A Diwali Message About Seva as Faith in Action

By Sunita Vishwanath

The weekend after Hurricane Sandy, my friend Hemant Wadhwani and I were supposed to be on a social justice panel together as part of the New York Ganesh Temple’s first ever youth conference, a very exciting initiative indeed. I was to speak in my capacity as co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, dedicated to building a peaceful and tolerant Hindu society which prioritizes social justice.  

 I made it to the panel thanks to the NY subways and a car arranged by the temple. Hemant didn’t make it for two reasons: 1) he lives in New Jersey and there was (and is) a severe gas shortage. 2) He had been working the whole week organizing relief efforts for those severely impacted by the hurricane, and the weekend would be particularly busy. While some of us were talking with Hindu youth in Flushing about the central importance of seva (serivice) in Hindu practice, Hemant was busy doing seva! 

 NJ Assemblyman Albert Coutinho of Newark contacted Hemant the day after the hurricane.  Humanitarian assistance was desperately needed because half the city of Newark (population of 288,000) was without power, and the utility company PSEG said it could take up to ten days to get power restored for the entire city. Hemant pulled together three groups – the Sri Sathya Sai Baba Center, Sadhu Vaswani Center and United Sikhs – to gather blankets and other much needed supplies and also coordinate hot meals. 

 "We pledged to provide over 1,000 meals a day until the crisis ended. City officials were overjoyed as it was evident food security was a serious issue. Within 24 hours on Saturday, both the Sathya Sai Baba and United Sikhs group each delivered 1,000 meals to a centralized area where meals were being redistributed in city vans to residents across the city. What was great was that during this process, as word got out, we partnered with other faith-based groups like the Legion of Goodwill (Brazilian Christian group), Muslims Against Hunger, and New Hope Baptist Church (often known as Whitney Houston's church). Many of these faith-based groups are now in constant communication and serving other sites of need on the Jersey Shore and on Staten Island. Before the storm, there was very little communication and collaboration. So, it brought everyone together to service the needs of the community."

-- Hemant

 On Sunday I had the privilege of helping Hemant in a very small way. The Brooklyn Iskcon Temple is just a few blocks from my home, and my husband and I were able to pick up hot meals that temple volunteer Satya had cooked and deliver them along with volunteer Alicia Marin (friend of Hemant’s) to a relief center in Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay. 

"People can’t be happy unless they have eaten a good meal.  We hope that through these efforts some people were able to have a hot meal." 

-- Satya

 Alicia had been away during the hurricane and returned to New York wanting to help out.  She reached out to Hemant, knowing he could hook her up with a wonderful volunteer effort.  Since Alicia lives in Brooklyn, working with the Iskcon temple to get meals to Sheepshead Bay is a perfect volunteer task for her. Gerritson Beach is a community with 2,700 working-class households that are still without power, and have little outside support in coordinating emergency relief efforts. Their most immediate needs are for cleaning volunteers to help elderly residents who live alone clear debris so that they can return to their homes. GB Cares is a local community organization, coordinating these efforts.  Alicia has been volunteering with GB Cares.

I learned that the biggest challenge will come in the medium term when the media and donors have lost interest in the aftermath of Sandy. They'll need funds for reconstruction and qualified volunteers such as experts in federal funding and grant writing. Any person interested in volunteering can contact me at  amarinyanez@gmail.com for more detailed info. 

- Alicia

I am a mother of three, a human rights activist and a Hindu who believes ardently in the notion of seva as faith in action.  Hemant is a wonderful role model for me and my family – the ultimate karma yogi.  Hemant’s seva to the community is not restricted to times of natural disaster: every single Wednesday evening of the year, he can be found serving hot meals to New York City’s homeless in front of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.  He welcomes us all to join him!

 Seva Efforts:

New Jersey: You can reach Hemant Wadhwani at  hanumancapital@gmail.com
Brooklyn: You can reach Alicia Marin at  amarinyanez@gmail.com. Alicia can help you connect with relief efforts in Gerritson Beach.
Brooklyn: You can reach Satya at the Brooklyn Iskcon Temple at  satyabhadra@aol.com. The temple has the capacity to provide hot meals for hundreds.
Queens: The NY Ganesh Temple is collecting funds to support victims and relief efforts of Hurricane Sandy. Please make your checks out to 'Hindu Temple Society of N.A., include in memo 'Sandy Relief Fund'. Checks can be mailed directly to the Temple at 45-57 Bowne Street, Flushing, NY 11355.