Locals grieve temple shooting, encourage tolerance

A series of shots heard round the world is what police are calling a gruesome act of domestic terrorism last Sunday morning. A peaceful Sikh community in Wisconsin began meal preparations at their gurdwara, term for the Sikh temple, and here before midday services when 40-year-old gunman Wade Michael Page opened fire.

Six were killed and several others injured. Americans worldwide, regardless of religious affiliation, have responded in disbelief to the bloody rampage aimed at the unassuming group known for its peaceful ways and social reform.

“As citizens we cherish the high ideals that our country frequently espouses, yet we know that those sentiments are violated daily in ways that make us wonder if they really mean anything at all,” posed Ward McAfee of the Claremont Interfaith Working Group for Middle East Peace.

In the aftermath of the weekend’s devastating events, Sikh communities across the country are attempting to pick up the pieces shattered by the puzzling shooting.

“We are grieving,” said Santokh Singh Sahi of a local Sikh community of the Inland Empire. “But in sharing and uniting in our grief, we are given the faith to stand and enjoy the freedom we enjoy in this country.”

News of Sunday’s unprovoked shooting shook Mr. Sahi and his fellow Sikhs to the core. Many Sikhs, like Mr. Sahi himself, moved to the United States in an attempt to flee religious persecution. Though he maintains that the United States has provided a refreshed sense of freedom and equality for Sikhs, he recognizes that religious intolerance continues to persist in their newfound land of liberty.

“Though this country’s Constitution gives rights to all people, we continue with the same struggle,” he said, noting, “Liberty and equality do not come freely. You have to fight for it.”

Beyond the pain he feels for his fellow Sikhs, Mr. Sahi was particularly affected by the death of officer, Lieutenant Brian Murphy, who took at least 8 bullets in an attempt to save lives.

“I become emotional,” said Mr. Sahi, the feeling palpable in his quivering voice.

Most troubling to Mr. Sahi is why the gunman would target a religious group with longstanding roots in the kind treatment of others. Sikhism, a monotheistic religion founded more than 500 years ago, is centered on principles of peace and justice for all human beings regardless of religious practice. Though the majority live in India, an estimated 400,000 Sikhs live in the United States, according to reports. All Sikhs are encouraged to practice acts of social reform and follow the teachings of the 11 gurus, or enlightened leaders.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he notes, “Unfortunately, we all tend to be identified at a distance. They see our beards and turbans and make assumptions.”

Misconceptions are fostered against all religions, spurred by those who take good principles and use them for wrongful purposes, Mr. Sahi recognized.

“We are not the problem. It’s the fanatics, the fundamentalists who try to sell their viewpoint by force, that are the problem,” he said. “Every religion is good. The badness is in the person who is preaching wrong things.”

Learning to navigate the misconceptions, especially with many preaching the wrong message, is a challenge that one local interfaith working group continues to tackle. The first obstacle is acknowledgment, according to the Reverend Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, lead pastor at Claremont United Methodist Church.

“We must recognize that our nation has grown more intolerant in recent history,” Rev. Rhodes-Wickett said. “To that end, we are working on ways to invite people to see one another with open minds and hearts.”    

The annual Interfaith Walk for Peace—to be held this year on Sunday, September 9—is one way the local community can participate in fostering religious tolerance, according to Rev. Rhodes Wickett and Mr. McAfee. During the peace walk, hundreds from all religious arenas and beyond gather to march from one religious institution to another to step outside doctrinal borders.

“People wanting to witness that ‘liberty and justice for all’ really is the ‘civic religion’ of our land should show up,” Mr. McAfee said. “Participation has a way of making our ideals real instead of just being empty rhetoric.”

Despite the hardships, steps taken toward tolerance help remind us of our common threads, according to Najeeba Syeed-Miller, assistant professor of interreligious education at the Claremont School of Theology.

“We can share this connection to help work together to help each other,” Ms. Syeed-Miller said. “We can also begin to understand the beautiful tapestry that comprises our nation and work even harder to get to know one another.”

The task is as simple as visiting a gurdwara to learn more about the Sikh tradition. Don’t rely on secondhand information, Ms. Syeed-Miller encouraged.

“In the end, we are neighbors in our local communities,” she said. “Exploring how we can have positive interfaith encounters is a key to building a stronger bond between us all as Americans.” 


—Beth Hartnett




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