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Wednesday, May 9, 2007 03:11 pm

Keeping the faith

Plans proceed for a Hindu temple in Springfield, but another faces resistance in Champaign-Urbana

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Elaborate three-day pooja services are conducted by Hindu priests before the temple can be considered sacred and ready for worship.
PHOTO COURTESY OF QUAD CITY HINDU TEMPLE
Untitled Document A dozen Hindu worshipers in the Springfield area are working with members of the local Indian community to open a permanent temple. The group is scouting potential locations and raising money for a $1 million temple, which will serve several hundred families, says Krishna Brahmamdam, who leads the Springfield temple project. “The time has come for Springfield’s Indian community to establish a permanent worship site,” he says.
In the past, differences of opinion and skepticism have kept the project on hold, but no more, Brahmamdam says. “Finally we are able to see in unison,” he says. “We have a clearer idea of what we want the temple to represent, and with strong commitment from the Indian community we are moving toward that goal.”
In April, the Hindu Temple of Greater Springfield was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization and an exploratory committee put in place to plan the initial development phases of the project.
The first step of the plan involves establishing an interim site where worship services can be conducted. A Hindu priest is expected to travel to Springfield in the coming months to conduct traditional pooja services.
“While deciding on a temporary temple location, we are also exploring available properties both within city limits and countywide as HGTS’s future home,” says Brahmamdam. A foreclosed property — a former church building southeast of town — holds promise. “We are looking at all available properties, including existing buildings and land, as a possible temple site,” Brahmamdam says. The temple is expected to serve almost 400 Hindu families. Many of them now travel hundreds of miles to worship at temples in Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. “The temple will not only serve Springfield residents but will also draw Hindus from neighboring towns, including Taylorville, Jacksonville, Bloomington, and Decatur,” he says. Brahmamdam, a 20-year resident of Springfield, says that the Indian community has established strong roots in the city and has grown over the years, largely because of the expanding medical, software, and engineering industries. “Establishing a temple in Springfield meets our needs for a central worship house where all Hindus can gather as a community,” he says. Many traditional functions and religious gatherings are being held at either the Indian Association House on Peoria Road or in rented facilities. Although Brahmamdam is confident that Springfield will embrace the presence of a Hindu temple in the area, he is also aware of the ongoing opposition to the proposed Hindu Temple and Cultural Society of Central Illinois in Champaign County. There, Hindu worshipers have pushed for a temple for more than two years, with no success. Led by University of Illinois professor Shiv Kapoor, the group’s first attempt, in 2005, to build a Hindu temple in Urbana was thwarted by opposition from neighbors and an unsuccessful land-acquisition effort. Their ongoing second attempt also faces opposition from area homeowners, who have raised concerns over property values, protection of rural farmland, drainage and flooding problems, increased traffic, and preservation of the rural quality of life. Kapoor says that the process has been frustrating, especially the recent inaction by the Champaign County Board of Appeals, because of the absence of some members, during its April meeting. More than 70 Hindu worshipers who attended the hearing hoping for a decision were disappointed. “Three hearings later, and the fate of the project still hangs in the balance,” Kapoor says. “We are hoping the May session will hold a positive outcome.”
Kapoor says the temple committee has been working with city planners and engineers to address suggestions that will help assuage homeowners’ concerns. The proposed $1 million Hindu Temple would serve approximately 200 Champaign-Urbana Indian families, Kapoor says. The group plans to purchase a 40-acre parcel near a county highway, in a development known as the Thor-O-Bred Acres subdivision, while proposing to develop just five acres, including the temple, parking, and a landscaped area. A “special use” permit is required for the property, which is now designated “best prime farmland.”
Attorney Kevin Luebchow, representing homeowners who oppose the temple, argues that although no specific development is scheduled for the farmland, granting a special-use permit for the property could pose an array of problems for residents in the area.
During a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing in late March, Luebchow told board members that the temple could have a negative impact on residential properties in the area. He also noted said that “there have been proposed temples throughout Illinois and the United States that have been denied zoning requests because the determination was made that the design of the facility did not comply or match the characteristics of the district.”
Kapoor is disheartened by assertions that the temple design will be an eyesore. “I have heard such references about the temple, and it’s pretty discouraging that ignorance could lead to rejection,” he says. “We are looking to expand the Hindu community’s reach to our younger generation with a temple that not only serves as a religious hub but as a cultural center that offers more that just prayer services.”
Approximately 29 residential lots, many located next to small commercial operations, sit adjacent to the proposed temple site. Several churches are located in the area, but homeowners say the temple would change the nature of the neighborhood and constitute “haphazard development.”
Kapoor says that a Hindu temple’s functions are similar in many ways to those of a church. “Worshipers gather, pray, socialize, counsel, educate, and celebrate,” he explains. “Lack of understanding and ignorance over faiths of foreign origin leads to negative reaction. That’s one reason why we need to foster a more tolerant society by exposing different cultures to different people.”

Hinduism, which has more than 200 temples and more than 1.5 million worshipers in the United States, is an established religion, ranking third in the world behind Christianity and Islam. There are at least eight Hindu temples in Illinois, several with grand structures resembling India’s traditional architecture. Kapoor says although the proposed temple in Champaign County will not be a mirror image of an Indian Hindu temple, with an intricately carved exterior and towering columns, it will reflect some Indian elements.
“After all, it’s a Hindu temple,” he says. Champaign County Hindus are hoping that the next Zoning Board of Appeals hearing will deliver the much-anticipated approval and end their long wait.
Rock Island physician Dr. Anand Reddy understands Kapoor’s frustration, but he also knows that patience and perseverance will pay off in the end. As a board member of the newly opened Quad Cities Hindu Temple, he has been on the forefront of the six-year effort on the part of western Illinois’ Hindu community to build a temple. On April 28, Hindus from eastern Iowa and Illinois gathered to celebrate the grand opening of the $1 million temple with traditional religious services, consecration of deities, facility tours, and an Indian feast. The atmosphere was joyous, with hundreds of worshipers and many non-Hindu friends of the temple gathering to mark the occasion. “It’s a matter of pride and joy for the entire Hindu community in the area to see a long-awaited dream become a reality,” Reddy says. “The temple was entirely funded by contributions from people of all faiths.”
The temple serves more than 450 Hindu families.
Reddy says although the first phase of the 7,200-square-foot single-story temple structure is complete, plans are in the works for a $1 million addition that will feature marble and granite deities and for the construction of a gopuram, the traditional Hindu temple tower, which will distinctly identify the structure’s purpose. Reddy says that the Quad City Hindu Temple’s success serves as a model for other Indian communities to initiate temple projects. “There were mixed reaction among people who didn’t understand our beliefs or our culture,” he says. “There are always those who doubt, question, and even oppose our right to worship where we want to.”
Faith is the key, Reddy says.
In a wooded 25-acre neighborhood in Peoria sits the idyllic Hindu Temple of Central Illinois. Built in 1999, the temple serves as a reminder that, over time, objections turn into acceptance. Neighbors who once opposed the presence of a Hindu temple in the area have not only come to embrace its existence but have actually have learned to reap some of the benefits the center has to offer. “Families come for a walk on the landscaped area, utilize the extra parking lot when there are family functions, and even enjoy the extra security the temple has to offer in a secluded area,” says Prakash Babu. Babu says there is a need for the Illinois Hindu community to establish a presence and celebrate its customs and traditions. “After seven years in the community, we have held many functions and events and opened the facility to anyone interested in utilizing the space,” he explains. “It has served the community well, not only the Hindu population but all Peoria residents.”
Babu says that the center has brought together Indians of many beliefs under one roof. “Despite uncertainties during the initial development, we have prevailed,” says Babu, who also shares some advice for other Hindu groups working to establish temples. “Don’t be discouraged by small obstacles along the way,” he says. “Keep moving forward.”
Above all, he says: “Keep the faith.”

M.D. Batmanathan of Springfield is a former reporter for the Paris Beacon News. She has also written for The Sun of Kuala Lumpur and other publications in Singapore and Malaysia.

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