I first attended a Sikh temple in Washington, D.C., a little over a year ago. I was planning a day of meditation and my friend suggested I attend the Sikh Sunday service. We went to the temple in Upper NW Washington D.C., near the National Cathedral. We arrived very early… maybe at 11 a.m. and the “official service” did not start until 1 p.m. We sat on the floor, he on the left side and I on the right side, as is the tradition, listening to the music and chanting for a few hours and then we stayed through the two-hour service. For the most part, I had no idea what was being said. And it did not matter. There was not a single non-Sikh in the place except for me, and I have never felt more welcomed.
The women sitting next to me coached me on how to receive the sweet bread that was passed around by the men carrying big silver pails of the sweet, buttery circles that serve as a “communion” of sorts and symbolize nourishment from God. When the service ended, the priest thanked me for coming in front of the room of 300-plus people and commented that he was impressed I could sit in a lotus position for four hours. (Embarrassing!) On the way to the dining hall, the questions started coming my way: “Why are you here?” “What are you looking for?” “Can we help you?” “How do you feel?” “Do you have any questions?” I had so many questions I did not know where to start and before I could really begin, my attention was drawn to the aroma coming from the kitchen and after all that sitting I was hungry. Here we sat together on the floor, were handed a napkin, a cup and a plate. One after another the members of the congregation walked around serving rice, dal, naan, the most amazing chickpeas ever and a variety of other traditional Punjabi food. This fueled my body and my spirit, as I learned that no one goes home hungry from the house of God, and that if anyone ever knocked on the temple door with a need for food, money or counseling, they would be welcomed in.
Over the course of the next several months, I began to understand why I value the Sikhs so much. For one, they took away the caste system, gave everyone the same last name (“Singh” for the men, meaning Lion and “Kaur” for the women, meaning Lioness) and determined that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. They also believe in a Universal God or “Ek Onkar” meaning there is only 1 God whom we can all share despite our different traditions, ethnicities and beliefs. Women are highly respected in the Sikh culture, which is not always the case in India, so they earned many points on that note. They are vegetarian, believe in working hard and in giving back and they are fierce advocates for social justice. If you know me, you know why this religion resonates with me.
So when I heard about the shooting in Wisconsin, I was heartbroken for my Sikh community of friends. I can imagine the women in the kitchen preparing the “lengar” of rice and lentils and the children running around playing while people streamed in to meditate prior to the service and to sit together as one. It could have happened at the community I attend and frankly, it could have been me.
I offered my services to several Sikh organizations when I heard the news. I learned I was one of as many as 200 non-Sikh people who offered their services. My only real contribution was attending a candlelight vigil at the Guru Nanak Foundation in Silver Spring, MD (Nanak is the man! The first Guru and founder of the Sikhs). As I walked up the driveway, I was greeted again so warmly with a hug from the priest. It meant so much to have people of other faiths come out to support them at this tragic time, she said. I was overwhelmed by the remarks made, one after another by elected officials, and leaders from the Muslim and Hindu communities.
But the one who brought the temple to tears was the six-foot-plus all American male chief of police who took to the altar with his gun in his holster and without any scripting, told the Sikhs that any crime against them is a crime against every member of a minority community and any crime against any minority community is a crime against our country. It is not what our nation is about and it is not what the D.C. Metro area is about. And while the shooting is a horrible tragedy it also offered us all the opportunity to stand behind the Sikhs and everyone in this country who faces discrimination or pure hate because of their skin tone, last name or religion. “We will stand behind you through this, and if need be, we will stand in front of you to protect you from hate,” he said, as the tissues came out of purses.
I feel so fortunate to live in a diverse community, to have friends and colleagues of all races and ethnicities, and from many religious and political beliefs. For me, it makes my world far more interesting and full. I cannot imagine having such hate in my heart, but I also understand that hatred stems from fear. So I am now on a personal mission to better understand other religions and to see how their belief systems intersect with mine, and to represent my own race and ethnicity and make sure that as our country’s diversity continues to grow that people know that most of us are pretty loving and wonderful people who we will not stand for hate. Won’t you join me?
Special thanks to AJ for reviewing cultural accuracy—
Peace be with you all,
- Sikh women tend the the garden of candles at a vigil in Montgomery County to remember the victims of the vicious August 5th attack of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin