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Why American Sikhs will survive

By Shauna Singh Baldwin, Special to CNN
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Sat August 11, 2012
Mourners and supporters of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin attend a candlelight vigil Tuesday at the Oak Creek Community Center.
Mourners and supporters of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin attend a candlelight vigil Tuesday at the Oak Creek Community Center.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shauna Singh Baldwin says she went to be with fellow Sikhs at Oak Creek after shooting
  • She says survivors, others stood outside puzzling over how their religion is still misunderstood
  • Sikhs value learning, aim to look different so they can't blend in or evade responsibility
  • Baldwin: Sikh community will take care of own, survive act of ignorance, hatred, destruction

Editor's note: Shauna Singh Baldwin is the author of the novels "What the Body Remembers" and "The Tiger Claw" and the story collections "We Are Not in Pakistan" and "English Lessons and Other Stories." She is co-author of "A Foreign Visitor's Survival Guide to America." Her new novel, "The Selector of Souls," will be published in September.

Milwaukee (CNN) -- I do not have long hair; I have smoked occasionally; I am married to a gora (white guy) -- I'm a Sikh, but no poster child for the Sikh community. I am critical of the difference between words and actions in our religion's promised equality for women. But like most Sikhs I do still believe in one god, karma and reincarnation, and I find the poetry of our 10 gurus deeply inspiring.

Nevertheless, on a postcard-perfect Sunday morning five days ago when my local gurdwara, or house of worship, was attacked by an apparent white supremacist, I was very much a Sikh, doing whatever I could. After the shooting, my Irish-American husband David and I rushed to Oak Creek and joined the group of Sikh men and women standing in the parking lot of a bowling alley across a boulevard from police vehicles surrounding the temple. We held hands, offered presence and solidarity. Only three commandments are given to Sikhs: work hard, share with your neighbors, take the name of the lord. Only the last two were possible on that day.

Shauna Singh Baldwin
Shauna Singh Baldwin

Yellow tape cordoned us off. My fellow Sikhs were dressed in Sunday best -- a mix of business suits and white kurta pajamas among the men, salwar kameezes for the older women. I noticed that many men of working age have short hair and no longer wear turbans. Since the shooting of a Sikh in Arizona in 2001, recorded hate crimes against Sikhs have decreased. However, young Sikh men heard over the gurdwara grapevine that If you want to wear your turban, emigrate to Canada. Canada has had an official policy of multiculturalism since 1971.

News: Temple shooting dredges up memories of long history of bias crimes against Sikhs

On Sunday, as we waited for those trapped inside the gurdwara, a kind soul from the Salvation Army came around suggesting trauma counseling. Anger and frustration, he said, can surface later. A middle-aged man in the crowd came forward and thanked him in English. In Punjabi, he added, "The shooter needs counseling if he survives. He should be invited to do sewa."

Sewa is community service. It has been used to bring about restorative justice in Canada, by familiarizing perps with Sikhs and Sikhism.

A young man wearing a "We the People" T-shirt looked up from his Twitter feed. "They're saying we're an obscure religion. How can 23 million people be obscure?"

I thought of my turbaned father guiding tourists around the state Capitol in Madison as a UW student working for Gov. Gaylord Nelson, teaching Americans their history. Sikhism may have been "obscure" in the 1950s, but -- now? We have Sikhwiki, we have SikhNet, we have SALDEF, we have SikhChic. But those who hate don't read about those they blame for their status shock or economic troubles.

"We offer langar every Sunday," said a woman, referring to the free dining hall open to the public. "But even homeless goras don't come."

Inside the Wisconsin temple
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Former skinhead reflects on shooting
Vigils honor Sikh temple victims

A little boy asked of the suspect: "Won't his mother be ashamed of him? Won't his whole family be ashamed of him?"

"Don't be silly," his sister said. "He's a gora."

"Maybe this will make some Wisconsin politicians talk about gun control," said a young woman wearing Capri pants, a bright orange crocheted top and a chunni over her head.

"Don't be silly," her uncle said.

News: Sikhs repair, reclaim temple after rampage

I said, "I should have made more fliers, led tours of the gurdwaras." But in 25 years married into a Euro-American family, the only relative who has volunteered to attend gurdwara with me is my husband. Could I have persuaded strangers?

"Whenever we invite goras, we get evangelicals who want to convert us," said an elder I've called "aunty" for years. "I tell them your god is my god."

"Any time I explain we're not Muslims, it sounds like we would prefer them to harass Muslims," said the man in the 'We the People' T-shirt. "Just better say nothing. Keep to ourselves."

And we do. Most Sikhs don't look for jobs, we make them. We gather together for worship on Sundays because we live in a Judeo-Christian country, but most of us do our remembrance of god every day. We don't have a Sabbath; most of us work all the time. We wear the kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to remind us to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

We're Sikhs. We're supposed to look different so that we cannot blend into crowds and evade responsibility. We're Sikhs, so we're supposed to inspire by courage and never teach fear. Our very name means we're supposed to always be learning. We're taught not to ask for favors, but to thank Vahe-guru, the highest teacher, for grace, for our critical faculties, intuition and creativity.

News: Walker says Sikhs showed love in response to hate

Today I will dress in white, the color of mourning, to attend the funerals of the six Sikhs who were killed and offer support for their families. Afterward, I'll go to the gurdwara that 200 Sikhs cleaned yesterday as our sewa. There I'll join in prayers for the departed and for the three men wounded and still in the hospital. The gathering will end as always with prayers for "sarbat da bhala" -- the progress of all humankind.

I know that by the grace of the creative force and our courage, American Sikhs will survive this act of destruction. An ignorant man showed his country and the world what fear and hate can bring about. May we now show what love and service can achieve.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shauna Singh Baldwin.

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