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The Gandhi Foundation of USA holds a moving interfaith memorial service for Sikhs killed in Wisconsin Gurudwara

By Mahadev Desai and Suzanne Sen
September 2012
The Gandhi Foundation of USA holds a moving interfaith memorial service for Sikhs killed in Wisconsin Gurudwara

(Photos: Mahadev Desai)

 

The Gandhi Foundation of USA (GFUSA) held a moving Interfaith Vigil/Memorial Service at the King Historic Site in Atlanta on Saturday, August 11, 2012, for the victims of the senseless massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The memorial was attended by various dignitaries, clergy, representatives of diverse faiths and community organizations, youth, and the public.

 

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Those gathered at the Gandhi statue before the Interfaith Memorial Service are led in singing by Lakshmi Rao and Neera Bahl. (Photo: Mahadev Desai)

At the Gandhi Statue, GFUSA Chairman Subash Razdan, presiding the service, greeted all, and Lakshmi Rao and Neera Bahl led the gathering in singing the bhajan (prayer song), “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram,” a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi. Consul General Ajit Kumar garlanded the statue of Gandhi, and a number of floral bouquets were placed by prominent community leaders from diverse faiths and community organizations. The gathering then “Walked in Peace” to the King crypts, where bouquets were laid as homage to the champions of Civil Rights, Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King.

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Manhar Valand laying a bouquet at the Crypt.

In Freedom Hall, the prayer service continued. GFUSA Executive Director Antony Thaliath spoke: “We have gathered here today amidst great sorrow inflicted on us by the brutal attack on innocent Sikh worshippers at the Gurudwara (Temple) in Wisconsin on Sunday, August 5. Six lost their lives and many have been wounded.... We need to unite our efforts in combating the prevailing ignorance and racism in our society.” Lauding the Sikh community he said, “The Sikh religion preaches peaceful... living and equality of mankind. The Gandhi Foundation is also committed to these principles of peace, unity, and nonviolence as espoused and lived by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ... We condemn the shooting at the holy shrine and convey the nation’s deepest sympathies to all affected by this horrendous act.”

Razdan cited another disturbing event, the burning of an Islamic mosque in Joplin, Missouri. “American values, secularism, pluralism, respect for diversity are all enshrined in the American Constitution. These deplorable acts were not carried out by large, organized groups and we should refrain from finger pointing. In all these instances of hate crime and racial profiling (particularly after 9-11), our communities have conducted themselves with utmost dignity in the USA. Let us all strive to remain united and peace-loving.”

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Narender Reddy presenting GA Gov. Nathan Deal’s Proclamation to Surinder Singh Lali and Jagjit Singh.

Many condolences and wishes for the future were given. The message from President Obama was read by Razdan. Narender Reddy then read Governor Deal’s proclamation and a message from the Hindu Temple of Atlanta, Riverdale, where a shanti homa for peace for the community and those affected by the tragedy had been held. The Proclamation of Sympathy was presented to the Sikh leadership in attendance. Suzanne Buchanan, a conciliation specialist with the U.S. Dept. of Justice, noted that her agency provides cultural awareness training and law enforcement services and offered her agency’s support to the community and condolences.

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Consul General Ajit Kumar with Community members paying homage to Gandhi.

Hon. Ajit Kumar read a message from the Indian Prime Minister, who is himself a Sikh. He noted that in the U.S. a presidential proclamation directed flags to be flown at half mast until August 10, when the funerals were held. Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao had visited Oak Creek on August 7th. He noted that U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder said that the attack was not only on Sikhs but on American values.

Khalid Sidiqque, a respected elder in the Pakistani community of Atlanta and a medical doctor, condoled, “The Muslim and Pakistani American community offer condolences and solidarity with the Sikh community in time of their untold loss in Wisconsin. We share your sorrow and sorrow of all victims of hate crimes. A place of worship is a sanctuary and an attack on a sacred space is an attack on the heart of all that is good in America. The way all have rallied together shows that there is still hope that out of the ashes a new spirit of mutual love, compassion, and understanding and a respect for all religions and cultures will be born.”

Rev. Shanan Johns of Ebenezer Baptist Church sympathized, “What Wade did in his sick mind was substituting his role for the role of God—that is what supremacist mindset does. Lady Liberty opens her arms.... It is an American idea created by a fabric of various nations and various ethnicities coming together to make the American dream a reality. A few weeks after Gandhi was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., was ordained because you cannot silence an idea whose time has come. So we stand with you ... to share justice, to share hope—we also march with you to the beloved community that Gandhi and King attempted to build, the community of justice, of love.”

Since Rabbi Donald Tam was in synagogue and could not attend, Razdan read his message: “It is an appropriate place you hold the ceremony, before the statue of Gandhi.... There are always too few Gandhis in our world. Sometimes I wonder how it continues to exist without them. How patient the Creator both of us worship must be! Certainly, the Creator is long suffering of the human race.”

The Sikh faith and attitudes were described and praised, in particular their peaceful reaction to the attack. Consul Kumar said, “They are a peace-loving people, and they have brought prosperity wherever they have gone.” Jagdish Sheth, professor at Emory University, “couldn’t believe it happened to the Sikh community” who give to others who are less fortunate, work honestly, and worship God—and “Of all the places, it happened in the U.S., which is founded on and has encouraged religious freedom!” Rabbi Tam used to lunch with a fellow student, a Sikh, and had “some wonderful discussions with him. I learned a little then of your suffering in history, your religion, which is elegant in belief and sensitive in nature, while proudly strong at the same time. ...With people such as yourself who are God’s hands and feet in this world, it will be different some day and better than now.”

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Surinder Singh Lali of the Guru Nanak Mission speaks at the GFUSA Interfaith Memorial Service on August 11, 2012.

Guru Nanak Mission Society of Atlanta’s Surinder Singh Lali lamented that “Sikhs are known as nation builders. It is saddening that our own liberty at home is at stake. This is un-American. What has happened is a crime against humanity. Guru Nanak teaches us that we are all born equal and we should always sacrifice for others.” In the face of this tragic event all the devotees were advised to remain calm and even pray for the perpetrator of the horrible act. In this vein, Sheth also said that he represented the Jain community, founded on nonviolence and victory over self, and noted that perhaps the perpetrator could not cope with his own inner unhappiness.

Kaushal Tripathi, on behalf of IACA, praised the heroism of Lt. Brian Murphy and the Sikh priest and was “very pleased but not surprised at all to hear the message of the national level Sikh community leaders for love, peace, sacrifice, and sewa (service). That is the message of Sikh religion.”

Jagjit Singh, an IIT graduate and representative of SEWA Gurudwara, thanked all and said, “As a Sikh, I believe that people are inherently good. Our faith instills a sense of perpetual optimism, and our traditions always teach us to make best of a tough situation. ... We all feel the shock and helplessness. .... And the brave police officer who was more concerned about safety of others than himself—individuals like him are the ones who restore our faith in humanity. Sikhs are God-loving people. ... We can follow different paths but we are all heading to the same destination. Sikhs interact with other communities through love and optimism. This is not the first time that Sikhs have been attacked ... but we do not believe in being hateful or vicious. ... As we pray for the victims and their families let us also pray for the family of Wade.” Police Chief John Edwards was quoted, lauding the Sikh community, “In 28 years of law enforcement, I have seen a lot of hate. I have seen a lot of revenge. I’ve seen a lot of anger. What I saw, particularly from the Sikh community this week was compassion, concern, support. What I didn’t see was hate. I did not see revenge. I didn’t see any of that. And in law enforcement that’s unusual to not see that reaction to something like this. I want you all to understand how unique that is.”

What can we do?
Mayor Galambos of Sandy Springs noted that occasionally we have tremendous leaders who inspire us and remind us of great principles, but unfortunately we don’t have such wonderful leaders all the time, so then the responsibility to carry out their message of peaceful, nonviolent living and respect for each other rests with each of us.

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Eric De Groot offers a bouquet.

Relating to Sikh experiences through his own, International Committee Chairman Eric De Groot, a Jew, held up his mother’s tiny diary, chronicling her trials in WWII, and reminded us to never forget. He quoted Neil Diamond: “Got a dream to take them there, they’re coming to America.” “In these days of ... social media, perception has become reality. Anything about anyone can be said and written, uploaded and downloaded. It is a dangerous situation, especially when the message is one of loathing, revulsion, and hatred. ...It is easy to hate your enemy from a distance. Therefore knowledge and education are of the utmost importance. We need to learn of each other and from each other.... I hope that all of us will have the courage to speak up and continue to speak up.” Referring to the King banner behind him, he urged us to “Remember, Celebrate, and Act.”

Tripathi also emphasized educating to eradicate the ignorance that caused that event. “We must walk across the aisle... and spread the message of love and defend each other.” Sneha Mehta, a prominent Hindu leader, exhorted, “What happened to these peace-loving and law abiding people should make all of us introspect and strive to be better friends, neighbors, co-workers, and parents, not only in our personal lives but in community also. ... Our creator has created diversity so no one should consider himself superior because of race, color, ethnicity, etc.... And we must engage in a public discourse to dispel ignorance.”

The President of India Awareness Foundation, Dhiru Shah, pointed to tolerance with an ancient Vedic sloka: “We are the birds of the same nest, We wear different skins, We may speak different languages, We may believe in different religions, We may belong to different cultures, Yet we share the same home—our earth.... We must learn to happily progress together Or miserably perish together, For man can live individually, But can survive only collectively.”

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Imam Plemon El-Amin addresses the gathering.

Plemon El-Amin, Imam of African-American Muslims, noted that “On one hand I must attempt to change the souls of individuals so that societies may be changed, and on the other hand I must attempt to change societies so that individual souls would have to change.” He warned to beware of self-righteousness that will not compromise, and to trust in each other and not to trust in weapons. 

 

Razdan said that the National Federation of Indian Associations and other organizations were submitting a strongly worded resolution to be handed to Ambassador Nirupama Rao in Washington, D.C. Suggestions for similar resolutions echo these:
• We urge law enforcement personnel to monitor the increasing number of groups that preach hatred against minorities, and work to prevent people with a history of arrests and membership in hate groups from purchasing guns.
• We urge our schools to do more to educate the mainstream about the contribution to America by different ethnic and religious minorities, and about the values of cultural and religious tolerance.
• We urge everyone to value peace and nonviolence as espoused by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and to become aware of changes to bring peace and nonviolence into their personal lives and the lives of their families and communities, and into policies of organizations and governments.

Shan Yohan of the Interfaith Sisters Group had exhorted all, “Let us recognize our interdependence and accept responsibility for making peace. Let us all embark on this daily journey, our PEACE PILGRIMAGE, and pledge to continue NO MATTER WHAT!”

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Lakshmi Rao and GFUSA Officers singing the Civil Rights Anthem at the close of the service.

A closure to this befitting Interfaith Service was brought by joining hands by all faiths to sing the civil rights anthem, led by Lakshmi Rao, “We Shall Overcome.”

 

N.B. After this vigil, on 8/17/12 it was reported that another Sikh from the Oak Creek temple community had been murdered and that seven mosques had been attacked over the past 11 days.

 

Website Bonus Feature

Links:
Response of the Obama Administration:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/08/14/honoring-victims-oak-creek-tragedy

Atlanta Sikh Candlelight Vigil - Honoring Oak Creek Victims 2012
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkOlfniMHQ4
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXBI0Q9GPd4&feature=related

On 8/17/12 it was reported that another Sikh from the Oak Creek temple community had been murdered and that seven mosques had been attacked over the past 11 days.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simran-jeet-singh/dalbir-singh-murdered_b_1794063.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=1886621,b=facebook

Below are selected lines from a poem by Preeti Kaur titled "Letters Home." The entire poem may be found on her website, http://phulkari.blogspot.com/2012/08/letters-home.html:
please god
let these letters reach you...
dear bhagat singh thind:...
forever indebted...
respected balbir singh sodhi:
enclosed with this letter we send six more to you...
i release one thousand paper cranes ...
hyphen is a language i lost...
walt whitman spoke to 10 Nanaks ...
dear vincent chin:...
there is no mistake in
i love you in any language...
all over this earth stamps still wet with cold blood...
‘the love that forgives’ a lullaby ...
Waheguru Waheguru Waheguru

 

And another poem, and plea:

Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
--Rabindranath Tagore
     And let my world awake –Amitava Sen

 


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