New York Times
By Sharon Otterman
May 07, 2017
When the Shaanti Bhavan Mandir in Queens became the first Hindu temple in the nation to publicly declare itself a sanctuary congregation, part of a network of houses of worship that will support and shelter undocumented immigrants, its leaders hoped other local Hindu temples would join, too.
But spearheading that effort is proving more difficult than they had hoped. Last Sunday, no other temples turned up at a meeting intended to encourage others to become sanctuary congregations. Even within their own temple, only a few undocumented immigrants have come forward to begin talking about their status, though more worship there, members said.
“I’m positive it’s the fear,” said Davanie Singhroy, who is helping lead the temple’s efforts. “No one wants to come forward for fear they are making themselves more visible.”
The struggle at Shaanti Bhavan Mandir mirrors the larger problem that the National Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of some 800 houses of worship, has been having in attracting participation from immigrant congregations of all faiths, its organizers said.
Sanctuary congregations pledge to protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation by providing legal, emotional and practical support and, as a last resort, by sheltering them in their basements and rectories. Yet nearly all of the publicly declared congregations are Christian and Jewish.
“The reality is that among mosques and temples, and immigrant-led congregations as a whole, there is oftentimes more hesitancy, because of the concern that they may become targets themselves, whether for ICE or hate groups,” said the Rev. Noel Andersen, the national grass-roots organizer for Church World Service and an organizer of the movement, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the New York area, about 25 houses of worship are participating in the local branch of the movement, known as the New Sanctuary Coalition, with some 100 more in the pipeline to join, said the Rev. Donna Schaper, a founder and the senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan.
There are no mosques among them, though they may be helping their undocumented members quietly, Ms. Schaper said. Shaanti Bhavan Mandir is the only Hindu temple involved, she said. Yet despite the risks, the small temple has been unexpectedly public, unlike most other local sanctuary congregations, which have taken a lower profile. (The Union Theological Seminary, a 181-year-old bastion of progressive Christian scholarship in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, has also made a public announcement).
Ms. Schaper called the temple’s stance “very brave.”
For mosques, the challenge of joining the movement has been particularly intense, given the persistence of suspicion about Islam nationally and the targeting of Muslims by law enforcement and immigration orders.
In New York, the executive director of the Majlis Ash Shura, an umbrella organization of Muslim mosques and organizations, said that local mosques led by African-Americans and immigrants were rightfully wary of joining the movement.
“The other imams feel that if they shelter a criminal, they could be treated by law as hiding a terrorist,” Cheikh Ahmed Mbacke, the executive director, said. “They are very vulnerable and one of the biggest targets of law enforcement. It’s not that easy for anyone to bring that heat on themselves.”
In February, nine progressive Muslim spiritual leaders from around the country signed an online pledge to join the sanctuary movement, and called upon other Muslims to do so. But a decision was made not to publicize the list.
“There are many mosques working with local immigrant communities and undocumented folks,” said one of the public signatories, Imam Omar Suleiman, the founder of the Yaqeen Institute of Islamic Research near Dallas. “But for issues of safety, mosques are being cautious about public declaration for good reason.”
The first mosque in the country to have publicly declared itself a sanctuary, the Clifton Mosque in Cincinnati, backtracked soon afterward, and now calls itself a “solidarity” mosque that pledges to work with the movement.
“Within 48 hours, I received myself about 75 death threats, via text messages and Facebook,” said Imam Ismaeel Chartier, the mosque’s spiritual leader. The declaration in January, and accompanying fear, caused an internal conflict and soon led to the election of a more conservative, older board.
The Shaanti Bhavan Mandir is a surprisingly humble temple to take such a public role in the movement. The small storefront congregation is on Jamaica Avenue in the Richmond Hill neighborhood, under the elevated tracks of the J train. Its small banner is draped over the sign of a former real estate agent’s office whose space the temple is renting. It was founded five years ago by Pandit Manoj Jadubans, 44, a Guyana native, who, with a group of supporters, wanted to broaden what modern Hindu practice could look like.
One of hundreds of small Indo-Caribbean temples in that corner of Queens, it has sought to distinguish itself by focusing on the younger generation, acts of service and the environment. Its youth group’s motto is “the hands that serve are holier than the lips that pray.” Among other actions, it participates in regular beach cleanups though Sadhana, a coalition of progressive Hindus that also played a key role in encouraging the temple to become a sanctuary.
“We are a community largely comprised of immigrants and undocumented immigrants, and we were worried that this step would bring attention to our congregants who are undocumented,” said Ms. Singhroy, 22, a temple and Sadhana member. “But in the end we decided those are the very people we were going to help by taking this step.”
Pandit Manoj announced the temple’s decision on March 19 in front of a packed sanctuary, a glittering array of idols and a photograph of his late guru, Shree Prakash Gossai. “Let the mandirs, the temples, be a place where people can come to feel comforted, protected and feel some sense of worth within their life,” he said.
Because the temple’s space is small and can accommodate only about 150 worshipers, there is no room to physically house an undocumented immigrant, members said. So for now, sanctuary means they will serve as a safe space and resource hub for any undocumented immigrants seeking assistance.
Last Sunday, the temple’s leaders expressed some frustration that no other temples had turned up at their outreach meeting, which was attended by about 20 people. Six speakers, including Ravi Ragbir, an organizer of the New Sanctuary Coalition, were there for the occasion.
“How do you think we can get other temples to jump on the boat with us, and hold hands with us?” asked Ravina Jadubans, 34, the pandit’s wife. “Because we are having a very hard time to have other community members step up. Our mandir is small right now, but we are filled with lots of love. There are temples who are huge who do not want to step up with us.”
Mr. Ragbir said: “You have to answer the question of fear, because the first thing they are going to say is, ‘If I join this, are my members going to be targeted?’ And do we have an answer for that?”
“No,” she said.
“We do,” he replied. “We at New Sanctuary, we do.”
“And we are together now,” said Sunita Viswanath, a founder of Sadhana and the moderator of the meeting.
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