A few Muslims gather together to pray and break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. They kneel on sparkling white sheets, neatly spread on the lawn of a place of worship. Hardly a remarkable sight during the Muslim holy month, except the place of worship is a Gurdwara, a Sikh church in Milford, Massachusetts.
Today is no ordinary summer’s day. Inside the sanctuary a solemn Sikh service is in progress. Hymns from the Sikh tradition have been sung and a reading from the Sikh scripture has been received by the congregants. Speaker after speaker from every possible religious tradition addresses the congregation, commiserating with it, speaking words of comfort, courage and compassion.
It is one day after the shootings at the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin.
‘The worst of times bring out the best in us’. ‘What binds us together is much more profound than what divides us’. How many times have we heard words like these, almost rolling our eyes? Today these are not shibboleths. Every Sikh who hears these words, spoken by Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, believers and non-believers, in the wake of the Oak Creek shootings feels comforted by them.
In the insanity that followed the horrors of 9-11, Muslims all over America were the target of much violence and rage. Sikhs, with their very visible identity which seemed to proclaim their otherness suffered collateral damage in the surreal days that followed the attacks, when it felt like the tolerant fabric of America was starting to come apart at the seams.
Yet, eventually, sanity prevailed.
The days after the election of Donald Trump eerily bring back echoes of both 9-11 and Oak Creek. Just a few days ago, Maura Healey, the Attorney General of the pluralistic and inclusive haven that is Massachusetts talked about more than 400 instances of hate in the state. News reports from all over the country point to a frightening emergence of bigotry from the shadows. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim or a Sikh in some of our backwaters where diversity is far from the norm.
However, I refuse to despair. There were profound lessons in how ordinary people responded to both 9-11 and Oak Creek. The Muslims who came to pray at the Milford Gurdwara. The Sikhs, who upon being mistaken for Muslims and violently attacked in the wake of 9-11, responded not by distancing themselves from Muslims, but instead using the attention to unequivocally condemn attacks on anyone based on their identity. The fifteen hundred who packed Trinity Church in Boston for a Sikh service in the wake of Oak Creek to condemn bigotry and express solidarity.
My personal faith as a Sikh takes me away from a place of cynicism by reinforcing a belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. At the same time it exhorts me to avoid the trap of passivity and reject the naïve belief that somehow everything will be fine eventually. It will not, unless all of those who reject the bigotry make common cause and simply refuse to accept it as the new norm.
Compassion is not the exclusive preserve of liberals or conservatives. If there was ever a time to rise above our partisan beliefs, it is now. I am not a political pundit and I cannot even begin to make sense of why Donald Trump was elected president, but I do know for a fact though that it would be a huge mistake for me to assume that everyone who voted for him was motivated by bigotry and hatred. If I do that, how am I any different from the xenophobe who hurls a slur or worse at me because of the turban I wear on my head. In fact, I am willing to bet that some of those who attended that service at Trinity Church four years ago voted for Donald Trump. I am pretty sure that their compassion is still alive and well today and they are cringing at the vileness that the election has wrought just like my Sikh and Muslim brothers. It would be foolish to not reach out to them. I would love to see a thousand such gatherings all over America. A thousand sanctuaries from hate. A thousand affirmations of our common humanity.
In a time when Muslims in particular are being targeted, would it not be wonderful to repay them a thousand fold for their grand gesture four years ago, when they generously broke their fast at a Sikh place of worship to expression their compassion during a very difficult time. Imagine that. Millions of us. Visiting mosques. Sitting silently in prayer and solidarity. Quietly reassuring each other that the egalitarian heart of this country continues to beat as strongly as ever.
Sarbpreet Singh is a playwright, commentator and poet, who has been writing while pursuing a career in technology for several years. He is the author of Kultar’s Mime, a poem about the 1984 Sikh Genocide. His commentary has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and Worldview, The Boston Herald, The Providence Journal, The Milwaukee Journal and several other newspapers and magazines. He is the founder and director of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of traditional Sikh music and serves on the boards of various non-profits focused on service and social justice. He is very active in Boston Interfaith circles and serves as a spiritual advisor at Northeastern University.