for the other built into them. If we want our children to be more socially engaged, then we need to show them that our feet follow our faith.