NYC Trip & Visit to Hindu Temple

Disclaimer: These are my beliefs and not those of any other group or organization I may represent or affiliate with. i.e. not the PC(USA) or YAV program.

Today we took a trip to New York City for multiple purposes. First, they sought for us to learn a bit about public transit and the second was to engage with some partners of the Presbyterian Church in the area. Some groups went to a Sikh Gurdwara, others the Presbyterian Office at the U.N., others the Church of the Master in Harlem, and my group went to Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam, the first formal Hindu temple in Flushing, NY.

I consider myself fairly well-versed in public transit, so the subway was fairly straight-forward. Just long. You see it takes quite awhile to go from Bronx to Queens, two hours to be exact. Especially when you’re a group of about 25. All the same, it was fascinating to watch the city change as we moved from Bronx to Queens. I’ve been to the city several times, but I’ve never had the chance to watch it like that. The neighborhoods are way more distinct outside of Manhattan than I realized. Just a note from an upstate suburbs kid.

I’ll move on to the temple though. I was honored to be allowed into the space and spoken to by a leader within the temple. That being said, the Hindu community is very open to any visitors and does not maintain membership. I won’t spend time on the tenets of the Hindu faith, as I do not have a proper understanding of those to try and act like an authority. I don’t even have the right credentials to edit a Wikipedia page.

I will highlight one observation I had on this temple’s (and what seemed like traditional) policy on visitors. You see, there is no membership at Hindu temples. Anyone can come and ask the priests to lead in one of the three main rituals offered by the temple. I got the sense, though I do not ask, that even I would be allowed to do so if I so pleased. At this point it leaves me wondering how one defines oneself as a Hindu. In the church we have members or you’ve at least been baptized or something. Yet, this tradition was far more open to perform rituals for anyone as long as they followed proper rules like taking off their shoes and being respectful.

I bring this up because it’s interesting question of identity. The identity did not come across as solidified in some way ordered way. Yet, those who practice Hinduism seem far more tied to their way of life and “experiencing God” as our guide explained to us. It is very difficult to parse out a Christian identity from the dominant USA culture and it is often why I have resisted openly identifying as Christian or religious. I’ve struggled with it and most people I know also struggle with it.

It just seemed that Hinduism, by nature of its origins in a non-dominant culture of the United States could preserve a unique identity without issue. This plays well into our workshop on Critical Culture Competency, which identified that Asian Americans are usually perceived as the Perpetual Foreigner. They are not perceived to fully enter society and constantly receive the question, “Where are you from, really?” It’s not a good categorization and yet, it feeds right into the separate identity of Hinduism. More specifically, it may be why I perceive Hinduism as having a much more solidified identity than mainline protestant Christianity. Where Protestantism is tied to a US culture in a way that sometimes makes me uncomfortable, Hinduism is tied to an Indian culture and one that is perpetually foreign.

That being sad, The Hindu Temple Society of North America, of which this temple was a part also seems to pride itself on connections to India. Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam was built over seven years as materials were shipped from India. All the Hindu priests speak minimal English and are raised in the tradition for 15-20 years by their fathers. There’s some intentional separation there and I respect the agency taken to maintain a connection to Hinduism’s origins. I do not respect those who observe this and allow it to feed into perpetual foreigner archetypes.

Overall, I enjoyed the trip to New York City, though it is always a little uncomfortable visiting a sacred place outside of my culture/religion with a large group. There’s worries of intrusion, tokenism, etc. And yet, we were invited. The discomfort I felt is important as it motivates the thoughts that I had above. Part of our orientation has been to embrace that discomfort, so we can better see where the examples of systemic cultural dominance lie. Today was, in some way, a practical example of that.

Mid-Orientation Thoughts

Disclaimer: These are my beliefs and not those of any other group or organization I may represent or affiliate with. i.e. not the PC(USA) or YAV program.

Edit: I said gender and sexuality are a binary when I, in fact, believe they are not. Don’t write late at night without editing, folks. Thanks to Tim Coombs, my father, for pointing that out. I also decided to describe the early common era as more “traditional” with the quotations instead of conservative. I don’t like the word traditional cause it carries a lot of norm-based weight, but otherwise I was anachronizing.

It is halfway through orientation and I am having a great many thoughts. We had a workshop on cultural dominance and racism called “Critical Cultural Competence” and a session on Sexual Misconduct and Ethics that actually recognized rape culture as a real problem. It’s no secret that I have many thoughts about these issues. To me, gender and sexuality are spectra, our society is dominated by racist systems, and I am staunchly against victim blaming. So these sessions have not been groundbreaking for me. What has been groundbreaking is the place of religion in these conversations.

You see, I learned about and developed my progressive social values in secular atmospheres, like Macalester College and my abroad program in Bolivia. After a long time of learning, gaining information In my mind, Christianity has always been behind on these issues. I didn’t resent the church for this, but the fact was the bible and theology was written in a time and place that was just far more “traditional” and therefore it was difficult to be as progressive as I try to be and follow religion to a tee. I know about feminist critiques, liberation theology, and support for all-gender marriage, but progress is just slow by nature in the church.

Yet, my experiences at orientation around the bible studies are starting to change that sentiment.

Our bible studies are being led by Rick Ufford-Chase, a former moderator of GA, founder of Borderlinks ministry along the southwestern border, leader of an interfaith community at Stony Point, and someone with a very progressive agenda when he reads the bible. I appreciate that he was very open about this agenda and that he is working to treat the bible as a political text and bringing into the context of the time period. To do this, he draws heavily on the biblical scholar Ched Myers, for those of you who are familiar.

What it seems to be all about is remembering the context of each text and how that affects the readings of what we see. I’ll give you an example not from Rick, but from our worship leader, Matt.

Matt explained that the Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer for “kingdom” is the same as the one used for “The Roman Empire.” Essentially, the word Jesus offered was the same to refer to the dominant political system at the time. By translating the prayer as kingdom, we ignore the conceptual meaning of this part of the prayer. I’m unsure exactly what the Roman Empire was, but the fact that the writers of the Bible used the same language for both spots seems to insinuate a political statement of sorts, or at least an intentional reference. I don’t know ancient Greek, so I don’t know if this was an intentional choice between several words for a non-democratic governing system.

I will say that the way the language works here reflects culture. A culture or worldview shapes language because it leads groups of people to determine which concepts need words. In English, we do not have a separate word for the more permanent being and less permanent, which is the best way I have to describe “ser” versus “estar” in Spanish. Meanwhile, Spanish uses “esperar” to describe hoping and waiting. I believe this comes in part from cultural values on how different concepts are paired up and separated in a language.

So, within the culture of Middle East in the beginning of the common era, Greek had one word for the non-democratic governing system with a single ruler. And it is written that Jesus used that word in his prayer, calling for God’s “empire” to come. It’s a fascinating political idea and one I’m unsure of. Is Jesus calling God’s empire? Do I want an empire? Maybe people only knew “empire” as the governing system, so to term it God’s was to say there will be a governing system that would support the people where the Romans had not. As you can see, it quickly brings up new ideas.

Later on, Rich took the common story from Matthew 25 of the master who gives his slaves talents. In the story, the slaves who double their talents are rewarded and the slave who buries his talents and refuses to invest them is punished. It’s often read as saying those who waste their “talents” are not welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, with a little context within the early church and a quick note on the original Greek, a far more progressive reading is possible.

Rick explained that in the early church, the way to make several “talent” or the equivalent of 15 years hard labor’s riches, you had to be lender and charge exorbitant interest rates and then take the land when repayment was impossible. The master likely worked in that way and was probably visiting his investments while away during the story. The slave that chooses not to invest resists the master’s system that matches predatory loaning and is rejected.

That’s a cool interpretation, but the issue is what Jesus is referring to in this parable. Is this a parable about the kingdom of heaven? Most translations reference it as such, but Rick and Ched reject that. The original language uses a pronoun and the opening phrase of the passage in the NRSV, “For it is as if” infers that Jesus is speaking in simile about some unnamed concept. Ched, quoting Rick, suggested that “it” makes more sense when viewed based on the place of this parable in a set of three parables. It follows a parable about virgins awaiting a bridegroom and precedes the parable of separating the sheep and goats. Essentially, Rick argued that the first parable urges people to get ready for God, the second parable points out the wrong in society, and the third explains what will happen.

So the “it” may be referring to the current state of society. Jesus was criticizing the world and it offers immensely interesting applications for today and the motivations to get away from predatory loaning and systems of economic oppression that seem to dominate the world. It also offers an interesting critique of poverty traps with the master’s closing line: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” A poverty trap is the idea that you are so poor you cannot escape poverty. So the parable could be read as critiquing society for taking that stance and forcing the poor to stay poor.

Both of these new interpretations, in the Lord’s Prayer and Matthew 25 have really drawn my attention and been my source of learning this week. I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring religion to alignment with the rest of my values. That being said, there’s still plenty especially around racism, sexism, and cultural dominance of which I’m still suspicious. Most supports for same-sex relationships seem to reject other gender and/or sexual minorities, so I do not know what lies ahead. Likewise, I’m suspicious that placing the bible within its context might take some stories that are in line with my values and show that they are not. Still, I am intrigued and moved to start taking this religion stuff a little more seriously. After all, that’s what the year is about.

To that end, the other members of the YAV delegation headed for Peru may start working through Ched Myers’ bible study book, “Say To This Mountain,” which works through the Gospel of Mark. So far, religious and spiritual discovery has been more at the center of my YAV year than I expected, but I think I’m okay with that. It’s new and fascinating and truthfully, that’s what I want.

My Commissioning: What I meant to say during Joys & Concerns

This post will be short and offer some reflections on my commissioning, largely through the lens of what I wish I had been able to say during the church service at Trinity Presbyterian Church, my home church. You see, I meant to offer an unplanned, but meaningful statement during our “Joys and Concerns” period of the service. But upon getting the words, “Thanks for 22 years” out of my mouth, I found myself so choked up and teary-eyed that I clearly could not continue. I chose to say “And that’s all” and pass the microphone on, instead of subject the congregation to the blubbery mess that was me, Kyle Coombs.

For those who do not know me well, the situation I just described is very rare for me. I often pride myself on the ability to get through emotional moments with dry eyes. Graduations? No problem. Marriages? A breeze. Funerals? A heavy heart, but no tears. Still for some reason, I found myself too choked up to utter anymore words after my commissioning and it’s been on my mind since. The best answer, I’ve found, is in what I would have said to the congregation at Trinity had I been able to continue on. So, I’ll write that here for all readers, many of whom are members of Trinity:

“I don’t have a particularly poetic way to say this, but thanks for 22 years. That’s really not enough. There are no words or gifts to truly recognize or repay the monumental role this congregation has played in my life. It’s a frustratingly beautiful limitation. You’ve been so wonderful to me, I can’t find words that do not feel lackluster in their description. Still, I’d be remiss not to try.

“So let me start by saying that I have never felt anything so powerful as the laying on of hands during my commissioning. I’m not sure what it was, but when half this congregation before us rose to relay their love, faith, and support through a physical touch, I shook. I felt tears weighing in my eyes and a presence that I have never felt before.

“I’ve never been one for the fantastical faith. I don’t know what it is like to have the Holy Spirit pass through you. During confirmation class, we visited a Baptist church and a women started to speak in tongues behind us. At 14 I was interested, but mostly concerned for her well-being. So how could I feel some new presence? What could this be?

“Truthfully, I think it was the Holy Spirit. I’m on unsteady ground bringing this up, but the whole experience was unsteady.

“It’s funny that this happen before I head off, because I’ve had trouble remembering to include religion in my thoughts for ‘the future year. It seems silly. The whole reason I am going is the Presbyterian Church. It’s a program through the PC(USA). It’s an incredible opportunity and one funded through mission, but I’ve always been the down-to-earth type.

My faith motivates my social justice, so service is the best way to live out my faith. It’s what I learned at Trinity, a la our mission verse Micah 6:8, “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” We’re action first Christians. We go on countless work camps, serve at Equinox and SICM Summer Lunch Program. While I’m mentioning SICM, we’ve sent countless full-time volunteers. We do incredible work, so it wasn’t hard to learn the lessons of social justice.

“So I’m kinda out of my element because during my last Sunday, you’ve shown me something completely different. Another part of faith. The part I struggle with. The intangible, spiritual, inexplicable part. The stuff that brings tears to your eyes as you feel overwhelmed with God’s love alongside the sadness at leaving your congregation.

“And that’s what I needed before I headed out. A reminder that there is more to my work than my desire to follow Micah 6:8. That there is a higher calling to it all and to fall back on. I didn’t know how much I needed that message until you, the members of Trinity, gave it to me.

“So, I offer you a thanks for 22 years of learning just what it means to live out the meaning of Micah 6:8 and today for helping me realize the power in just being Christian. In feeling a call. I’m not one to openly speak like this. I’m always too concerned about how others will perceive my Christianity, but for now I am too enthused and full of the gift you offered me today. And so I thank you again for 22 years and many more to come.”

So, that’s a rough idea of what I would have liked to have said. Of course it wouldn’t have been that long because I get carried away when there’s a keyboard, but you get the general idea. I guess my point is, I was overwhelmed spiritually and emotionally today in a way I never have been before and that led to tears instead of the words above. The rarity of this outcome underscores how profoundly powerful today was. If that’s how my YAV year is starting, I cannot wait to see where it takes me and what role Trinity will play in the months to come.

Inaugural Post: Introduction and Some Thoughts

Hello and welcome to the blog that will chronicle my year in Ayacucho, Peru as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here you’ll read about the peaks and troughs of my experience, if you please. Put simply, this will be a constructive outlet to tell what I am seeing, of the work I have done, and how I have grown. To start, let me tell you a bit about myself and my year in Peru.

My name is Kyle Coombs and I just graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN with a major in economics and minor in linguistics. I specifically focused on development economics and indigenous languages while studying at Mac. During a semester abroad in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I studied Quechua, which is the most-spoken indigenous language in South America, including Peru. I’m excited to use what I remember in Peru, but do not expect much success as I have been told that the Peruvian and Cochabamban dialects are fairly different. All the same, I cannot wait to continue studying the language and will hopefully enroll in classes.

I am hoping I can use the language for positive work in Peru. I will be working with the Agricultural Development Center or Centro de Desarrollo Agrepecuario (CEDAP).

Now I’m still learning what this appointment entails, but let me tell you what I have learned and a bit of what I have extrapolated from my own research in the last weeks. First, I’ll be headed to Ayacucho. No, that’s not a sneeze, but the name of a small city in southern Peru in the Andes Mountain Range. With a little over 100,000 people, the city has a large Quechua-speaking population, the most-spoken indigenous language in Latin America. I studied another dialect of Quechua while abroad in Bolivia, so I’m excited to apply that learning.

I don’t know much about CEDAP beyond what I have researched, but from what I can tell I will be working with them in the field of indigenous land rights. As some of you probably know, indigenous groups are usually the first to have their rights to land stripped. Indigenous groups traditionally work in subsistence agriculture, so loss of land tends to be both economically and culturally crippling.

This issue is compounded by climate change, which has caused many ice caps in the Andes to melt in recent years. These ice caps provide the primary water source for communities in the Andes through a process of seasonal melting and refreezing. As the melting accelerates, water grows more scarce, as does land with access to water.

CEDAP combats this by researching and promoting sustainable water use through new crop variants and irrigation techniques. I’m extra-excited for this opportunity because it combines my coursework in economics and linguistics. Few opportunities allow me to work directly in the field and give back.

That being said, I am still nervous for the upcoming year. I’ll be spending 11 months as the only member of my program placed in Ayacucho. Those I’ve spoken to said the program often pushed them to their limits spiritually, emotionally, and physically. You struggle with whether you are making a difference, whether your work is the best way to spend resources, and of course you struggle with navigating a different culture than your own. But they all add that if given the opportunity, they would do it again in a heartbeat.

I’m hoping to use my Quechua outside of the classroom while working with indigenous groups. I am apprehensive about this though. Of course, it is a challenge to work in another language, but I am more worried about the potential issues revolving around my status as a privileged white male speaking Quechua. I will go into this at greater length in another post, but I worry about the possibility of appropriating another culture. I derive my interest in Quechua from both my desire to communicate across boundaries, but also a fascination with languages of the world. It will be important for me to recognize when it is appropriate to speak Quechua and when it is inappropriate. I will not face this struggle with Spanish as that is a language of imperialism.

I have already faced this choice with the name of this blog, which I pulled from study of Quechua. It means “Kyle is in Ayacucho.” Unlike the silly portmanteau that is my url, this title is using Quechua to draw attention and for the purposes of “catchiness.” Yet it was the best idea I had at the time of titling the blog, so I stuck with it. I decided it was worth the use of the language, but I am conflicted on this. I am also very open to your suggestions for new names or thoughts about this title.

One thing I am fairly certain of, I will not be blogging in Quechua unless specifically asked to. I may blog in Spanish at times, but that will be the extent of my linguistic variation. It does not feel appropriate and would serve little purpose other than showing off. To quote a Macalester professor of mine, “That’s at worst [appropriation] and at best kinda douchey.” I’d love your thoughts though, as they will help me inform my own opinions.