The remaining members of Petersburg Presbyterian Church in Scranton merged with Hickory Street United Presbyterian Church in 1994. That merger left the Petersburg building unoccupied. Instead of a campaign of robust evangelism to reach the new immigrants, many from India who were moving into the area, the Lackawanna Presbytery sold the building to Springwood Management Group, Inc.
The property on Prescott Avenue in Scranton has changed hands at least twice since then, with the latest transaction leading to the formation of another shrine for Hinduism.
Following the sale by the presbytery, the property was sold to Lackawanna Institute in January 2007 for $250,000 before Shree Swaminarayan Agyna Upasana Satsang Mandal USA, Inc., finalized a deal to buy it for $142,500 in February 2012.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, laments that progression.
“This is a building that was dedicated to Christ and His Church. The PCUSA wants to put long-term reversionary clauses into the deeds of churches seeking to go to other Christian denominations but obviously no such reverter exists on this property,” she said. “The primary offense here is that a building once consecrated to Christ is now being used for pagan worship, but the secondary offense is to those Presbyterians who gave the funds in good faith build it in the first place.”
A similar issue occurred in Binghamton, N.Y., when the Diocese of Central New York refused to let the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd pay to keep its property five years ago following a lawsuit that was decided in favor of the diocese. Instead of allowing the congregation to purchase the property, the diocese chose instead to sell the building for $50,000 (a third of what the congregation offered) to a Muslim group to house the Islamic Awareness Center.
The Shree Swaminarayan Mandir is the second place of worship for practicing Hindus in Scranton, located in Lackawanna County in northeast Pennsylvania. The first temple opened in 2007.
A story in The Times Tribune showed that the establishment of two Hindu temples in a city of approximately 75,000 people marks the continued growth of the Indian population in the region.
U.S. Census data from 2000 to 2010 showed that Scranton’s Indian population increased four-fold, and that population in Lackawanna County nearly tripled.
The temple at the former Presbyterian church got its start in 2012 and formally opened following its murti-pratishtha mahotsav on June 21 and 22, 2014. It is a ceremony by which a deity is infused or brought to inhabit a murti or icon of the deity, part of the ritual of spirituality and faith invoking a god in a murti for the inauguration of a new mandir – the Hindu term for a place of worship or prayer.
LaBerge protests, “This is a building that was already consecrated for worship – and not to a pantheon of idols. This was a church, consecrated to the Holy God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a mockery of God and an act that seeks to strip the Bride of Christ, the Church, of her dignity.”
According to orthodox Hinduism after this rite of inauguration of a new mandir is performed, worship can properly be offered to the murti. Hindus believe that after a murti pratishtha, divinity enters murti, and it is viewed not simply as just an image but rather a living form of a god.
In acknowledging the new temple, Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, noted the need to pass on Hindu spirituality, concepts and traditions to coming generations amidst so many distractions in the consumerist society and hoped that the newest temple in Scranton would focus on such a direction.
Hinduism, the oldest and third largest religion of the world, has about one billion adherents. There are about three million Hindus in the United States.
Laberge commented, “As Americans we welcome them as neighbors and new immigrants to a nation where they are free to exercise their faith. As Christians we are called to share with them the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through a prayer, care, share lifestyle of evangelism. To allow a Christian church building to be ‘reconsecrated’ for expressly pagan worship ought to outrage us. But sadly, it does not. Many will read this and not understand why I’m upset. Their hearts will not be broken that Christians, specifically Presbyterians, in this neighborhood abandoned the first great end of the church – which is the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind. Instead they embrace the pluralistic idea that all religions are equal and equally true. That’s a lie – and people are living it – that grieves me.”