Faith in the Shenandoah Valley: shades of diversity

[Northern Virginia Daily] It’s not easy to be different, especially when it comes to religion. Yet different denominations, religions and styles of worship abound in the Northern Shenandoah Valley – and always have.

“Tolerance really only has meaning … when people differ,” said Stephen Longenecker, a professor of history and science at Bridgewater College and author of “Shenandoah Religion: Outsiders and the Mainstream. 1716-1865.”

In his book, Longenecker examines how various religious groups in the valley have evolved – either assimilating into the mainstream or stalwartly retaining their distinct identity and beliefs.

“The valley began as a diverse place with a significant degree of tolerance, and I think it’s that way again,” Longenecker said.

Early religious diversity was mainly among Protestant denominations, with Methodists, Mennonites, Presbyterians and Baptists all choosing to worship in different ways.

These days, different religions and ethnic groups have added a new dimension to the valley’s cultural landscape – and that’s a good thing, Longenecker said.

“It provides a lesson in democracy, a lesson in tolerance,” he said. “I think it’s inspiring to have a community with different forms of outsiders, and yet it’s still a community. It’s live and let live.”

Lifting a date to his lips, Winchester resident Zafar Jawaid breaks the fast of Ramadan with the favorite food of the Prophet Mohammed.

The rest of his family follows suit, savoring the sweet simplicity of the desert fruit after a day without food.

After a short spell at the kitchen table, where both Eastern and Western dishes are spread out invitingly, the family gathers downstairs for the evening prayer.

Removing their shoes, they step onto a large prayer mat, and the women cover their heads. Then, in a soft singsong, Jawaid leads the group in prayer.

While the monthlong fast of Ramadan and the feast of Eid al-Fitr that marks its end are observed by more than 850 million Muslims around the world, there are only about 20 Islamic families in the Winchester area, Jawaid said.

These families share a faith, but their ethnic origins vary widely.

“We have people from Yemen, people from Egypt, people from Palestine, people from Pakistan and people from India,” Jawaid said.

His family hails from Karachi, Pakistan, but the majority of the area’s Islamic population comes from Bangladesh, he said.

The community rents a small space – the Winchester Islamic Center on Shawnee drive – where its members meet to pray together.

But often, prayers are said at home or work, Jawaid said.

“Here it is hard to go for every prayer at the mosque,” he said. “We do pray more at home. If we were back home, there would be like four of five mosques around your home.”

But as often as possible, he crosses town from his job at the Winchester Medical Center to take part in the congregational prayers.

“The only thing I think we miss [about worshipping in Pakistan] is the mosque and the prayer calls,” said Jawaid’s wife, Malka, graceful in a saffron sari. “It’s like a reminder.”

But although worshipping in Winchester presents some practical problems, it does not stop the family from practicing its religion.

“The good thing is, you can just pray anywhere,” Jawaid said. “I just find space at the chapel in the hospital – it takes just a few minutes and nobody bothers you.”

When Bapun Singh Kamboj was in the fifth grade, he asked his school’s counselor if he could explain to his classmates why he wore a turban.

“He never had a problem after that,” said his father, Gurdeep Singh Kamboj.

Kamboj is a Sikh, and people were curious about him, too, when he arrived in America from the Indian Punjab in 1994.

“When I came here to America, the basic question used to be, ‘How many camels have you got?’” he said. “Then, without getting aggressive, I just explained to them.”

Sikh means “scholar” in Sanskrit, and Sikhs – followers of a monotheistic faith that sprang from Hinduism in the 1500s – are required by their religion to wear five outward signs of their beliefs.

They must cover their heads with a turban, as a sign of dignity. They must not cut their hair, to signify spiritual purity. They must wear a metal bangle called a Kara on their right wrist to remind them of the necessity for restraint in their actions; carry a Kirpan – a knife that symbolizes the struggle against injustice; and wear an undergarment called a Kachha, to represent self-control and chastity.

“In the Punjab, people are still keeping those traditions,” Kamboj said. “They are not compromising them at any costs.”

In an attempt to fit in, some Sikh immigrants to this country have cut their hair and stopped wearing their turbans, Kamboj said.

But he has no respect for people who lose their religious integrity in a country that allows freedom of worship.

“America is not a country that compels you to change your religion” he said. “We all have got our freedom.”

Since he arrived in America, Kamboj said he has never been asked to alter his appearance – not by his employer, and certainly not by the community.

And although he is in the minority in the Winchester area, with just 14 other Sikh families, he is not ashamed to stand up for what he believes in.

“I can change my profession any time I want, but I cannot change my religion,” he said.

Ravi Seam was the first Hindu in Winchester – a pioneer of sorts.

“When I came to Winchester, I was the first,” he said. “There were no other Hindi in this town.”

As a follower of one of the world’s oldest religions, Seam began to talk about his beliefs at the behest of one of his neighbors – a pastor and his wife.

He also began to learn about Christianity, he said, calling the experience a “mutual education.”

Thirty years on, there are more than 25 Hindi families in the area, and the second generation is coming into its own.

Hinduism has grown and evolved along with civilization itself, Seam said.

“In that respect, Hinduism is more a way of life,” he said. “There’s no written dogma. Hinduism is like a palm tree which flexes with the wind, and in that way it absorbs some of the good things of other religions.”

Living in a predominantly Christian society, Seam’s daughter, Puja, has been influenced by that religion, along with the children of Seam’s Hindu friends.

“We all have children who have grown up here, so they all look at Christmas differently,” he said. “For them, Christmas is more important than Deepawali.”

Deepawali is the Hindu festival of lights that honors Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.

Now that Puja is away at college – she attends Harvard Law School – it is increasingly difficult for her to come home for Deepawali.

Seam is concerned that the Hindi traditions he grew up with will begin to blur with the younger generations.

Some of the children of his friends do not read Hindi, and Seam and his wife, Uma, have written out the words of the ancient prayers phonetically, in English, for their benefit.

“I think the next generation, they may not know the meanings,” he said.

But Hinduism has endured through the ages, and Seam believes it will continue to provide spiritual sustenance for generations to come.

“As they grow older and mature, I think they will find a need to find their own roots,” he said.

“Part of the process of growing up in a synagogue is learning Hebrew,” said Rabbi Garson Herzfeld of the Beth El Congregation in Winchester.

So the congregation’s younger members study the language, Bible stories and history of Judaism at the red brick synagogue on Fairmont Avenue.

“We have a small youth group – 15 to 20 kids,” he said, remarking that ministering to the 100-family congregation is something of a balancing act.

As the only synagogue within about a 50-mile radius, Beth El must accommodate worship styles from Reform to Conservative, he said.

“The reality is that for anyone who lives out here that wants to affiliate, this is about the only choice they have,” Herzfeld said.

Knowing this, he is careful to strike a balance between Hebrew and English and between traditional and more contemporary music in the service, he said.

In metropolitan areas where the Jewish population is larger, there are more social, cultural and religious opportunities for Jews, he said.

Living in Winchester, everyday issues like dating and keeping Kosher – abiding by the Jewish dietary laws – can be difficult.

“The supermarkets here carry a bare minimum of food products that are kosher,” Herzfeld said. “It would be very difficult for someone that’s Orthodox to maintain their lifestyle here.”

But worshipping in a small community has its advantages.

“In a little town the synagogue becomes the pivot, the foundation of Jewish life,” Herzfeld said. “This has intimacy. There’s nobody here that wants to be active in this kind of congregation that would be invisible.”

The Christmas season is a happy time for Maria Carreño, as it narrows the distance between her English speaking neighbors and her family.

“I like it because in this tradition, the American community is more close to the Spanish community,” she said.

But although she and her Christian Shenandoah County neighbors share a religion, their festivals and traditions are very different, she said.

In Carreño’s native Mexico, the Christmas celebration begins nine days earlier with Las Posadas – a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for room at the inn.

“In Mexico, on the street where my grandfather lives, families pray together,” said Carreño’s 14-year-old son, Horatio, a Central High School student.

The entire community participates in the festivities, in which a doll representing the Christ child is carried to a different home each evening, he said.

And each night, there’s a piñata for the children.

Los Posadas is observed on a smaller scale at St. John Bosco Roman Catholic Church in Woodstock, where a Hispanic congregation of about 150 celebrates the festival.

Christmas is celebrated on the night of Dec. 24, but in the Hispanic tradition, most gifts are given on Epiphany, or “Three Kings Day,” Carreño said.

“Sometimes it’s important to not lose the tradition from the Hispanic community,” Carreño said. “For the Latin people, the religion is very, very important, because for the religion, they stay together.

“Maybe I’m not talking to my neighbor, but when the religion comes, this is the more important thing. I think so.”

The gift of diversity
Shared differences like language, dress, customs and religious practices and beliefs bind people together, Longenecker said.

“The temptation is to say that outsiderness strengthens communities – a faith group – and sometimes it does,” he said. “But sometimes a compromise makes groups more popular, and then they grow.”

The Methodist Church grew as it entered the mainstream, he said, whereas the Amish retained their distinct identity and maintained their numbers.

“Maybe a large group can assimilate and grow, but a small group needs that identity,” he said.

Like the seasons that pass over the valley’s fields and towns, diversity is here to stay.

“This is good, because it’s more rich for the people,” Carreño said.

Editor’s note: this is the 5th in a series of stories examining the role and relevance of organized religion in the lives of valley residents.

This story appeared in The Northern Virginia Daily as part of a series on Faith in the Shenandoah Valley which won first place for a series of news stories in the 2003 Virginia Press Association awards.