Face to face

A lovely gentleman used to make going to our local drive-through pharmacy more pleasant that it might have been otherwise. He was always courteous and cheerful, and we learned over time that he was not only a pharmacist, but a husband and father whose children went to our neighborhood schools.

He was also a Sikh, as evidenced by his turban. We moved to a new neighborhood several years ago, and haven’t seen him since. Still, I called his smile and gentle, gracious spirit to mind today after hearing about Sunday’s attack on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

I knew, after watching only a few minutes of television news reporting on the event, that I had to do something. I decided to learn more about the local Sikh community, and quickly searched the Internet for Sikh places of worship in the Phoenix area. After finding one located in the Coronado Historic District, I decided to pay a visit.

The sun setting behind a Sikh gurdwara in central Phoenix Sunday night

After arriving at Gurdwara Sahib (“gurdwara” means place of worship), I found only a yoga class inside the Guru Nanak Dwara Ashram because services had ended hours before. Across the street, several members of a Sikh family sat chatting in their front yard — and I decided to see if they’d mind talking with me about their religion and the Sikh community in Arizona.

They were incredibly welcoming and invited me to take a seat. I chose one of several tree stumps instead of a lawn chair, and we talked for a good half an hour or so. They shared that about 100-150 people regularly attend the gurdwara near their home, adding that there are two additional gurdwaras in the Phoenix metropolitan area — including one just a few blocks from their own and another in Glendale.

As I sat with three women, two men stood nearby. Two older women sat on a small stoop, and several children played in and around the yard. I asked about common misconceptions. “We’re not Muslims,” shared the woman seated closest to me. “And we had nothing to do with 9/11.” Neither, she noted, did millions of the world’s Muslims.

She shared that the Sikh religion (the world’s fifth largest) started in a part of northern India called Punjab and described the religion as “very peaceloving.” I asked, after a girl sporting long braided pigtails joined us, whether their children were ever teased at school. “The boys are,” she told me. Seems some students think it’s funny to ridicule fellow students who wear turbans.

If you’ve never talked with your children about respecting diverse displays of religion, now is a good time to do so. Teasing a child wearing a turban is no more acceptable than mocking a child wearing a yamaka or a cross. Though the family I spoke with didn’t recommend any particular books for children, they suggested that parents who want to read more about Sikhism with their children ask their local librarians for suggested titles.

One of the gentleman did recommend the SikhNet website, which features information on the Sikh religion and notes ways people can help the Sikh community in Wisconsin in the aftermath of Sunday’s shooting. Though they’d seen news crews at their gurdwara earlier in the day, they hadn’t yet heard of any plans by the Phoenix community to show solidarity with members of our own Sikh community.

This Sikh temple started in 1998 should be done in another year or so

They graciously invited me to attend a service at the gurdwara, adding that members of the public are always welcome. Services are held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays — and times are listed on the Gurdwara Sahib website. I grew up attending various temples with my mother, and now enjoy the tradition with one of my own daughters, Jennifer.

I’m familiar with the custom of taking your shoes off (there’s always a designated place to put them), but asked what else people should know if they’re planning to attend a Sikh service. Dress modestly, they told me. Women typically cover their heads with scarves. During the service prayers are offered in Punjabi, and there are readings from their holy book. Some of the hymns, they shared, are sung in English.

A shared meal follows many services. People bring food (guests needn’t do so) and eat together seated on the ground, which is a sign of the equality at the heart of Sikhism. I’ve enjoyed such meals before at other temples, and felt remarkably at home — so don’t worry about feeling out of place. Now, more than ever, we need less fear and more face to face time.

— Lynn

Note: Learn more through the Sikh Council on Religion and Education and Khalsa Kids. Additional resources include Teaching Tolerance and other programs of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’ll update this post as I learn of additional resources and/or community events planned to show solidarity with the local Sikh community.

Coming up: Exploring Sikhism and the arts

Update: AZ India has announced a community event showing support for those effected by the Wisconsin tragedy — taking place Sat, Aug. 11 at 7:30pm at Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown Phoenix.

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