On Aug. 6, 2012, I was at the Mumbai airport on my way to Delhi and soon would be traveling back home to Fort Wayne. I had spent ten weeks working in Asia with agencies and networks that combated human trafficking. I was tired and ready to go home. Then the TVs throughout the airport switched to a breaking story from Wisconsin. The day before a man had walked into the Sikh Gurdwara (House of Worship) in Oak Creek and fatally shot six people, wounded four others and then killed himself. The assailant was a white supremacist who had targeted Sikhs for being different.
At the airport people were shocked and simply stood in front of televisions watching the story unfold. Then it became awkward as people realized there was an American among them. Travelers approached me and asked why Americans were so racists. I tried to explain that the shooter did not represent America.
However, many of the travelers knew that Sikh-Americans have been the target of hate crimes. Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11 Sikh shops were attacked and a Sikh was mistaken for a Muslim and killed. On Aug. 1, a Sikh was purposely run over by an angry driver. Last year a Sikh professor at Columbia University was beaten. Eight hundred hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs have been reported since 9/11. Bureau of Justice statistics suggest that the number of hate crimes may actually be 15 times higher than reported. Multiple studies by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Sikh Coalition found that over 60 percent of Sikh children who wore turbans experienced bullying in school.
As sad as intolerance is, the amazing story is how the Sikh community in American has responded.
Around the country the Sikh community reacted by honoring the martyrs and by educating their neighbors about the Sikh faith. In Fort Wayne, the local representative of the Sikh Coalition, Lori Way, had just returned from training in Washington D.C. Her training included a White House briefing on hate crimes and issues of importance to South Asian Americans.
Sikhs have been a part of the U.S. landscape for 130 years. There are about 500,000 Sikhs here. They serve in the military, are first responders, educators, elected officials, shopkeepers and laborers. Fort Wayne is the home of two Gurdwaras.
Sikhism is the fifth largest world religion. It is a monotheistic faith founded in the Punjab area of what is now India and Pakistan. Surrounded by Hindu and Muslim neighbors, this faith rejected caste and ritual and endorsed the equality of the sexes. The men are often recognized by their turbans, beards, steel bracelets, and kirpans, or small ceremonial swords. Their faith requires them to defend the religious rights of all faiths.
I was first introduced to Sikhism in Delhi but interacted with my first Sikh family in Pokhara Nepal. However it was a Muslim friend who brought me to my first Gurdwara in Kuching Malaysia. I was struck by the hospitality and the fact that the first person I saw reading scripture at the altar was a woman. Should you visit one of the Fort Wayne Gurdwaras, you will experience meditative chanting (Kirtan), a respect for scripture and a communal meal (Langar) that is open to anyone who visits.
Across the nation there will be Six Days of Seva (selfless work or charity) to honor the fallen. Sikhs are cleaning parks, serving the homeless, feeding the hungry and teaching others about their traditions. Our local Sikh community is also honoring the memory of those who lost their lives in Oak Creek. That will include planting roses, donating to food banks, creating university display cases, sending supplies to India and extending hospitality to neighbors.
This past year has been a difficult year for tolerance and respect. Ancient Christian communities have been forced to flee their homelands, Palestinians and Israelis are locked in a bloody struggle, Muslim villages have been burned to the ground in Burma. However, Fort Wayne has been a leader in inter-faith cooperation and dialogue. The City of Churches is now the City of Faiths. The Sikh response to the Oak Creek Shootings is a model of focusing on bridge-building and hospitality. The city of Fort Wayne in like fashion works to celebrate our diverse faith traditions.
On Sept. 14 the mayor and representatives of our many faith communities will participate in “Prayers for the City” at the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center. Please join us as we support one another and our city. In the meantime, feel free to visit a Gurdwara this week as the memories of Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh are honored by serving others.