BOSTON (RNS) — When Keshav Kishor Sharan’s Hindu community bought a retired Friendly’s restaurant for the community’s new temple, the group renovated the building completely, replacing every fixture and window.
Every window, that is, except for the ice cream takeout window.
Sharan’s fellow Hindus in Holbrook, Massachussets, south of Boston, ended up preserving the pass-through as a piece of the building’s past life, an outpost of New England’s iconic burger-and-a-sundae chain. Plus, Sharan said, “we thought it looked cute, having that little ice cream window.”
A decade later, the decision is paying off in a way members never could have predicted.
Since mid-April, worshippers have been using the window at Braj Mandir, a Nimbarki Vaisnava Hindu temple that teaches Bhakti yoga, to receive socially distant holy food offerings and attend drive-thru darshan services every day of the week.
“We had no idea that we will ever use it,” said Sharan, the temple’s president. “But in this time period it became very handy.”
Step up to the window now and you won’t get ice cream. Instead, people of all faiths can pick up a maha prasadam box — a religious offering of vegetarian food to the goddess Sri Radha, normally shared after services — to take home and eat with their families.
“We cultivate emotional love through sharing prasadam vegetarian food offered to Sri Radha, the embodiment of feminine collective devotion,” Sharan explained. Through preparing, distributing and eating the meals, the temple’s volunteer cooks spread and share in “unconditional love,” he said.
Because the temple’s altar sits in the center of the room, visible from the temple’s front window, worshippers in the parking lot can participate in darshan, an act of worship in which Hindus make eye contact with the image of a deity, without leaving their cars.
Since Massachusetts eased its lockdown restrictions, worshippers can also attend socially distanced outdoor services on Sundays in the parking lot, where the deities are carried once a week. About 30 families have been gathering for rituals of devotion including mantra chanting, kirtan and arati.
Though Massachusetts has allowed houses of worship to reopen in a limited fashion, Braj Mandir’s leaders want to avoid having worshippers confined in a closed and poorly ventilated space, where public health experts suggest the highly contagious virus can spread more effectively than in an open-air environment.
“We as a community need to figure out how we can actually not put people in the harm’s way,” Sharan said. “At the same time, we can do much better than being totally defeated by the virus.”
The temple is not advertising these services, nor is it not encouraging anyone to come. Instead, it wants to ensure that those who are actively looking for the services have somewhere to turn since many local temples closed or are open only briefly during the week.
That abrupt disconnection left many people of all faiths shocked and despondent, particularly leaving elderly worshippers bereft of social and spiritual connection.
“The community was left alone,” Sharan said. “Religion talks about God, but when it came down to this problem, they basically said, ‘No, find God in yourself, we are not available.’
“We have seen people crying, seeing that every single temple in New England was closed and no one was able to get their services done in person, and they didn’t feel safe,” Sharan said. “But people come here and are able to do their prayer and chanting in the presence of our deities. It was a really touching moment.”
For those who do not come in person, Braj Mandir has also been streaming services online and arranging darshan via Facebook and Zoom, like many temples in the area.
Volunteers have also been delivering prasadam to the doorsteps of worshippers across New England who are self-isolating or otherwise unable to come to the temple in person. Sharan estimates that they have donated more than 5,000 meals to members, particularly seniors and university students living in dorms, as well as to health care workers and patients at the nearby Bridgewater State Hospital.
“We feel happy that there could be some new ideas, especially in this time of a period where traditional real services could actually backfire,” he said. “You have to keep ready to change yourself.”
This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.