And, who is my neighbor? Praying with Sikhs after Oak Creek

by Lucy Duncan

My family and I live in a multicultural neighborhood just west of Philadelphia. My neighbors include many new immigrants from India, Bangladesh, Korea, Vietnam, Greece, and other countries, as well as many African-Americans.

We are part of a neighborhood association that has focused in the last few years on beautifying the park along Cobbs Creek, which is at the edge of the neighborhood. There have been many work days clearing weeds and debris, planting flowers, and turning the park again into a welcoming space for the community to play and gather. Each summer there are neighborhood potlucks in the park. We saw the movie “Ponyo” there several weeks ago.

Millbourne, a small borough that is 56% South Asian, is at one edge of the neighborhood; 30% of its residents are Indian. It is home to many Indian clothing and food shops, a Korean restaurant, a bowling alley, and the Philadelphia Sikh Society, the largest Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in the Philadelphia area. It is located on a quiet street, just blocks from the busy 69th street transit terminal.

Sikh Vigil in Millbourne 2After the Oak Creek shootings in Wisconsin, the Sikh community invited their neighbors to join them in a candlelight vigil to mourn those killed and to make themselves visible to the community. Word spread through neighborhood list serves and I let some Quakers know.

It was raining at the appointed hour of the vigil, but many Sikhs showed up as did a few neighbors, our local state representative, and a handful of Quakers. The rain stopped long enough for the vigil to go forward. Each of us was given a cup, and we lit each other’s candles each time the wind blew them out.

We stood on Market Street: a colorful grouping of men, women, and children, with signs inviting tolerance and respect. Some people slowed down. Others honked their support.

One priest of the Gurdwara welcomed us to the vigil, and offered prayers for those killed in the shootings and invited us to remember to love one another.

Tom Kramer, the mayor of Millbourne, said, “It may be useful to reflect that this very area that we live in was first settled largely by Quakers who were seeking freedom from religious persecution. ...Perhaps some of our fears [of the other] might be overcome if we just get to know our neighbors a little better.”

He said he wanted to remember the names and lives of those killed and offer collective prayer:

  • Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, who was the founder of the Oak Creek Gurdwara. His nephew said of him, “He was always willing to help anyone who came his way."
  • Paramjit Kaur, 41, had just finished her morning prayers. "She prayed every day for an hour to an hour and a half, even when she [was] working," Baljit Kaur, a friend, said of her.
  • Suveg Singh Khattra, 84, had been a farmer in India. “He (was) very humble. He loved all peoples," Mandeep Khattra, his son, said.
  • Prakash Singh, 39, was a priest whose family had just followed him from India.  Navdeep Gill, a member of the Gurdwara said of him that he was always "telling jokes and whatnot.”
  • Ranjit Singh, 49, and Sita Singh, 41, were brothers. Singh Dhillon remembered a time five visitors who only spoke English stopped in and Rajit Singh insisted, in gestures, on "food for everybody." His younger brother, Sita, woke each morning early to read the holy book. Shehbazdeep Kaleka said that Sita Singh could always cheer him up.  The rest of their family members are still in India.

A neighbor spoke about his belief that we are all one, and that this violence must end. We prayed and held our candles. The rain started again.

The members of the Gurdwara invited us to stay for dinner; their custom is to always offer a Langar or free meal after worship. We were welcomed in, took off our shoes, and borrowed head scarves if we hadn’t brought one. We sat on the floor on long ornate rugs and were served spicy potatoes and beans with raita, and chapatti. A European-American woman whose boyfriend is Sikh talked about how the members of the Oak Creek Gurdwara would have invited in the man who shot them —they would have opened their temple and their hearts to him if he had asked.

We said, “good-night” and walked home in the rain.

Sikh Viigil in Millbourne 4I’ve lived in this neighborhood for twelve years. Why have  I waited so long to cross the threshold of my neighbors’ house of worship? Why is it that such a crisis propels action, and my normal routine does not include crossing such invisible boundaries? What kind of cages are we used to maintaining around our hearts?

I read an article by a Sikh man right after the shooting who talked about how the hatred that motivated the perpetrator of this shooting was the same hatred that permits war, the creation of an “enemy,” someone who is other.

If we stopped teaching such disconnection, wars wouldn’t be possible.

Wade Michael Page, the perpetrator, served in the military from 1992 to 1998, was a member of a white supremacist band. What wounds had he experienced? What ways had he learned too well the principal weapons of war—racism and fear?

Not long after the shooting I heard the former member of a skinhead band talking on the radio about the inner workings of such networks. He talked about what had caused a shift in him. He was in prison and played basketball with African-American men who were incarcerated—they were just his buddies. When he was released, a Jewish man gave him work, loved him, and didn’t judge him. He learned by being loved that love was the way he would choose.

Some Friends and I are thinking of going back to the Gurdwara soon, and accepting the gracious welcome of another Langar meal. We want to invite some members of the temple to come worship with us.

Maybe our neighbors will become our friends.


Note: Many of the quotations from friends and family of the Oak Creek victims are from a story published by CBS.