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Stephen Goeman

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What Humanists Can Learn From Sikhs

Posted: 10/07/2012 1:09 am

We're aware of the irony: three atheists are driving from Cambridge, through Somerville, and into Medford, Massachusetts--en route to a Gurdwara while blasting Christian hymns on the radio. The church organ's hazy echo transforms Chelsea's stereo into a time machine, conjuring images of sweater vests and Sunday mornings past. It's nice to have an excuse to wear a tie. I realize I don't mind being up before noon on a weekend, a rare thought for this twenty-something.

We pull up to the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar and I am immediately struck by its simplicity. The building could easily pass for any of the restaurants it borders on Mystic Avenue. We join a group of more than 25 in front of the Gurdwara, gathered by Assistant Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman: Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Zoroastrians and atheists stand united in their support of a community recently hit with tragedy. A Sikh man bows towards the Nishan Sahib, a holy flag raised high outside the Gurdwara, before entering. A small group stands outside the building, holding posters that state their support for a community touched by tragedy. While we make small talk and wait for the last members of our group to arrive, a Sikh woman embraces a Muslim woman in our group and thanks her for coming. The love and gratitude felt by the Sikhs of Medford is palpable.

We are led inside, where we are invited to part with our footwear. Shelves by the door are lined with a surprising amount of Converse: if nothing else, Chuck Taylors serve as a reminder that some similarities can always be found in diversity. We are handed headcoverings, and my fumbling attracts the help of a Sikh man to secure the bandana to my head. We smile and enter the next room.

Long carpets stripe the floor where we sit side-by-side and enjoy brunch. Traditional hymns sung in Punjabi are projected over strategically placed speakers--though it took me a few minutes to realize they weren't professional recordings, but were actually being performed upstairs. We make our way up a flight of stairs, passing encased displays of elaborate fabrics along the way, and find ourselves in the main room of the Gurdwara. A red carpet splits the room in two and ends at an intricate shrine, over which an equally intricately dressed man is waving tassels and chanting silently. To his left three musicians expertly perform traditional hymns as a screen displays the Punjabi lyrics alongside English translations. These translations, combined with an informational pamphlet provided by the Gurdwara, provide a cursory insight into the theology of Sikhism for those of us who were ignorant of the beliefs and the history of their religion. As Sikhism doesn't ordain holy leaders, the entire service is progressing without any discernible leaders. Rather, a large portion of the self-sufficient congregation is involved.

After these hymns, community leaders in attendance were called before the congregation to offer words of condolence. Religious leaders spoke of how their faith compels them to aid other communities and Chris had the opportunity to call attention to those without faith in attendance. State Senator Pat Jehlen spoke with rising emotion of the necessity for public officials to connect with communities fractured by disaster. By the time she had finished, she was in tears. After a memorial service, spoken in both English and Punjabi by members of the Gurdwara, we were led back downstairs for the langar.

We sat again on the long carpets while many members of the congregation brought us a variety of vegetarian dishes. As we ate, other Sikhs made their way back to us and replaced what we had managed to eat in these brief interludes. Even in the face of tragedy, this community was focused on hospitality and the needs of their guests. My plate was never empty and a new face accompanied each new helping. After doubling my weight, I turned to Chris and asked: "Why can't we have this?" Why can't atheists and Humanists prioritize community and inclusion more? I'm not sure I have an answer for this, but I suspect it has something to do with why we as a movement utterly failed to recognize the shooting at Oak Creek.

I don't need to remind the atheist community of the oppression we face. We've all lost friends and alienated family members for simply advocating an end to religious privilege. What I do wish to remind the atheist community of is the fact that oppression doesn't stop being important when another community is its target. It was very disheartening to see that atheist blogs and news sites covered the hate crime in Oak Creek even less than the mainstream media did (which is saying a lot). I have not seen a single atheist webpage cover the subsequent shooting of two members of the Oak Creek Gurdwara on August 16th, which resulted in another death just days after a white supremacist opened fire on the congregation. Because of their outward appearance, it is not safe to be an American Sikh. American Sikhs are so clearly deserving of our compassion and attention, but the atheist community has been less than forthcoming. I'm not sure of the exact reasons, but I wonder if this is because we have interpreted "rationality" as opposed to empathy, among other emotions. This predisposition to be disinterested in our neighbors inherently limits the atheistic quest to end injustice; if we are only for our own causes, we can't claim to be agents of justice or rationality.

We can change. There is a growing interest in the atheist movement in the concern of other marginalized communities. I've seen this mindset take hold at my own university and it is starting to materialize at the national level. I want to see compassion placed as our foremost priority. To this end, we will be coordinating monthly visits to our religious neighbors in the Boston area. We want to learn what is important to the religious, what their rituals are, and let them know that atheists are here. The Sikh call to feed all who enter their house of worship is laudable and worth emulating. I would love to see Humanist communities adopt a similar model of outreach and solidarity. Who knows what other traits we can repurpose for a new Humanism?
If you'd like to get involved, please email me at info@harvardhumanist.org.

 
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