From “Lost” in America to Rediscovering Community

A woman sitting in the Prayer Hall of the Jain Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan. PHOTO by Bill McNeece.Worshipers at Jain Temple in Farmington Hills Michigan performing Arati (waving of lamps) at entrance to the temple’s Ghabhara Room. PHOTO by Bill McNeece.“Welcome!” to Bhavna Mehta, an Indian-American follower of Jainism, an ancient tradition in India with a profound commitment to nonviolence—and to the belief that all living beings have souls. Once almost unknown in America, Jains are showing up in the news more frequently around the English-speaking world. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently made a lengthy interfaith visit to a Jain temple to learn more about the tradition himself. Jains appear in a number of upcoming books on religious diversity.
Bhavna is part of the WISDOM network that produces “Friendship And Faith.” You can learn more about WISDOM through our links at right. You also can purchase our book, packed with dozens of similar stories.
TODAY, Bhavna tells us a little about her life, how she eventually felt lost in America—and how rediscovering her own community was enriched by cross-cultural friendships.

Here is Bhavna Mehta’s story …

I grew up in a religious Jain family in Pune, India. I attended a Convent school in Pune with friends who were Hindu, Muslims, Sikh and Christians. Some of my classmates were from Persia (now called Iran) and to this day I am not sure which faith they followed. Growing up I do not ever remember giving a second thought to the faith practices of my friends. We celebrated Hindu festivals and went to Hindu temples on those special days. We looked forward to Christmas, when one of our school teachers would invite us to her house that had a small Christmas tree on a table. But the memory that has stayed with me was going to the school church just before exams would start. I had learned all the proper practices when entering a church, including making the sign of the cross and kneeling down and praying very hard to get good marks on our exams.

I also remember doing the sign of the cross when I went to the Jain Temple. My mom, who was standing next to me at the time, did not say anything—but she later explained to me something that became the most important lesson of my life. She said, “Your faith is your sight. It is not only important what you choose to see, but equally important is what you do with the sights that you see. You can learn from it and build your character. Learn to see only the good in everything and everyone. Your faith is your foundation. All the people around you are the pillars—and you need them to keep the roof from falling over your head.”

At that time, my friends were my friends. They were part of various faiths. In 1978 I got married and came to this country. I was immersed in American society and got lost in my new life. It was many years later that I realized that I missed conversations and celebrations of the different faith traditions that I had when I was growing up. People at work did not ever ask me about my faith nor did they share theirs. I never initiated such conversations, because I was not sure if it was appropriate conversation. Sadly I got used to this.

Then, I met my friends from WISDOM. They touched my heart when they embraced me and wanted to know more about my faith. They educated me about theirs, invited me to their faith events and made it a point to come to mine. This knowledge of the different faith traditions helped me see the people around me in a new light.

I found the long-lost feeling that I had during my childhood and that is important to me. If we can spread this special quality—and it is a quality that I feel is appropriately described as “Faith and Friendship,” then respect and love for all human beings will become contagious.

(NOTE on photos today: Bill McNeece teaches sociology and has been working on visual sociology research that describes the changing religious landscape in southeastern Michigan. Here is the website for the Jain Temple in today’s photos.)

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Sixth anniversary celebration for the Jain Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan. PHOTO by Bill McNeece.

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