Experiencing Wisdom at Mothers Trust in Ganges, Michigan by Mary Montgomery
Column: CyberWeave:Spirituality and the Internet
Over Labor Day weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting a couple of friends from Chicago at my country home near South Haven, Michigan. It was a double treat since Nancy and Pat not only share my love of nature, also my love of spiritual experiences. That’s why when I suggested that we attend the Sunday service at an interfaith center north of me in Ganges, Michigan, they both answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
The interfaith center I was referring to actually goes by the long name of Mothers Trust Ashram Retreat, (Center) Ramakrishna Sarada Universal Temple, Lakeshore Interfaith Community. Whew! That’s a mouthful, so for the sake of this column I’ll refer to it as Mothers Trust (motherstrust.org).
The fact that not only Mothers Trust, but also the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago’s Retreat (chicagovedanta.org/ganges.html) are located in a place called Ganges, Michigan raises some interesting questions of the chicken and the egg variety. Was the town named after the Ganges (Ganga in Hindustani), the most sacred river in India? Or did the Vivekananda Vedanta Society and the folks from Mothers Trust gravitate to Ganges, Michigan because of an already established name?
It turns out that yes is the answer to the second question. How did it get the name Ganges? Here are the sketchy details: The organization of the township began in 1847. There are several stories about how the township was named. The one most told is that it was named Ganges by Dr. Joseph Coats—but only after his original petition to the state legislature was turned down because the first choice was already in use. No one seems to know how Dr. Coates came up with the name Ganges, which was submitted in his second petition.
Whatever the backstory, however, the Mothers Trust community has a vision that directly ties this Michigan hamlet to Varanasi, the north Indian city on the banks of the Ganges that is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. When the Mothers Trust was dedicated in 1998, sacred Ganges water was poured into nearby Lake Michigan. During that dedication, Mataji Bandana Puri Devi, President of the oldest convent in Kolkatta (Calcutta), India said: “This place Ganges is as Varanasi in India—1000’s (sic) will come to take pilgrimage here and be blessed and liberated.”
Back to our recent visit. Every Sunday, Mothers Trust features Interfaith Presenters at 11 am, followed by a Vegetarian Potluck at noon, and a Universal Service & Interfaith Music service at 1 pm. There is also a great program for kids from 11 am to 12 pm. We arrived at the Mothers Trust and were warmly greeted by a community member named Prem, and the speaker, Theodore Richards, Director and Founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project (chicagowisdomproject.org). We had arrived early so there was time to wander the grounds and spend some time in the meditation room. This certainly was one of the highlights of our visit. I centered myself by walking their labyrinth. Pat visited the meditation room and soon found herself in a delightful conversation with one of the friendly, outgoing children who are part of the community.
And for Nancy, those grounds ended up at the top of her list. “While I was there, I tried to spend as much time outside as I could,” she said. “I had a sense of peacefulness, and I liked the idea that they were building community and expanding on that by growing their own food and becoming self-sufficient.”
At 11 am, we gathered for the presentation given by Theodore, who led us in some exercises used by The Chicago Wisdom Project in their Institute for Holistic Education program. “The mission of The Chicago Wisdom Project is to re-imagine education through holistic programming that transforms individual, community and world through creative expression.” They work with children on the south side of Chicago, and with adults who want to become leaders and educators in their holistic methodology.
The first thing Theodore did was implement the holistic by having us reconstruct our auditorium style seating into what The Chicago Wisdom Project calls a Sacred Circle. Their website describes it this way: “We sit in circles, learning to listen and share from the heart and incorporate mindfulness practices into our learning process.” Hmm…Think about it. We’ve done this many times in workshops and such, yet how many times have we actually done this in a church or other sacred setting. I liked that! I think more spiritual services should be done this way.
Theodore then conducted the presentation, not as a lecture, but as what they call Inquiry & Dialogue. At The Chicago Wisdom Project, classes are conducted by asking questions. The real learning takes place not when information is delivered from teacher to student, but in the space in-between the teacher and student, where inquiry and dialogue occurs, and lines are blurred between teacher and student. The presentation was, therefore, a series of questions followed by group discussion. One of those questions was about what we thought about diversity and why it is important.
The discussion was wide-ranging. One of the conclusions combined two of the threads of that discussion: Diversity is important, both because through diversity we are better equipped to survive (as in our ecological and food system), and because it reveals that we are all interconnected (an example would be Mothers Trust bringing together diverse faith traditions in order to promote understanding).
After the presentation, we all feasted on a variety of vegetarian delights. All three of us agreed that the food was great! So was the company—especially if you as a visitor make a point of reaching out to engage. My friend Pat especially appreciated this opportunity. Pat is involved with a south side Chicago group called Institute for Positive Living (openbookprogram.org) which is taking the first steps with their alderman to establish a community garden. It turns out that The Chicago Wisdom Project has established the South Side Food Forest on the property of Hales Franciscan High School. By implementing the principles of permaculture; deep ecology; and communal, indigenous practices, this project has become a space for community members to grow healthy food.
Pat was delighted to connect with someone who could mentor her own startup garden project. “I never expected this—having a conversation about what I was so interested in,” she said. “They are only 10 blocks from where we want to create our garden.”
Pat really summed it up for me, for Nancy, and for anyone who thinks having a variety of spiritual experiences is important. “It shows what can happen when you go to places and enjoy what they have,” she pointed out. “Listen and be open to how this can connect with your life, and connect with what you want to create.”
To that, I say: AMEN!
My Advice: Of course, I have only touched the surface about Mothers Trust and The Chicago Wisdom Project. For example, Mothers Trust features a wonderful retreat house. The rates are great: $35 for one night, or $50 for two nights, and a variety of groups are taking advantage of this opportunity. For example, the weekend after our visit, the retreat center and the entire Mothers Trust property was going to be filled with people from around the world who enjoy Dances of Universal Peace. This is only the tip of the iceberg for both organizations, so let your fingers do the walking, and explore at motherstrust.org, and chicagowisdomproject.org.
Mary Montgomery’s company, Montgomery Media Enterprises, specializes in public relations, writing projects and social media development, especially in the non-profit sector. Ms. Montgomery has a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS). She has completed the coursework in doctoral studies with a focus on Altruism and Unconditional Love.