Reaching Across the Divide

Back in the 1930’s Christian missionaries sponsored my grandmother for immigration to the United States. My father and his siblings were born here, grew up here, were baptized Roman Catholics and attended the local Catholic school. My father and his brother also won scholarships to Saint Ignatius College Prep. Though they were Asian Buddhists, they were helped along by white English-speaking Christians who had the goodness of heart to reach out to them across racial and cultural lines. It made a difference (and some even stayed Christian).

It’s this kind of spirit that the Buddhist community needs to bridge its cultural and demographic boundaries. I’m not talking about evangelism or buying souls. A significant portion of the Buddhist community here in North America is made up of immigrant Buddhists, virtually all Asian, and many of whom are still in the process of fully adjusting to life in North America. They are the ones who could use a helping hand.

But how to help? I came up with a page full of ways that white Buddhist Americans can reach out to their Buddhist immigrant brothers and sisters. Here are just three.

Language services — The most obvious way you can help Buddhist immigrant communities is by lending your English skills. Especially for monks and nuns, there often aren’t many informal situations where they can practice English with a native speaker. Don’t like teaching? Other ways you can use your linguistic skills include current event discussions, one-on-one conversational practice, or in editing (newsletters, brochures, etc.).

Professional advice — For individuals with professional experience, you can volunteer your skills to help others. Advice regarding insurance, accounting, health care, legal situations and finances can be dispensed either as volunteer consulting, classes or workshops. (Can this be tax deductible?)

Educational assistance — When can you have enough education? Whether for youth or for adults, established American Buddhists can give back in a number of ways. Scholarships are very helpful (and very much appreciated). Other ways of broadening youth education include tutoring and extracurricular activities such as exploring the arts or coaching sports.

You may be reading this and thinking, So what? Don’t we all have enough problems in our own Buddhist communities already? Now we should worry about our next door neighbors? I don’t want to suggest that any of this will magically make racial and cultural divisions disappear from the American Buddhist community. I also know that this sort of outreach isn’t possible in every city in North America. I’m definitely sure that many Asian temples would be surprised to find that white Buddhists are suddenly interested in reaching out.

These are some very broad categories, and individuals shouldn’t necessarily take the volunteer route alone. It may be better to get a Dharma group together to discuss what skills, time and resources the group could collectively contribute. It will surely take some time to seek out which sister institutions would be most interested in this sort of help, and also to establish a working relationship. But I’m sure that if such a partnership could be formed, you’d meaningfully help out at least one Buddhist family just as some Christian family helped mine.

I’ve been complaining and ranting for months. There’s been some support in my comments, and some back-and-forth, but no one has proposed anything better than the status quo (or resistance-is-futile assimilation). It may not be worth the webspace that I’m writing on, but this proposal is my contribution.

I write this down because I hope there’s at least one person who cares enough to pick up the phone and see what she can do. One person who knows that she will persevere even when the first, second and fifth attempts might not go over as well as hoped. One person who sees that talking about America’s Buddhist cultural divide, but doing nothing about it, is indeed a part of the problem. One person who wants the Buddhist community to be better than what it is. One person who wants to be a part of change.

One comment

  1. Barry Briggs says:

    I personally have some experience with this. And the experience has gone both ways – white folks helping Asian communities, Asian folks helping white communities.

    But while the results in both circumstances have been mixed, that’s no excuse for not continuing. And, in my experience, it has been the Asian communities that have most consistently supported the efforts of predominantly white Buddhist communities.

    We’ve got a lot to learn, and it’s not academic.

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