Surf the Internet and you can find information on religious traditions from
Assemblies of God to Zoroastrians. While the Web facilitates dialogues among
people from around the world, not much conversation seems to be going
on locally about the changing religious landscape of Indianapolis.
True, we don’t have our own "Highway to Heaven," the name
given to a road outside Washington, D.C., along which one
can find scores of different faith traditions. But the roads we travel are becoming
less homogenous and the signposts of religious diversity more prevalent.
Hospitals are striving to accommodate the beliefs and practices of different
faith traditions. The public schools grapple with questions of wardrobe, diet, and
observance of religious holidays that reflect the growing diversity of students.
Ask your parishioners. Government workers, neighborhood planners, food
service managers, and human resource managers all have stories about
how the changing religious landscape affects their business and workplace.
"World Religions" used to be the name of a course offered in seminary
about life in faraway places. Today it’s a study of our local life together.
Is your congregation taking note of the growing religious diversity of our city?
I’d like to hear from you. Let’s keep in touch.
Kevin R. Armstrong is minister of faith an public life at North
United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, and serves as senior public teacher
of The Polis Center. You may write to Kevin at The Polis Center, call him at
(317) 630-1667, or contact him by e-mail at Clergynote@aol.com.
WORLD RELIGIONS IN INDIANAPOLIS
Kanwal Prakash (K. P.) Singh came to Indianapolis in 1967 as an urban planner
in the city government. He could count on one hand the number of families from
his native India living in the city. Nor was there a temple dedicated to his
religion, Sikhism, which originated in India and attracts
most of its adherents from that nation.
Today, Singh estimates that thousands of Indian immigrants live in Indianapolis.
The city now has two Sikh congregations, each with an estimated membership of
200. The Sikh Satsang of Indianapolis recently built a new temple at I-74 and
Acton Road after several years of meeting at the India Community Center.
Throughout the 1990s, the strong economy in Indianapolis brought immigrants
from all over the world, who brought with them their religious traditions. Yet,
unless one goes searching for them, the world faiths represented in Indianapolis
are nearly invisible to most of us. Their meeting places are widely scattered
around the city. Often, there is no sign outside because the congregation doesn’t
own the building; or the sign is in a foreign language.
Three years ago, a local journalist and research associate with The
Polis Center, Susan McKee, went looking for world religion
congregations in the city. Her research effort was part of the Center’s Project
on Religion and Urban Culture. She found one Baha’i, one Hindu, two
Sikh, three Buddhist, and four Muslim congregations. The
largest of these, Mosque Masjid Al-Fajr, is at 2846 Cold
Springs Road on the west side; it has about 2,000 members. McKee believes that, given
the city’s growing Asian population, there could be other Buddhist
and Hindu groups that she didn’t find. (She also uncovered numerous small groups
classified as "pagan, neopagan, and Wiccan," but
she found no Satanic activity. "The common impression that Satanism would
be the most common form of non-normative, non-immigrant religion,"
McKee said, "was not borne out by research.")
Of the major faiths with a presence in the city, probably the most
unfamiliar are Baha’i and Sikhism. Sikhism originated in India in the 15th century
and now claims 25 million adherents worldwide. It grew out of opposition to
India’s caste system, which divided people rigidly into classes (see
the accompanying interview for more information). Baha’i is similar to Sikhism
in its emphasis on the oneness of humanity. Its adherents—about 5 million worldwide—seek
to break down the various barriers that divide people and nations, and
they emphasize the unity of all religious truth. (See the resources section
for more information about Baha’i and other world religions.)
McKee found that the congregations listed in
her study are detached from the life of the broader community. This is partially
because of cultural barriers. "The social networks of these faith-based
organizations are culturally, not geographically, based," McKee wrote in
a report of her findings. "That their facilities remain closed between
services is of no importance to them." Most of these congregations, she
found, lack full-time clergy and are operated by volunteers.
McKee believes that diversity reflects well on the American experiment, and
wants to "make it visible to the rest of the community. It’s the reason
the United States was founded," she said. "We didn’t have a state-imposed
religion. Everybody was supposed to be welcome—and, by golly, here
For Singh, recognizing the presence of other faiths in the city is the first
step toward greater compassion, understanding—and, ultimately, a better world.
"Our ability to relate one to another, our ability to celebrate together
certain aspects of our humanity, is a strength for the community," he said.
"We are all here to serve. By knowing, by sharing, by appreciating, we
add something to our own humanity and become part of a larger human community."
STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE
A CONVERSATION WITH KANWAL PRAKASH SINGH
Kanwal Prakash (K.P.) Singh co-founded the International Center of Indianapolis
in 1972 to give the community a space to learn about, and celebrate, other
cultures. The Center holds an annual International Festival at the Indiana State
Fairgrounds every fall.
Singh serves as unofficial local spokesman for his own faith, Sikhism, and
as a champion for religious diversity in general. "Let us keep our religion
and religious matters from becoming divisive distractions," he wrote in
a recently published letter to the Indianapolis Star. "Let us be
guided by principles that are unifying, inclusive, timeless, universal, and
reaffirm the spirit upon which our nation was founded."
Singh, who was born in India, came to the University of Michigan in the mid-1960s,
where he earned a Master of Planning degree. In 1967, he went to work as an
urban planner for the City of Indianapolis, before launching a career as a fine
artist in the early 1970s. Working under the name K. P. Singh Designs, he has
become well known for his depictions of Indiana architecture and landscapes.
Here, Singh describes his religion, comparing and contrasting it to Christianity.
CN: What are the tenets of Sikhism?
Singh: Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that believes in one supreme
God, the father and mother of all life. We believe that God Almighty is the
creator of all knowledge and the supreme inspiration of all faiths. Each faith
has pretty much agreed on some basic thoughts; therefore, we have to say that
all inspiration has come from one source. Since God created light, and from
that light he created all life and blessed each living being with a divine essence,
how then can some people be holier than others? From this, it follows that all
humanity is one race, one brotherhood, regardless of where you were born or
which faith you belong to. The Sikh faith emphasizes the importance of service—to
man, life, creation—as the highest form of offering to God. Every act of service
is an offering.
CN: Give an example of how these beliefs are put into practice.
Singh: Each Sikh temple has a community kitchen, where food is served
every day at noon and at night, and anyone of any faith can come and partake
of blessed food. In those places, there is the sense that we’re all one, and
the food is prepared by volunteers and served by volunteers. At each step, symbolically
and ritually, the concepts of oneness, equality, unity, and brotherhood are
CN: In what ways does Sikhism differ from Christianity?
Singh: We differ in our belief in transmigration of the soul and karma.
Karma means your actions in a previous life that you carry from a previous birth
into this life. What you do with this life might emancipate you or bring you
closer to eternal union with God, or it might not, depending on the burden you’re
carrying from a previous life and the burdens you’ve added in this life. We
believe that there are many lifetimes and many life forms, and that this is
a process in which you could be vegetation, a bird, an animal, or an insect.
But humans are the most precious life form in this whole process. If you are
blessed with a human body, that is your time to know God and to be reunited
CN: Christians believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the exclusive
means of human salvation. Is there a similar concept in Sikhism?
Singh: I believe that the light of God has arrived here in many
ways and in many forms and through many messengers. And I, as one human being,
am willing to receive that light—not just from Christianity but through Buddhism
or Islam or from non-faith, for that matter. No particular faith could possibly
have the entire truth.
CN: What is the point, or benefit, of learning about faith traditions
foreign to your own?
Singh: By understanding the things that have been obstacles in our path,
we can bring in greater understanding and greater appreciation of other cultures.
A lot of positive energy can flow from this kind of sharing. It is not something
to be frightened about; it is something to celebrate. Let us not be bogged down
by one tradition or another. There are common fundamentals that unite us all
as one human family. Let us focus on those.
Thousands of books have been published on the various world faiths. Now,
Web sites dedicated to this subject are proliferating on the Internet.
The dominant "world faith" in Indianapolis—Christianity—is the subject
of a site sponsored by Frontline, the PBS television show. The site is a spin-off
of the program From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, which originally
aired in 1998. It includes excellent scholarly essays that provide an overview
of the history of Christianity. The address is www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion.
To find out more about other faiths, bookmark one of the "meta-indexes"
of sites devoted to religion. The most useful and highly regarded of these,
the Virtual Religion Index, is maintained by the Religion Department
at Rutgers University. The address is http://religion.rutgers.edu/vri/index.html.
Another excellent index, Religion Religions Religious Studies,
provides annotated links. A particularly interesting feature is the "Current
Features Sites," with links to various odd and illuminating religion-related
sites around the Web. The address is www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/rel.
The following sites are dedicated to a specific religion:
The following links connect to institutions representing world faiths in Indianapolis:
Islam: www.isna.net (the web site of the
Islamic Society of North America, located in Plainfield)
For a list of addresses of the congregations that Susan McKee found in her
research, contact Kevin Armstrong.