MY PATH TO HINDU CHAPLAINCY

 

By Shrestha Singh

I grew up in California. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from India right before I was born; my mom got on the airplane when she was eight months pregnant, and then I was born a few weeks later. When it comes to who I am, it always starts with my parents and my family, because we are close-knit. No matter how crazy or annoying things get, these are the people I came from, they’re the people I continue to come from, who share my blood. Any story about me starts with my parents.

My life, all the things I care about in the world, and the work I care about doing is shaped by that experience of growing up with two parents who were immigrants. I’ve grown up as an American but I also have a strong Indian identity. I’ve grown up Hindu in a predominantly Christian society. A lot of my life has been about navigating those tensions of what it means to have one foot in each world and be a bridge between the two for my parents and also for other people who don’t know what it’s like to be an immigrant.

My back always hurts in the morning. This morning I was stretching and was moaning about my back, and I thought, “Ah, this bridge called my back!” Gloria Anzaldúa, a Latina Chicana feminist, co-edited a volume with that title—This Bridge Called My Back—about women of color bridging worlds and creating new worlds in between. It’s funny that I said that this morning—I feel like a lot of the time, in the work I do, I am being a bridge.

I work as the Hindu chaplain at Wellesley and hope to continue that work. I’m asking, “How do I help people make meaning when they’ve got marginalized identities, when they’re navigating multiple identities and worlds? How do I help people make meaning and find ways of living that are life-giving for themselves?” It’s something I’m trying to figure out. It’s why I do what I do.

My Path to Hindu Chaplaincy

I was pre-med in college, and I studied global health and creative writing. I was doing a lot of activism work, racial justice work during my undergrad, and I realized that the world of activism can be really toxic at times. There’s a lot of shaming one another and condemning people who have different views than your own, forgetting that there are so many beautiful ways that activism can be done. But I started to feel really burned out by the work, and I realized I needed something more in my life.

I happened to meet three people—my friends Max, and Justin, and Chaz—who were all spiritual in their own way and who really cared about social issues. It was such a god-send, and I’m so grateful because it shifted my path completely. I remember feeling a need for some sort of spiritual grounding but also really not wanting to go near Hinduism. I drifted away from it growing up. I thought there was a lot of patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, casteism, and general oppression in Hinduism, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it, so I rebelled big time.

 

Toward the end of college, I started to get back to a spiritual path. I was talking to Chaz, my chaplain, and he said, “You need to go to Harvard Divinity School.” I had never heard of this place. Harvard Divinity School? What is that? I checked it out, visited, and fell in love with the people I met here. I realized, “Yeah, this seems right.” Chaz made me feel like I would love to be a chaplain. He has such a calm, gentle, loving presence in a way that always makes you feel like you’re loved and that anything is possible.

Mentors throughout my life have been incredibly important and I would be nowhere without them. I felt like I wanted to be that type of mentor for other people. And also, as a South Asian-American, there aren’t that many people who the children-of-immigrants generation can talk to about issues in a culturally-sensitive way. That was a major need that I felt in college and in life in general. I’d like to be that bridge and to support students by standing in both American culture and in my hyphenated South-Asian identity.

Half my students don’t even know what a Hindu chaplain is. Being a chaplain has been a traditionally Christian concept, so, of course, many people are like, “What do you do?” It can be rough trying to explain what my role is when it isn’t necessarily an established one, when it’s really just emerging. Recently, I’ve connected with fellow chaplains not only at Wellesley and Babson, but also at other campuses in the area. That’s been good for my soul. It helps feeling like there are people out there who understand this work.

Breaking the Stigma

I think I come off as very cheery, happy, and smiley all the time, but mental health issues, anxiety, and depression have been a big part of my life. I think it’s important to tell people because I think so much of the time we walk around thinking, “That person is so happy and great” or “That person never gets mad or upset.” That’s not true! I want to start breaking the stigma around talking about this stuff. People are so afraid that they’ll be judged or be seen as less competent, so I think it’s really important for folks to talk about mental health and to realize that different people are struggling in different ways. It’s something I have to remind myself of, too, because I can be so judgmental of other folks as well. I try to say to myself, “Hey, you have no idea what their story is.”

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