By Laura Coburn
One year ago, on August 5, 2012, six Sikh worshipers were shot and killed inside a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It was the most lethal attack on an American place of worship since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The hate crime was committed by a neo-Nazi and reflects the religious prejudice that plagues our nation still today.
In remembrance of the tragic day, Houston’s Sikh community is taking a stand to ensure these acts of hatred no longer ensue. With optimistic spirits, the Sikh Coaltion of Houston invites the Houston community to volunteer this Saturday with Urban Harvest, an organization that, according to their website, “promotes healthy communities, sound nutrition and respect for the environment by educating children and adults and facilitating harvest and habitat gardens.” The day of service will bring Houstonians of all faiths together to move forward after last year’s tragedy, as well as educate the community about the Sikh religion.
The Sikh religion is one of the largest in the world, with half a million believers in the U.S. A peaceful faith, the Sikh ideology promotes the concept of “Chardi Kala” or eternal optimism. Manpreet Singh, an event organizer with the Sikh Coalition, says that they chose to memorialize the shooting through community service gardening because it reflects the Sikhs’ strong emphasis on this optimism, while also symbolizing growth and life.
“People always plant trees in memory of people, and because people passed away, we will give life to another form,” Singh says. “It’s the concept of always being in high spirits. When something like this strikes our community and is something that is devastating, we look upwards and onwards.”
And Singh highlights that making monetary donations is not enough in the Sikh religion. The Sikh religion stresses the concept of “seva,” or selfless service. “It’s actually giving back to the community and working for the less fortunute. It’s not like you can give ten percent of your earnings and you’re done; you need to give back to the community, as well.”
The Houston Sikh community has grown to about 5,000 people. While they have integrated into society as lawyers, engineers, artists, and dentists, they still encounter discrimination both in the professional setting and on the street. There have been multiple hate crimes on Sikhs even since last year’s massacre. Sikhs face workplace discrimination, being placed out of sight while others with the same pay and position receive more visible roles. And they are portrayed as terrorists in the media, only perpetuating the prejudice across the nation.
“We have media outlets that pop up pictures of Bin Ladin who looks like a Sikh, and (he) simply is not,” Singh points out. “And when people see these images, and they don’t match up to a Sikh in a (U.S.) uniform, it creates bias.”
However, despite the ongoing challenges, Singh says the community is moving in the right direction. “It sounds cliché, but education is key,” She explains. “Once people are disarmed with the knowledge, there hopefully won’t be these rampant hate crimes.”
The government is already taking leaps forward. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday that Justice Department will start tracking hate crimes against Sikhs. There are now three Sikhs serving in the U.S. army, who have received special exemptions from laws that forbid those with religious articles to serve.
“As soon as we get people in the forefront, I think that will help change peoples minds,” Singh says.
Until then, it is one step at a time. To take part in a day of service and engage with the Sikh community, make your way to this weekend’s family-friendly activities. All faiths welcome!
Project with Urban Harvest:
Saturday, Aug. 3rd.
1-4 p.m. at Dodson Elementary (1808 Sampson)
Another chance to get involved:
Bring a Friend Day at Sikh Center of Houston - Sun., Aug 11th, 2013
Please join us at our place of worship in the spirit of interfaith education and awareness. Langar (communal meal) will be served!