By Kyle Lawson
With five Hindu temples in the region, it’s fairly common for Indian cultural programs to be staged in the greater Pittsburgh area.
However, some local Hindus say that a recent Indian music program was a thinly veiled attempt by a Monroeville church to convert members of their faith to Christianity.
On Friday, Monroeville Assembly of God on Old William Penn Highway invited the public to watch people of Indian descent perform traditional Indian music. Although Qawwali music traditionally features lyrics about man’s inner search for the divine, the performers — who are members of a nondenominational Christian church in Maryland — instead sang about Jesus Christ.
The show was organized by Pastor Abraham Simon, who is of Indian descent and was hired this year to fill the position of “Indian pastor,” according to an online Assembly of God church bulletin.
Simon said he hoped to attract residents of Indian descent, with both short-term and long-term goals in mind.
“First and foremost, (the goal) is to engage them, to know them,” Simon said. “And in the long run, we’ll try to reach to them.
“One thing is very clear, if we try to make it too religious from the outset, they might shy away.”
Members of the Hindu Jain Temple in Monroeville weren’t shy with their reaction. They said they’re fed up with Christians trying to convert members of their religion.
“This is the kind of activity that needs to be banned,” said Harilal Patel of the Hindu Jain Temple. Patel represents the Hindu community on the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium.
The news release for the show welcomed anyone, “especially those of Indian descent,” to attend.
“We’re not looking for people in the temples, like ‘Oh leave there,’” said Kay Gardone, spokeswoman for Monroeville Assembly of God. “But we’re giving them another choice, letting them know what else is out there.”
On multiple occasions over the last 30 years, members of some Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses have “harassed” Hindus both inside and outside of their temples with fliers, informational CDs and unannounced visits at local temples, Patel said.
“They’ve found that Hindus are more gullible,” Patel said. “Tell them to go to the (Islamic) mosque.”
Patel said that Jehovah’s Witnesses have waited outside of temples, which are private property, to speak with worshipers as they walk to their cars. He said that both he and the priest at Hindu Jain received informational CDs from Monroeville Assembly of God in their mailbox last summer.
“This is the kind of activity that needs to be banned,” Patel said.
But the issue should be viewed from both sides, said Matthew Sayers, an assistant professor of religion at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Lebanon County.
“If we are generous, we should assume that the Christians are motivated by love and a true concern for the immortal souls of the Hindus,” Sayers said. “But we also need to consider how a pluralistic society requires of us to respect others, especially if we disagree with them.”
Religion professor Deepak Sarma of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland said the issue is not so black and white.
“The issue is an interesting one and has very complicated echoes in Indian history, where Christians were stereotyped as converting low-caste Hindus through bribery,” Sarma said.
But the idea that Hindus do not try convert others is “largely a new one told by contemporary Hindus,” he said. “There is a long history, for example, of attempts by Hindus to convert others through the use of intellectual and philosophical debate.”
Lance Lecocq, head pastor of Monroeville Assembly of God, said prior to the show Friday that it was not a “gospel- preaching event” but merely a community service in a municipality that is known as a gathering place for people of Indian descent.
At least one of the three Hindu temples in Monroeville was built in the 1970s as Westinghouse and U.S. Steel started to attract scientists of Indian descent, Monroeville historian Louis Chandler said. He said religious events held at Sri Shirdi Sai Baba on Abers Creek Road are well attended.
“There are cars all over the place,” Chandler said. “We have people from Canada, New York and Ohio. It’s a big deal.”
Hindus do not advertise their faith to other people and they expect to be treated the same, Patel said.
The Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium’s president, Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David, declined to comment on the issue except to say that the Monroeville Assembly of God is not a member of the Interfaith Ministerium — which includes representatives of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faiths.