The Rev. Manish Mishra will take over as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church, 401 N. Kings Hwy., Cherry Hill, starting Sept. 1.
Mishra is currently serving as the senior minister of the UU Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., a congregation he’s led for three years.
Mishra, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India in the 1960s, grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Georgetown University, where he received a degree in international relations.
The minister was raised in the Hindu faith and said that as an adolescent, he struggled to reconcile his religious upbringing with his developing sexuality.
“I searched through scripture, hoping to find some guidance or images or advice about what it meant to have this sexual identity that I had,” he said. “I looked toward prayer and toward fasting and almsgiving and good deeds — all of these things that are supposed to lead you to a good life — honestly as a way to curry favor from God and be cured of this thing that I didn’t want and that, at that point, I thought was truly negative.”
When this didn’t happen, Mishra said he experienced a “crisis of faith” and abandoned his religious convictions.
“Being Hindu and doing all of these good things didn’t have God take away these feelings that I had, and I know that I had been praying fervently for him or her or them to take them away, so I just determined that there mustn’t be a God,” he said.
Mishra said that while he was at Georgetown, this struggle almost pushed him to suicide.
“I was standing in the middle of Key Bridge, which is right across from Georgetown, and I stood there for over an hour seriously thinking I’d be better off dead than alive because I couldn’t make sense of this,” he said.
Mishra eventually pulled himself back from that brink and came out at age 20.
“For me, coming out was an act of survival and a necessity. I couldn’t have continued living that way.”
His acknowledgement that he was gay also signified what he thought was a needed separation from organized religion.
After college, Mishra worked as a foreign-service officer in the U.S. Department of State under the Clinton administration, stationed in such countries as Oman and Finland, as well as in Washington, D.C.
Mishra spent several years away from organized religion, but eventually felt the pull back to the sense of community that religion offers.
“When I came out I decided, ‘I’ll be spiritual, but not religious.’ I figured that I didn’t need anything to confirm for me whether I’m devout. But what I came to appreciate was that this spiritual-but-not-religious path can be very lonely; it’s kind of a loner path. You don’t have a community with which you share values or can celebrate holidays or life events, like births and marriages. I thought I wanted to have that again in my life, but I didn’t know how to do that or where to find it.”
Mishra related these feelings to a friend he met while stationed in Finland and who suggested he check out the Unitarian Universalist Church. That same weekend, Mishra and his then-partner went to a worship service at a UU church in D.C.
Mishra said he and his partner had two bottom lines when they attended the service: He wanted to make sure the church was accepting and open to having openly gay congregants and his partner, a scientist, wanted to ensure that the minister wouldn’t be spouting any “supernatural mumbo jumbo.” The church passed the second criteria, but Mishra said his own prerequisite was tested during the service when visitors were given the chance to stand and introduce themselves.
“I was so nervous, but I thought, ‘I’m going for broke, I’ve got nothing to lose. I may never see these people again.’ So my ex and I got up, and I said, ‘We’re a gay couple and we’re here to visit your church.’ I went out of my way to say that and I sat right down and there were all these older members of the community around us, and I thought, ‘Oh, they must all be staring at us thinking, Why are these guys in our church?’ I had this whole dialogue going on in my head, and I resolved that the moment the service was over, we were out the door. And we did start to make a beeline straight out the door, but these two older women who were a row behind us — they must have been in their 80s, with walkers and canes — came up to us and wouldn’t let us leave. The one put her arms around me and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here in our community.’ It was the exact opposite of anything I was expecting. I was so caught off-guard. It really moved me and touched me. It showed me that there could actually be a mainstream religious community where I was really accepted.”
Mishra became more involved in the church and was invited to preach several times during services.
Around this time, Mishra decided to leave his position with the State Department in advance of the impending Bush administration, saying he had a “clear sense that [Bush’s] foreign policy was not going to cohere” with his own world views, and he also “got tired of being a bureaucrat and wanted to have a greater impact and be able to touch people’s lives in a broader, deeper way.”
He entered the seminary, receiving his master of divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 2005 and was ordained as a UU minister that fall.
Mishra and his partner took part in a Hindu/UU wedding ceremony last weekend in Florida, and he said he’s learned to fuse tenets of both Hinduism and Unitarian Universalism into his life.
“Now that I’m a minister and have studied Hinduism academically, I know that my turning my back on Hinduism wasn’t necessary. There are lots of gay- and lesbian-affirming stories in Hinduism, but I just didn’t know where to look then. As I kid, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. But I can see now that those examples exist.”
Mishra said he was attracted to the UU congregation in Cherry Hill because it’s an organization that is growing both internally and externally, bolstering its support for its congregants while developing its outreach to other communities.
“This is a church of 300 that’s well on its way to being a church of 500,” Mishra said. “They’re actively engaged in social-justice issues, with marriage equality being one of those, as well as economic issues and homelessness. It was very important to me that I be in a community that cares about making a difference.”
Mishra said the move to Jersey also affords him and his partner myriad other personal opportunities — such as access to civil unions, the possibility of marriage equality in the future and adoption rights for the family they’re planning on starting — that weren’t available to them in Florida.