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NEWS-SENTINEL GUEST COLUMN: Sikh community has rich history in Fort Wayne

Recently, dozens of people gathered at the Dashmesh Sikh Gurudwara of Fort Wayne to learn about a religious community celebrating a pivotal turning point in its history. But as they took part in a prayer service and finished the day with langar (food from a free community kitchen), the gurudwara’s visitors also learned that Sikhs have been contributing to the city of Fort Wayne since the late 1970s.

Sikhs first came to Fort Wayne seeking economic opportunity. Today, they comprise a significant portion of the city’s small business owners. During the open house event on Nov. 24 at the only Sikh house of worship in Fort Wayne, visitors took part in celebrations to mark the 550th gurpurab, or birth anniversary, of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

Despite being the fifth-largest religion in the world, with more than 25 million followers worldwide, many still do not know about Sikhism. What they do know, however, can be marred by tragedy, misunderstanding, and even hatred.

In 2012, a gunman with neo-Nazi ties attacked the gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and killed six Sikhs – people who looked like me and my family. In the aftermath, I put out pamphlets at my business to teach others about who I am. One day, a woman – later discovered to be the then-mayor of Garrett – threw away the pamphlets because they were against her beliefs. It took public pressure for her to apologize for her actions, but I forgave her because that is what my religion teaches me to do.

That one incident created a broader opportunity to teach others about who Sikhs are. More than seven years later, the relationship between Sikhs and our non-Sikh neighbors in Fort Wayne has only grown stronger. In January, for the first time ever, Sikhs will be providing food for more than 200 people at the Trinity English Lutheran Church. And that is only one example.

When my son was in second grade, a group of kids tried to point the finger at him and hurt him for looking different. My son wears a patka, a head covering for younger Sikhs who keep their hair. Instead of allowing the kids to bully him, he asked his teacher if he could bring in materials and explain to his classmates who he is. Since his presentation, the same kids who tried to bully him because he looked different are now his friends. I could not have been prouder when he told me the lesson he learned from the whole experience: “Don’t get scared. Educate them.”

I look to my son’s strength as a source of resilience in my own life. His story is a real-life example of how powerful it can be when people come together. As I continue to raise my family in the great city that is Fort Wayne, I hope that you can open your heart to the Sikh community here. Open house weekend or not, the gurudwara’s doors are always open to you.

Kulwinder Singh Nagra is a business owner and lives with his family in Fort Wayne. He also serves on the management committee for Dashmesh Sikh Gurudwara of Fort Wayne and leads their interfaith initiatives.

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