Last Sunday the Sikh community was the victim of a suspected act of domestic terrorism in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that resonated right here at home in New Jersey. Immediately upon learning the horrible and saddening news, I felt an instant closeness to the families in Wisconsin. I envisioned my own husband and family sitting in a Gurudwara on typical Sunday morning. Typically, I first enter the Gurudwara bowing to our holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The vibrations of the sacred hymns that are recited enter my ear and a blissful energy overcomes my spirit. Today, empathy filled my heart thinking of the humble servants, both men and women, ending their three day long prayer service and preparing meals for langar (community kitchen). It could have been me. I would typically make my way to the kitchen shortly upon arrival to the Gurudwara to help cook the round flat bread for the congregation each Sunday morning.
Since this tragedy, around the country and throughout the world, the Sikh community is receiving support. Social media is broadcasting the beliefs of Sikhs. Sikhs will no longer be viewed as unknown strangers but rather American neighbors. I am truly impressed by the media coverage of this horrendous crime. The country has come together as one with both Sikhs and non Sikhs having expressed their sympathy for those in Wisconsin and in the Sikh community. For Sikhs, the aftermath of this attack has brought a historic learning opportunity for the mass American population. Though there have been numerous hate crimes against both Sikh men and women since 9/11, there has never been this much attention or focus on the Sikh religion.
Sikh men are commonly mistaken for members of other religious groups because of their beards and turbans. In my own country, I am scared for my husband's safety post-9/11 because of his long flowing beard. Walking outside in our development, at our local mall, or at our local airport, my husband has been stared at, shouted at, and even bullied. Yet America is our home. My own fears led me to urge him to tie his beard following the 9/11 attacks. I told him that he should "blend in" or even "fit into society." I lived day to day wondering if my husband would be attacked. I wanted to try anything to protect him while preserving his Sikh identity. His reply was that any person with a beard, open or tied, and a turban will be seen as a foreigner in society. In the past, he was attacked and discriminated against based on his appearance. These acts occurred because of the lack of education among the general public of the Sikh religion. It saddens me deeply that this tragedy took place and the only silver lining within the storm cloud is the growing awareness and acknowledgement of the peaceful nature of Sikhism.
Living in this country as a Sikh woman, I fit in with American culture and even follow fashion trends, although I do not cut my hair. Frequently, I hide the fact that I am a Sikh to blend in and fit it. It is easier to hide than to explain my religion to my colleagues, friends and students. Until today, I have camouflaged myself into my role as a nurse and as an educator, frequently separating my religious beliefs from my occupation. So tomorrow brings a new perspective, the responsibility to educate all those around me.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion. It is the same God that other religions believe in, only with a different name, Waheguru. And thus we are all brothers and sisters, following our own paths towards enlightenment. The tenets of Sikhism include praising and remembering God, performing honest hard work, and sharing the fruits of your labor with society. The Gurudwara is more than a place of worship. The Sikh temple serves as a community center housing libraries, schools, community kitchens, and large prayer rooms. Visiting the Gurudwara is a delight to visit every week, providing a peaceful place to worship and social gathering to exchange ideas.
My parents immigrated to America for freedom of religion and to offer my brother and myself a home to fulfill our dreams. The core foundation of America and Sikhism are remarkably common: having respect for diversity, treating one another with understanding and equality, and creating a society that fosters opportunity for success.
My heartfelt prayers are with the victims and their families and also with the heroic police officers who risked their lives to protect the Sikh community. Let this tragedy serve as a building block to educate the world about Sikhs and other religions. As an American and a Sikh, I am reminded of the distinctiveness of this country. Diversity of people, perspectives, and religions is what flavors the melting pot of America.
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