Our region is blessed by ethnic richness, having a center for Refugee and Immigration Services plus several medical centers, colleges and universities that recruit talent from around the world. For those who have left their motherland, congregations that share their language and traditions are vibrant, comforting spiritual and social anchors.
The Southern Baptist Convention has been active in creating ethnic churches. To name a few:
Korean Baptist Church on Starkey Road in Roanoke County can be reached at (540) 772-4222. Their active congregation’s website features photos of their adorable Vacation Bible School class and of their concert by the Philippines Gospel Choir-“The Miracle Team” in 2014.
Roanoke Sinai Haitian Baptist Church was founded in 2013 and is located at 2905 Cove Road, (540) 342- 6492. Online, they state: “Sinai Baptiste church is the first Haitian-American in the Roanoke Valley.” The church aims “to bring all the Haitian community together to serve the Lord.” A video shows Pastor Castine Messadieu teaching Bible study in Haitian Creole.
Lynchburg’s Baptist Iglesias de Las Americas has services in Spanish for its Mexican population. It is located at 104 Wessex Road, and Pastor Rev. Carlos Payan can be reached at (434) 237-5439.
St Gerard’s Catholic Church at 809 Orange Avenue in Roanoke has served its African American neighborhood since 1946, and from 1996 has included bilingual mass for its Hispanic parishioners. Bishop Francis DiLorenzo celebrated a bilingual Mass for St. Gerard’s 60th anniversary on October 15, 2006, which culminated three days of celebration with the theme of “A House of Prayer For All People.” At the time, the parish had about 350 families comprised of African, African American, Hispanic, Caucasian, Asian and other ethnic backgrounds. Pastor is Rev. Fr. Mark White, (540) 343- 7744.
Other regional religious/spiritual communities are less familiar to the majority of us. Here’s an overview of some of these:
Five hundred families belong to Roanoke’s Hindu Shantiniketan Temple at 7221 Branico Drive in Roanoke County. (There are two additional temples in Salem.) I visited this beautiful woodland setting,with colorful saris and lights, the sound of chanting, and the smell of Indian cooking and incense. The congregational meeting is called Satsang, a gathering for holy discussion and meditation in the presence of a guru, or pastor. Pastor Passad Muttar, from India’s Andhra Pradesh region, is part of a priestly family going back generations. Satsang is on Sundays from 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m., though timings can vary during special events, such as Diwali, November’s festival of lights. Member families take turns catering a dinner after each Satsang service. One should ask permission of the pastor to visit; in some temples, non-Hindus are not allowed, but our Shantiniketan Temple is very welcoming. They are praying for all of us, Muttar tells me, “for peace, peace, peace.”
Hinduism is traceable to India 4,000 years ago. It is also referred to as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal law” or “eternal way.” Hindus believe that every living being has a soul, and that soul is eternal. Belief in reincarnation is central.
Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. They do not point to a founder of their religion; Hinduism is thought of having existed forever, mainly because rituals to worship natural things have existed since earliest human times.
To western eyes Hinduism is complicated, allowing polytheism (many gods and goddesses), monotheism, and atheism. Hinduism has many named deities such as Brahma (creator), Vishnu (protector), Shiva (destroyer), Ganesh, Krishna and Lakshmi. All these are actually aspects of the singular God force. Hinduism is remarkable for its diversity and tolerance about beliefs. Hindus do not attempt to convert or recruit, they do not have a central religious director such as a pope or archbishop, nor do they have the precept of blasphemy.
Hinduism’s fundamental book, the “Rig Veda,” was written more than 3,800 years ago. A familiar Hindu concept in the U.S. is Kharma, or as westerners say, “What goes around comes around.” Good or bad deeds done in life come back later in this life or in the next, bringing good fortune or bad, as determined by the gods. Yoga in Hinduism is not merely an exercise routine; it is a sacred path to spiritual growth. There are 16 important holy rites throughout Hindu life that are performed by a priest. Fifteen are held for important passages during life; the final sixteenth is the funeral service.
I was privileged to speak with Dr. Hesham Rakha, whose many honors and titles include Director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. He is one of four Trustees of the Board of Al-Ihsan Mosque in Blacksburg, where 200 to 300 people come to Friday prayers.
The foundation of Islam begins with God, whom Muslims call Allah, which literally means “the one and only God.” “Arab Christians and Jews say ‘Allah’ when they talk about God,” Dr. Rakha writes, “The Quran declares that Allah is the same God that spoke to the Jews and Christians (29:46): “Tell [the Jews and Christians], ‘We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us [the Quran] and in that which came down to you [the Torah and Gospel]; Our God and your God is one; and it is to Him we surrender.”
Islam has Six Articles of Faith which take in belief in God; belief in the angels of God; belief in the revealed Books of God-Scrolls of Abraham (Suhuf), the Law of Moses (Torah), the Psalms of David (Zabur), the Gospel of Jesus (Injeel), and the Reading of Muhammad (Quran). Muslims believe in God’s many prophets, from Adam to the penultimate Jesus, to the final prophet Muhammad. There will be a Day of Judgment, and afterlife (Jesus will return to lead this); and, belief in the divine measurement of human affairs and the supremacy of God’s will.
There are Five Pillars of Islamic faith, to help Muslims achieve God awareness and piety (Taqwa).
Shahadah: Declaring allegiance to God/Allah.
Salat: Five daily prayers
Zakat: Annual obligatory charity
Saum: Fasting the month of Ramadan
Hajj: The pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are capable of doing so.
Visiting a Mosque, or Masjid, requires you wear modest, “well-covering” clothes. Gentlemen may wear shirts and pants, no shorts. Ladies should wear long sleeve, well-covering clothes, and head cover. Shoes are taken off at the entrance. Mosques generally have separate entrances and seating sections for men and women.
Vandals broke windows, hurled objects and insults when they attacked the Masjid An-Nur of Roanoke last July. Masjid An-Nur is open “all days,” according to its website, so I go as the call to noontime prayer begins. This young man is the Muezzin. It is an awesome sound. I give my name explaining my mission is for goodwill. I am allowed in, but the leader of the mosque is not in today, and no one present is authorized to speak with the public. I ask to attend the prayer service and am led up stairs to the women’s section, a large plain room with carpeting and a row of folding chairs. (Folding chairs, I am realizing, are one of the common features of all sacred places in America.)
I sit alone until a young woman arrives with her toddler. She is dressed head to toe in a black silk sari-like garment with silver trim. She welcomes me and introduces herself as “Hafsa.” She tells me she is from Niger, Western Africa, by way of Montreal, where she attended Catholic schools.
Imam begins the prayer. Five verses are chanted, with silence increasing between each repetition. It is meditative, even without knowing the words. Hafsa tells me that strict Muslim men attend all five daily prayer gatherings at the mosque. For women, she explains, it is advisable to pray at home, as “women must be protected.” Marriage is a religious obligation for Muslims, as is fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Hafsa later walks with me to the parking lot, and asks if I have read the Quran. I admit I haven’t. “When you read it you will find it is beautiful and makes you feel so peaceful inside,” she says. She wants me to know that Islam and Christianity have much in common. The more I learn about it, I agree.
Masjid An-Nur is at 3718 Salem Turnpike, Roanoke, VA 24017. Corelli Rasheed, leader; (540) 342-7688.
The Islamic Center in Blacksburg is at 1284 N Main St. Blacksburg, VA 24060. Dr. Hesham Rakha, leader; (540) 961- 5210.
GLIA Mosque in Lynchburg is at 1105 Airport Road, Lynchburg, VA 24502. Maqsud Ahmad, leader; (434) 841-6829 (cell).
Buddhism is not a religion, but a lifelong discipline promoting good mental clarity and health. Buddhism is an outgrowth of Hinduism, and Buddha is considered a messenger/prophet of Allah.
Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, lived in India approximately 560 to 480 BCE. Son of a warrior-king, he led an extravagant life until adulthood. Bored with his royal life, he wandered into the world and came face-to-face with an old man, an ill man, a corpse and an ascetic. The suffering of human existence shocked Gautama. He renounced his status, became a monk living without possessions in order to clearly see the world around him. Meditating beneath a tree, he realized how to be free from suffering, and ultimately, to achieve salvation. After this epiphany, Gautama was called “The Buddha,” meaning the “Enlightened One.”
The Buddha spent the remainder of his life teaching others this revelation, called The Dharma, or Four Noble Truths. Most simply stated: suffering exists; it has a cause; it has an end; and it has a way to bring about its end. This pragmatic perspective deals with the world as it is, and attempts to rectify it.
The Four Noble Truths enfold a plan for dealing with the physical and mental suffering humans face. First Truth: Face the presence of suffering. Second Truth: Name the cause of suffering. In Buddhism, desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering. Desire is craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, wants that can never be totally satisfied, so desiring them ultimately brings suffering. Ignorance, another cause of suffering, is failure to see the world as it actually is. Without developing the capacity for mental concentration and insight, Buddhism explains, one’s mind is left unable to grasp the true nature of things. Vices, such as greed, envy, hatred and anger, derive from this ignorance.
The Third Noble Truth is the end of suffering: either through death, or through achieving Nirvana. One who has achieved Nirvana is free from suffering, as spiritual enlightenment has been reached. Fourth: the way to the end of suffering is the Noble Eight-fold Path: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Kharma refers to good or bad actions a person makes during a lifetime: good deeds bring happiness in the long run, bad deeds bring unhappiness. Kharma plays out in the Buddhism cycle of rebirth. To be born human is, to Buddhists, a precious chance at spiritual bliss, a rarity that one should not forsake.
Kadam Deann Bishop is the founder and leader of Roanoke’s Darmapala Kadampa Buddhist Center. Bishop studied for 20 years in the Mahayana tradition, which focuses on teaching/helping others. The meditation area sparkles with artwork and candles. Classes are open to all for a small fee and group meditation is available most days of the week. The center is looking for a new home but is currently housed at 315 Albemarle Avenue SE in Roanoke. Contact at (540) 521-7989. Resources are at: www.meditationinvirginia.org.
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