Today, I mourn for my sibling, whose life was also taken far too early by the hands of hatred. My brother Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered
in Arizona on September 15, 2001. He was the first victim of a hate crime in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11. The man who murdered him, and who is now serving life in prison for that crime, called himself a patriot
. Less than a year later, my brother Sukhpal was shot in the back and killed while driving a taxi. (Though it was never investigated as a hate crime, my family suspects otherwise.)
Like me, my brothers wore turbans as part of our Sikh faith. Our turbans represent our commitment to love, equality and justice. These values serve us in our faith and also as Americans. However, since September 11, our turbans have marked us as targets for hate. The threat of violence is now a daily part of our lives as Sikh Americans, just as it is for our Muslim brothers and sisters.
After the deaths of my brothers, I had a choice: to allow my fear and anger to consume me or to hear the call to love.
I chose love.
My Sikh faith teaches me to live in the spirit of "chardi kala," relentless love and optimism even in the face of suffering and injustice. I have discovered that love can save us from despair and inspire us to live a life of service and social action.
America needs the ethic of love now more than ever. This election season, we have seen an alarming escalation of hate and bigotry in our nation -- on our airwaves, in our streets, in our schools and online. I believe the Sikh spirit of revolutionary love and optimism can offer our fellow Americans a source of hope in an era of mass violence.
It begins with hearing our story.
The Sikh story in America began more than 125 years ago
. The first Sikhs arrived on the West Coast as farmers and laborers at the turn of the century, searching for the American dream. Many of them faced racial discrimination and a legal system that denied them citizenship on the basis of their skin color. But they still believed in the promise of America. In recent decades, families like mine settled here to escape religious persecution in India. Sadly, our turbans have always made us the target for racism, even in our home country.
But the terrorist attacks on September 11 ushered in a new reality. Since then, we routinely face school bullying, employment discrimination and racial profiling. Today, Sikhs, along with our Muslim brothers and sisters, are disproportionately
more likely to be targets of hate crimes than we were before that fateful day.
We have been tested over and over. In August 2012, a decade after my brother Sukhpal was killed, a white supremacist entered a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on a Sunday morning and opened fire
. He killed six people, people who looked exactly like my brothers.
While the horror of this mass shooting devastated us, my family and community refused the narrative of victimhood. Since then, we have used online platforms to tell our story and broadcast our message of love and optimism. In this spirit, we have stood in solidarity with other communities, especially in the wake of the mass shootings at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and gay nightclub in Orlando.
To be sure, love is not enough without action. It's not enough to feel love in your heart for your neighbors. We need the kind of love that inspires us to stand up against bigotry in all forms: in school, at the workplace, online, at the kitchen table and in the voting booth.
My family's story is told in the documentary film "Divided We Fall
," re-released this month by the The Sikh Coalition and Revolutionary Love Project, to spark conversations on campuses and communities across the nation. The goal is to hold at least 100 film screenings and dialogues on how to combat hate with love this election season.
The stakes have never been higher.
After my brother died, we hung a single handmade sign over the doorway of his gas station: EVIL TRIUMPHS WHEN GOOD PEOPLE DO NOTHING.
As we witness the most vitriolic election cycle in modern American history, too many have been emboldened to act on their hate. Now it's up to the rest of us to act on our love.