The American Sikh
This article was brought to you through a collaboration between BP (Seattle, WA), David (Wilmington, DE), Nicholas (Columbus, OH) and Marco (Newark, NJ), We each had made a commitment to learn more about the Sikh and their community in our local areas. As photographers and artists we felt the need to try to express ourselves about what happened at the gurudwara in Oak Creek, the need for educating ourselves, and to show the beauty of what we learned about the Sikh. This process was a great one for each of us, as we were able to share with one another what we learned, articles we’ve read, videos we’ve watched, news we consumed, and love we have for documentary photography using our mobile devices.
We would love to know what you think of the project. We would love to hear from you if you are Sikh. We want to be able to tell our story but more importantly tell the story as we’ve learned from the folks we were able to talk to.
Sorat’h, Ninth Guru:
That man, who in the midst of pain, does not feel pain, who is not affected by pleasure, affection, or fear, and who looks alike upon gold and dust; who is not swayed by either slander or praise, nor affected by greed, attachment or pride; who remains unaffected by joy and sorrow, honor and dishonor; who renounces all hopes and desires and remains desireless in the world; who is not touched by sexual desire or anger – within his heart, God dwells.
That man, blessed by Guru’s Grace, understands this way. O Nanak, he merges with the Lord of the Universe, like water with water.
Finding Peace by BP, Seattle WA
This project was a personal choice to educate myself on the Sikh community.
Prior to the murders at the Gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI on August 5, 2012, I didn’t really know much about the Sikh culture or religion. I was listening to the radio, to the Bob Rivers Show (a local classic rock station) where Bob, Downtown Joe, Spike, and Jody spent 25-30 minutes it seemed on trying to pronounce the word, “Sikh.” I found myself getting real frustrated because I didn’t want them to argue about how to say it, I wanted to know more about what happened in Oak Creek.
I didn’t expect them to break down the post-911 theory behind why the gunman went into a gurudwara, under the belief that gunning these people down would be a great revenge for the American people (specifically for him and his ties – the white supremacist racists) for the attacks on 9/11. I did’nt expect them to tell me how ignorant the gunman was. I bet he really thought he was doing something right. Hate crimes are never right. I didn’t expect them to tell me why mainstream media’s coverage on the murders didn’t hit the strong impact that the Auburn, CO murders did. I didn’t even expect them to tell me why it was wrong for someone to walk into a temple, a church, a community’s most established safe haven; and kill innocent people.
Ok. Maybe I did.
I wanted to hear all those things. I wanted to hear an apology. I wanted to hear that American soil is not safe for any one person, any one community. Maybe I wanted to hear that America has some really terrible cultural and societal beliefs hidden only when it has been turned upside down, broke, shook, and scared of itself when she looks at herself in the mirror. America is not at peace with itself. America has a strong history of wrong doing upon not only the earth and its natural resources, or other countries and their people, BUT has a long and strong history of oppression and violence against its own citizens.
OK! Don’t get me wrong. I am born American. I am proud of the opportunity given through America by my father immigrating here and joining the military like so many of his countrymen. I am committed to live the life that he provided my family and in turn will try to do the same for mine. I do know that there is something wrong in the fabric of our country. I need to teach my son these things that I’ve learned and experienced.
In order for me to be able to strengthen my son’s fortitude in being a better person, his dad needs to be on his toes. This is for my son but also it is for me. I have this inherent want to “change” the world. I’ve tried through community involvement and through my career. Now I have this opportunity to provide what I’ve experienced, the good and the bad, and pass it down to my son. This specific knowledge seeking is just a chapter. I didn’t know what to say to him when he asked me, “What happened over there daddy?” That affected me tremendously.
Not knowing about the Sikh community, relying on a classic rock station for news and education…what the hell has happened to me? I used to read. A LOT! I used to speak big words and debate big thoughts on issues that pertain to America and some of the fucked up beliefs it has. I used to. I used to write about it. I used to perform on a stage about it. Then life and its twists and turns happened. Now that I’ve found another creative outlet, photography through my camera phone, I’ve decided to try and document it.
I wanted to talk to someone who can enlighten me on what happened in Wisconsin. I wanted to talk to someone who can help me understand more about their community. I wanted someone from that community to tell me and not a classic rock radio station, traditional media, Twitter, or Instagram for that matter. So, I went to a local gurudwara by my work instead of going to lunch.
I pull up to Gurudwara Singh Sabha and was intimidated by the size of the structure and the lot size. It is one of about a dozen in Washington State, with this gurudwara being the largest, serving almost 25,000 Sikhs. I drove around the older structure (which I learned was the original gurudwara) and pull into the parking lot. Children of all ages, and many of them, are running around the property. A few of the boys are on the north side of the building throwing a nerf football. To the south of the building is a basketball court where the kids are shooting hoops and others are doing hop scotch or jumping rope. I get out of my car and immediately greeted by a youth leader who then introduced me to Parminder Kaur Jassal. Parminder is one of the community leaders of this gurudwara and is in charge of the Camp Chardhi Kala, summer camp for children. Quickly, Parminder welcomed me with big arms and said, “You must be here because of the Wisonsin shootings? We’ve had a lot of visitors since Sunday.”
She then proceeded to thank me and tell me that it is important that people come and learn so that the things that happened in Wisonsin will not repeat itself. She schooled me on the Sikh culture; the meaning of Kaur (surname for women) and Singh (surname for men), the Gurudwara and the Langar, the openess of this building and the religion to all walks of life. “Anyone can come here at any time to rest, to eat, to learn, to share, to pray. Anyone.”
Her duties called and she called upon my tour guides and educators, Ramanpreet Kaur (18), Manvir Singh (18), and Daya Singh (17). All three very intelligent young adults continued to school me on their culture and religion. They explained to me their customs upon entering the gurudwara; the washing of the hands and feet, the covering of the head, the bowing and paying respects to the Gurū Granth Sāhib, their source of scripture. The above quote was the daily scripture for that day so I saw it fitting for my first time entering a gurudwara. There are no idols, statues, or religious pictures in a gurdwara, but the essential feature of a gurdwara is the presiding presence of the holy book and the eternal Sikh Guru, the Guru Granth Sahib.The Sikhs hold high respect for the teachings and commandments laid down in the Guru Granth Sahib. Manvir showed me the holy book and explained to me in more detail how the Sikhs honor its teachings.
The tour continued downstairs through the Langar. This is a communal kitchen; all volunteer run, all community run, all family run. Every day there are folks who prepare food for anyone who comes to the Langar. Anyone means anyone. There is no discrimination at all. Open to all walks of life, all religions, affluent and the poor alike. All races, genders, sexual orientation. The main philosophy behind the Langar is two-fold : to provide training to engage in Seva and an opportunity to serve people from all walks of life and to help banish all distinctions between high and low or rich and poor. For sure next time I will break bread with Ramanpreet, Manvir, and Daya. This day I did not.
Children continued to run through the hall. Elders sit against the back wall where there are many photographs of martyrs of the Sikh. One in particular (Sant Jarnail Singh – Bhindrawale) led the three of them to inform me of some of the hidden history of their people, the murders in 1984. The discussion then led us to the Nishan Sahib, which is their flag pole dressed in golden fabric outside of the building. The symbolism for this is that it is to be seen across the land to represent the Khalsa, which is the collective community of Kaurs and Singhs.
We were wrapping it up for my first visit. Before I left, I asked each of them a couple questions and asked if I could share that with you all.
Daya Singh: I don’t understand what was in the mind of the man that shot all those people. The personal impact on me…I was shocked. I woke up and found out about it. I heard about the shootings in Colorado and remember saying to myself, it would never happen to me. Now I see it can happen to any one, to any community of people and that thought is devastating. My prayers go out to the victims.
Manvir Singh: I also am not sure what went through his mind. It has a lot to do with not many people are aware who Sikhs are. I think now that something like this has happened more people will be aware and want to be aware. When I found out I was here at the gurudwara. I couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe it. It’s unfortunate because it happened at a gurudwara. For instance with children, they will grow up now not knowing if the gurudwara is a safe place. This is now a norm for them. I hope this teaches them to value life more.
Ramanpreet Kaur: At the end of the day, everyone comes to America to live the American dream. Everyone wants that equal opportunity to live it. It doesn’t matter what religion you believe in. A good did come out of it. It’s a tragic situation, but the good now is that people will be more aware of who we are. There have been more people coming to the gurudwara and trying to learn and gain awareness of Sikhs. It also makes you value life. You can never take for granted life because it can be taken from you at any time.
I attended the candlelight vigil the following Saturday. The gurudwara was packed with people; not only Sikh, but community members who I’ve known for years. We were all at the vigil for the same reason to support this beautiful, peaceful people during this time.
I learned so much during my short time visiting the gurudwara and talking to these folks. I learned of their beliefs in equality and peace. I learned of their cultural strengths and despite the murders in Wisonsin, their steadfast desire to embrace everyone and anyone who came to them. The Sikhs are a beautiful people rich in culture and history. They adore their young, admire their elders, and build for a better community not just for themselves, but for the global community.
I thank them for this enriching experience and specifically to those who embraced my ignorance and thirst for understanding. I encourage anyone reading this to do the same and reach out to not only the Sikh community in their area, but to other cultures and people.
God knows we need to build relationships outside of our own.
The Light by David N., Wilmington DE
These words and portraits are dedicated to the victims of the tragic murders in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and their families. All portraits were taken at the Sikh Center of Delaware where a vigil was held with prayers, speeches from public officials, members of the Sikh community and other religious figures from various religions. From my experience and from everything I’ve learned, I hold the peaceful people of the Sikh community in the highest regard. Let us open our hearts and our minds…
As I walked up the dusty, roughly paved road toward the temple at sunset, there was an orange glow over the crowd. Joining the assembly I saw only smiling faces lit by candlelight. In that moment, with the setting sun and the candles glowing, these words from a song echoed in my mind… “Right where you are, that’s where the light is.” *
The Sikhs believe in equality of all humans. This belief, my friends, should be in us all. Shouldn’t we all be free to live our lives, hold our beliefs, and share mutual respect for all of mankind?
On this evening of mourning, every person I spoke with was positive and kind, only talking of peace and thanking me for being there and for photographing them. At one point, I was surrounded by a group of children bursting with joy as I scrolled through and showed them their portraits. I have never photographed so many kind strangers in one place. It was a beautiful experience.
As the speeches ended, the sun was fading and food was starting to be served. I took my last photo of an old man relighting the candles that had blown out and I felt at peace.
And as I walked back down that dusty road, a woman in a long flowing dress passed me by carrying a basket of vegetables heading toward the temple. She smiled at me and I felt the light.
*quote from “Fiya Wata” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
The Sikh Community in Ohio by Nicholas C., Columbus OH
Immediate first impressions are often fleeting when being acquainted with someone for the first time, but occasionally certain personable qualities resonate in a way that makes initial encounters extraordinary and memorable.
Among the series of events that followed the unfathomable murders at a Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee in early August was a call for all religious faiths to join in a nationwide prayer or attend a memorial service at a community Gurdwara. I first became aware of this information through an article in the Columbus Dispatch, and was ultimately struck by a young woman’s quote that inspired me to research, honor and illuminate the lives of the estimated 250,000 people who practice Sikhism in America.
“To know a Sikh is to love a Sikh.”
Jusleen Sodiwal (Twitter @JusSodhi) is not only an intelligent, vivacious and proud devotee in the Sikh community, she emphatically accentuates the convictions of her faith by actively advocating for the realization of civil and human rights for ALL people. As an active participant in the Sikh Coalition, whose motto is The Voice of a People, she was proudly engaged in the first-ever briefing on Sikh civil rights issues in Washington, DC this past June. Among the universal topics that were talked about included the federal government’s efforts to combat employment discrimination, airport profiling and school bullying. At that time, it was unforeseen that many of these same issues would come to the forefront again, albeit on a national stage and under unfortunate circumstances. Jusleen’s insight and experience enabled her to help organize and promote the Sikh memorial services in Ohio as well as bring positive attention to the Sikh lifestyle and it’s significance to society.
Jusleen Sodiwal proudly wears her Kara, a steel or iron bracelet worn as a constant reminder of the Sikh’s mission on this earth and that he or she must carry out righteous and true deeds and actions.
“The Sikh have not had the opportunity to mourn yet.”
Comparatively speaking, the coinciding shootings that occurred in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and Aurora, Colorado were equally devastating, but noticeably different in how they were perceived by the public and covered in the media. For many Sikh like Jusleen, the profound negative event was an opportunity to demystify their lifestyle, beliefs and place in the American experience. Suddenly, the correct pronunciation of “Sikh” could be instilled. Sikhism could be clarified as having originated in India and not the Middle East. The Sikh could be profiled as people who serve in the United States military, teach in schools and practice medicine IN ADDITION TO drive taxis and own carry out stores. The Olympic Games came to a close. Romney chose his running mate. Jennifer Aniston is engaged again. Life quickly moves on.
Jusleen Sodiwal displays her Kara, a “Gurbanee for Sikh Youth” and “My Daily Prayer” books
“We are in this together”
In the hours and days after attending the memorial service near Cleveland in Richfield, Ohio, Jusleen admits that she and many fellow citizens in the Sikh community feel apprehensive. The amount of time it took to heal from the wounds inflicted by unfair ethic profiling and systematic harassment following September 11, 2001 has been set back in many ways. Despite these difficulties, she and Sikhs everywhere find solace in continuing to fearlessly practice their faith and foster strong relations with their local community wherever they may be.
Sohila, “The Time for Sleep”, are a collection of hymns repeated at bedtime by Sikhs. It consists of three hymns of Guru Nanak, one of Guru Ram Das, and one of Guru Arjan.
Saint Soldiers by Marco L., Newark, NJ
After being approached with the task of learning about the Sikh community, I made the trek from Newark, NJ to Flushing, Queens. From what I gathered, Flushing had the most Gurdwaras (Sikh place of worship) than anywhere else in the region. So off I headed. When I finally arrived, I was greeted by uniformed police officers posted outside the entrance. In the wake of the deadly Wisconsin shooting, this was not at all surprising. They gave me the nod of approval. I went in. As soon as I entered, I stood in a long and narrow hall. On the floor, to my right, was an extensive row of shoes. I thought to myself, “Okay. No shoes allowed. Got it” and so I removed my sneakers and placed them alongside the footwear smorgasbord.
Afterward, I started my slow browsing around for someone. Anyone. Down the far left, I entered a grand room which, I guessed but later confirmed, is where the Sikh people congregate to worship. I spotted an older lady resting on the floor. At first glance, she appeared asleep. But no, just resting. I asked her if she could tell me where I could find the Granthi (a priest of sorts but not exactly as there is no such role in Sikhism.) She and I went back and forth trying to communicate but to no avail. Her English was basically non-existent and my Punjabi was even worse. I thanked her anyway, smiled and continued my search.
Down a flight of stairs and into the kitchen and dining area. This is where I seen several people cleaning and prepping Langar (vegetarian food free for anyone who walks into the Gurdwara.) One of the men looked up and welcomed me. I approached him, introduced myself and explained the purpose of my visit. As best as his English permitted, he explained that I was welcome to sit, drink tea and wait for others to show up. That more than likely people would be happy to talk with me and answer my questions. But that in order for me to walk throughout the Gurdwara, I would first have to cover my head in a wrap. Okay, no prob. I followed him to a box with a seemingly endless supply of these. He grabs one and gestures for me to let him put it on. Sure, why not. When he was done tying the back, he asked if I wanted some tea. I wasn’t thirsty at all but he was so gracious, I felt it would be rude to decline. He poured me a glass of tea and offered me a glass of water as well. I thanked him, sat down on the eating area (basically a runner rug close to the back wall) and drank my tea. I gotta say…it was quite delicious and unlike any tea I’ve had before.
A few minutes later, a young college-aged kid walks in. His name? Gagan. And Gagan was a game-changer. I spoke to him for a bit and he gladly offered to be my guide and translator. It was because of his him that I was able to talk with the Granthi, among several other people, and get all my questions answered. I was able to sit in during the congregation and listen to the Khalsa hymns. Afterward, I took part in enjoying the delicious Langar while getting to know more about Gagan. By the way, everyone sits on the floor to eat. No chairs. This symbolizes equality amongst all. But back to Gagan….he’s studying to become a History teacher. What type of history? He’s still not sure yet.
Some key things to note; the Sikh people believe in one God. That all religions worship the same God. Before the Sikh religion was formed, Indian Muslims and Hindus didn’t have much regard for women. Women were considered property. Widows could not remarry meanwhile men were allowed to have multiple wives. The founding guru of Sikhism denounced those practices and preached that men and women are to be considered equals and have the same rights. That they are to be faithful to their spouse and never engage in pre-marital or extra-marital sex. They are against the consumption of alcohol, drugs and any intoxticant. Cutting of their hair is forbidden. One reason being, because it is how God made man and it should be honored and appreciated. Oh and one last thing, the Sikh are against any distinction in regards to skin color, race, income, sex, or religion. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes.
When it was all said and done, I left the Gurdwara with a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the Sikh community. They believe in walking the path of truth, earning an honest living and sharing with those in need. They’re good-hearted people, devout in their beliefs and yet arguably the most tolerant of any other faith. In fact, their Holy Scripture (Guru Granth Sahib) includes writings from people of various religious backgrounds. It’s a shame fear and ignorance has cast a dark shadow over these kind souls. Of course there’s much more to them than what I wrote here, but as Gagan put it to me, “You can learn a lot about us. Just google it.” Hahahaha. True indeed. And on that note, I’ll leave you with words from young Gagan himself:
“We’re familiar with the funny stereotypes about us all being cab drivers and owning all the gas stations and 7/11s, which is all harmless fun. But since 9/11, many people have unjustly vilified us. For the younger generation, the ones who grew up here, it’s not as apparent because we make friends with whoever just like any other kid. Our friends know we’re Indian, and that our religious differences are just that. Our parents want the same as any parent…for us to live a happy and prosperous life. It’s our parents and the older generation that really face the scrutiny. People see the beards and the turbans and they make the worst assumptions. And I guess the language barrier doesn’t help much either. It’s very sad and unfortunate. We embrace people from all walks of life. Even those who don’t embrace us. No matter what your religious beliefs are, we respect them and regard all mankind as equals. No one is better or above another.” – Gagan