Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Hindu Temple) – San Antonio

photo 1-24     Sunday #41 – BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, (Hindu Temple) San Antonio, TX

Why this temple?

Not knowing a single Hindu person in San Antonio, I reached back out to my Muslim friend Nazneen who was born in India. She graciously got in touch with people she knew and found a Hindu Temple where we could both learn more about Hindu religious practices and beliefs.

My head swam with all the different names used; I’ve never seen so many consonants and vowels used in one language; the long names made it difficult for me to follow everything, so I just tried to soak in as much as I could. Much of what I relay in this blog has no structure and remains just the bits and pieces I picked up on Sunday afternoon at the temple. Most of the tidbits are random and maybe just of interest to me. This visit definitely warrants another trip so I can hopefully become more familiar with all the various words and meanings.

My preconceived ideas of Hindus

Before my visit, I expected the following:

• Colorful saris or sarees (not sure which is the correct pluralization of that word)
• Lots of incense
• Smell of curry – it’s one of those spices that’s a lot like cigarette smoke – when used, it penetrates your clothing, home and your complete essence. I rarely use curry when I cook; sometimes I like it, but most of the time I don’t.
• Indians seemed to be the most adept at sitting on the ground and completely comfortable in doing so. I expect to see a lot of sitting.

Yep, that’s about it. I’m afraid I’m Hindu ignorant, so I looked forward to learning more. Below, you’ll find a beginner’s crude understanding of this Hindu sect, so please forgive all the mistakes I’m about to make in referencing various aspects to which I don’t have a full understanding.

Arrival

I pulled into an iron gate that surrounds the mandir (their word for “temple”) that sits conspicuously along Hwy 1604 North. Odd how you can drive by a building over and over again and never see it, until you look for it. I parked in the first spot I found and waited for Nazneen to arrive. Several young boys played hoops on a court next to my loaner Mercedes (Smart Car was in the shop). By the time the basketball hit the car for a second time, I knew it was time to move this loaner vehicle. Once in my second parking spot, far, far away from the court, I texted Nazneen who was already inside and headed through the front doors.

We met her friend, who greeted me with hands in a prayer position and gave an ever so slight bow. I would learn later that this Hindu sect often bows down to touch the feet of elders in hopes of receiving blessings. I seemed to be younger than this woman, so thankfully she didn’t greet me in this way; I would not have known what to do and would have been so embarrassed by the paint stains on my feet from painting a room earlier in the day. (No shoes worn in Hindu Temples or Mosques).

Nazneen’s friend gave us a quick overview of what goes on at different times during Sunday. We learned that we missed a 4:30 service and that a service would be happening at 6:00 or 6:30 but it would be in the native language of Gujarti – an easy thing to follow for Nazneen because that’s her native language; for me – not so much. I don’t know one word of Gujarti, though I have heard Nazneen say “Neigh” for “no.” My one learned Gujarti word.

We thought we might be attending a Diwali event. Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in the fall. It signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and good over evil. From what I gather, it’s sort of a cross between what American’s celebrate in Christmas and New Year’s combined. However, Diwali was later in that week.

At one point, Nazneen’s friend went to the small book shop area and grabbed a children’s book called Sikshapatri and gave it to me to keep; it’s the shortened and English children’s version of what Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830 CE) wrote to help devotees and sadhus lead virtuous lives. I promptly read it when I returned home and found the principles taught to be worthy of praise. I especially like the one that instructs: “Never perform a task immediately without thinking.”

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After answering a few more questions, we were led into a room where we could deposit our shoes and then were ushered to a back room where the young adults, teens and younger children had broken into groups and were discussing life lessons in English.

Hindu Version of Sunday School

I wish I could tell you what this portion of the meetings were called, but I’ve spaced on that. However, Nazneen and I both found the young adults to be delightful and most helpful in aiding our understanding of their customs and beliefs.

Nazneen wanted to know more about the bindi (red dot you see on the foreheads of many Hindu women). We learned that the name represents “small dot or dab” and signifies the sixth chakra. As Hindu women say their prayers in the morning, this is applied to help them remember the wisdom from the highest spiritual place.

We then talked a lot about dating – not allowed with Hindus and quite similar to the practices of most Muslims. Education is valued highly by the Hindus, so girls typically don’t even think about marriage until after they have finished their bachelor degrees. Men and women worship separately in Hindu temples and dating is just not a part of their culture. Once a woman decides she is ready for marriage, she tells family and friends and the word is spread. The women we spoke with say it’s now less of an arranged marriage and more like arranged introductions.

When we were introduced to the young women, who were all related (daughters and daughter-in-laws) to the woman whom we first met, we were told they had moved to the states from South Africa. Not knowing that there was a large body of Hindus in South Africa, I wanted to know more. I learned that indeed, the British took Indians to that area of the world to work the mines and in other industries. Knowing a bit (very little bit) about apartheid, I asked if the Indians were considered black or white. They explained that they were considered brown, so they were lumped in with the black population and were discriminated against. I immediately wanted to know what they thought of Nelson Mandela. I expected glowing praise, but that’s not what I received. One of the young women was kind enough to share her feelings about the progress that has been made since that time. It’s really too long to share, but I found her perspective fascinating.

I also learned that poojas (prayers) are said several times a day and like Muslims, they are instructive to say their first poojas before sunrise. Of course my comment was, “Well, that settles the whole sleeping in till 10:00am problem with teens!”

One of the most interesting topics we moved into was the subject of reincarnation. The young women wanted to know my views on reincarnation, which I shared, then I learned that Hindus believe that we go through 1.8 billion lives before we get to have a human experience. Boy, do I feel old now!

Service Begins

After the “Hindu Sunday School” – again, I can’t remember what Hindus call it, we moved into the main worship area. Nazneen walked me past the women sitting cross-legged on the floor and showed me to some chairs lined on the side of the room where mostly older people sat. Did I get upset by this obvious indication of my advanced years? NO. I was so glad that I wouldn’t have to sit cross-legged for a long time and would have more of a birds-eye view of what was to transpire.

photo 4-15

We walked in while a band sat crossed legged on the stage. Can’t tell you what kind of instruments they used. At that point, I noted the 1½ foot wall that ran down the middle of the room leading to the Hindu altar. Men sat in chairs on one side and women sat crossed legged on the floor across from them. After the music, the men who sat in some chairs moved those to the back, then sat on the floor while facing the Hindu altar that was surrounded by heavy curtains, donned in lights and consisting of several statues.

At that point, Nazneen left her seat on the floor and came to ask if I’d like to participate in what was to happen after the singing. I’d been told that this portion of the service was called circumlocution, or something like that. Candles that are in round clay trays are moved counterclockwise as they chant.

Then these clay trays were passed to the front and a couple of women passed around a candle. As it came to each person, he or she would place his or her hands over the flame then bring their hands over the top of the head and then to their heart. I even got to do this, but I had no idea what I was doing.

Clueless!

Then the lights were turned on and I watched as the women stayed seated and the men began doing their prostrations. It appeared to me that once they laid down on the floor, they would extend their arms out in front of them and then move their head from left side to right side and then do that all over again. Then, as quick as it started, it was all over.

Post Thoughts

Two expectations were quickly dispelled after the visit. I smelled no curry and no incense. In fact, I smelled more incense at the St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox church than this Hindu Temple, and I didn’t smell any curry at all. But this temple does have a separate area for food cooked by the Indian people who attend this temple. I had a wonderful time just going through all the different food stuffs that were so unfamiliar to me.

All in all, I enjoyed my visit to this Hindu temple. I met some great, peaceful people and although the names that are bandied about are so unfamiliar, if you have someone to coach you along the way, it will help. I believe you might also find helpful people in any Hindu temple you might happen upon, so check it out. You’ll either learn something or like me, have your brain short circuited by learning too much at one time!

What’s Next?

Didn’t make it to Joel Osteen’s church last weekend, so I’ll have to hit two services this weekend. One will definitely be the Spanish mission church. I’m not putting that one off, but things keep getting in the way. Not sure about the other selection just yet.  Not too many left to attend. One person at the Hindu Temple recommended checking out Jainism. That’s a form of Hinduism where they treasure all life to such a great degree that they cover their mouth, so as not to swallow any insects and thus kill them. Hmmm……I keep wondering how they might deal with termites?

Calvary Chapel of San Antonio, Universal City

photo 1-23    Sunday #40 – Calvary Chapel of San Antonio, 2935 Pat Booker Road, Universal City, TX

Why this church?

When I went to a Church of Christ church recently, I reached out to Debra Maffett to let her know that I had included her in my blog on that church. She thanked me, then shared that she had been going to a Calvary Chapel church and sent me a link to one in San Antonio. I had no idea that this group of churches existed. Not sure how they differ from other churches, but I’m off to find out.

Arrival

I left in plenty of time to make it to the 8:30 a.m. church service, but once on Pat Booker Road, I couldn’t find it. I pulled into a mall area and saw a theatre and some dressed up people getting out of their cars. I stopped someone to ask if this was the location of that church, but was told no. Oddly enough, I’ve wanted to find a church that meets in a movie theatre and today I learned right where one is! That service started at 9:00 a.m., so I set off to give it one more go in finding this church and if I couldn’t find it, I’d head back to the theatre. Off in a distance, I saw a large church with several crosses, so headed in that direction. Once there, the name didn’t jive, so I called the Calvary Chapel number from their website. BINGO! A live person answered the phone.

So let me just say that if any church leadership is reading this blog, do us a favor and man your phone lines on Sunday mornings, especially if you have a church located in a strip center, theatre, or off the beaten path. If I’d not reached that person by phone, I would have wound up at the theatre church this morning.

With the help of the kind person on the phone, I found the church. Funny, you really can’t tell the size of a church from its website. This website was quite extensive, so I thought it would be a stand alone building, but it really meets in a low visibility area. On the other hand, one of the biggest, if not the biggest church in America – Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church has a very simple website. So, lesson learned: Don’t judge a church by its website.

Service Has Begun

I walked into the worship area to a sea of people standing up from blue cushioned chairs. They’d just finished one song and now were in the midst of greeting one another. This greeting time went on way past the time most churches give for it and I credit that to this church being comprised of a bunch of friendly people.

photo 2-23     Several jean and t-shirt clad people came up to me and said hello. Others wearing more formal clothing hugged, talked and strolled around. The majority of the crowd seemed to be in the 24-45 age range, and I noted a mix of races: Anglo, Black, Hispanic, etc.

After the greeting came the announcements. Whoever did this bit was quite funny. Always love when what can be the most boring parts of the service are somehow transformed into something a bit more entertaining. The guy talked about an upcoming Time Change Pancake Breakfast. (That one sounded like fun!) Then after a few more announcements about a local mission project, an offering was mentioned, but he pointed out that we’d have that opportunity to drop something at the back of the church versus having an offering time during the service.

Then we stood for two songs with words displayed on two medium-sized screens that hung from both sides of the stage that centered on a backdrop of stone with a large copper bird of peace mounted on top. As the band played, I recognized one of the songs that has been sung in other non-denominational churches.

The Message

Pastor Ron Arbaugh gave the message from Ephesians Chapter 6. The King James Version of verse 13 and 14 talks about having your loins girded about with truth. Other more modern translations use the word “belt.” The pastor started out by saying how important belts are to our society. First there are tool belts, then championship belts, every day belts and of course, rodeo belts. However, from the scripture reading he focused the translation that says, “So stand ready, with truth as a belt tight round your waist, with righteousness as your breastplate.

I listened to the message, but my mind kept going back to the book that I’d just finished the day before – Sibel Edmonds’ “Classified Woman.” Sibel learned first-hand that standing on and up for truth is not always easy and can have great costs — personally, financially and emotionally. However, Edmonds says that when she became a U.S. citizen, she took an oath to defend the U.S. constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. So, she could not look the other way as an FBI Turkish and Farsi translator when she learned information that put our national security interests at ongoing risk. She stood on the truth, unfortunately discovering that all her battles would soon become losses. In the end, however, she was the one who walked away knowing she had done everything possible to help right the many wrongs being done at the highest of government levels.

In light of everything going on in the Middle East, I think everyone should read that book, if nothing more than to consider how much you would risk for truth. How far might you go to face down a “Goliath” that wields so much power. If your foundation is truth, you may get knocked down, but you’ll have the resolve to stand back up, again and again.

Post Meeting Thoughts

I liked the soft-spoken teaching delivery of the sermon and it seems that this church is grounded on scripture and teaching that scripture. Most everyone carried a well-read Bible with them to church. With my belief in gay rights, I take strong issue with one comment made during the sermon, but what I’ve learned over these 40 weeks now is that I can easily worship alongside others who don’t hold all my same beliefs. I look for where we can agree on subject matter and practice, and let the rest go. We do it every day in politics. Why can’t we do that in religion?

What’s Next?

Hindu! In fact, I’m headed to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir later today with my Muslim friend. How’s that for getting most all the major religious experiences in on one day? Next week I’ll be in Houston for a wedding and only 2.5 miles from Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. Hopefully, I’ll have time to check out that mega of all MEGA churches.

Covenant Baptist Church – (Contemplative Christian Community)

photo 1-23   Sunday #39 – Covenant Baptist Church, (a Contemplative Christian Community) 19204 RM 2252, Garden Ridge, TX

 

Why this church?

I’d planned to go to one of San Antonio’s many mission churches today, but I wanted to go with a friend from Monterrey, Mexico; she was out of town this weekend, so we postponed.

Instead, I chose to go to a church recommended by my good friend David Russell from  Amarillo, Texas, who when he first heard of my journey to 50 churches, strongly recommended this one. While I’d already attended Trinity Baptist Church earlier in the journey, the subtitle of this church as a “contemplative Christian” church piqued my interest. I had no idea what that meant or what to expect. So I’ll just jump right into the service.

Arrival

photo 2-23  I do believe every single person at this church came up to introduce him or herself to me. I forgot to count how many people were in attendance, but my guess was about 30-35. This congregation is a “come as you are” bunch wearing everything from jeans and flip fops to dresses.

photo 3-20   As I walked into the meeting room, it immediately took me back to the Quaker service I attended – lots of earthiness with stone and rough wood. In fact, the idyllic setting reminded me of something you might find in Colorado. A simple wooden cross hung over the fireplace filled with small flickering candles.

To signal the start of the service, a man stood next to the electronic keyboard and rung a hand bell several times. Then someone came to a single music stand and stood in front of a microphone for the Welcome and then the Call to Worship. We stood for the first hymn from an actual hymnal – not some words off a projection screen! The prayer of confession followed the hymn, then we sat for the second hymn.

After a call to praise, where the congregation repeated a few words of thanksgiving, we sang another hymn. Then I experienced something new: Children’s Time on the Blanket. This consisted of someone coming to the front, taking a blanket from a quilt rack and unfolding it near the front for the kids to sit on for their story time. These kids were precious, bringing up their offerings to help a young orphaned boy and then later to have their own mini-communion and story time.

Once the kids had departed for their service in back, a single guitar player played the Song of Petition, followed by the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

The Message

As I sat in the purple molded chair listening to Kyndall, the young female pastor, recite the scripture reading from Philippians 2:1-15, I marveled at the way the church had mixed many of the East traditions with the West – like silent meditations and an onsite labyrinth with traditional hymns.

photo 2-24

The sermon consisted of something you might find in a silent Quaker church where scripture is read several times and the congregation participates by closing their eyes and allowing the words to speak personally to them, then writing down the word or phrase that touches them. I think this is where the “contemplation” word originates because instead of an hour of religious entertainment, this church encourages participation with the text.

Following that, we had one more hymn to sing and then had communion that consisted of us lining up to receive the body and blood of Christ in the form of real, gluten-free bread dipped in grape juice.

Then the offering followed with wooden plates passed from person to person.

Finally, the pastor came to the front with a small book and called for prayers and blessings. As different people shared concerns and need for prayer, the pastor faithfully wrote each in her book. Somehow, I just got the feeling of the deliberate nature of this act – that the pastor would be lifting these concerns to God throughout the week. Then we were asked to take one of the  concerns mentioned that spoke especially to us and pray for them or the situation.

Post Meeting Thoughts

Ever once in a while, I come across one of these rare church gems – a place where everyone is glad to be and delighted that someone new has arrived – a place where the ritual doesn’t get in the way of the overall message – a place where peacefulness overrides entertainment. This is one of those places.

After church, I walked down the five-minute wooded path to the labyrinth the church had built on their vast property. I understand that several years ago, the Sunday School children placed all the rocks at the labyrinth by hand. It’s an eleven-circuit labyrinth that is used as a place of contemplative prayer and is open to everyone in the community. It truly is a special place.

photo 4-15    photo 5-6

What’s Next?

Now back to the regularly scheduled program. Hopefully next week, I’ll be at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower and completely lost at one of the Spanish only services.