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The Beloved Community in the Face of Violence

By Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard


This story was originally posted in Huff Post Religion on July 7, 2012, following the tragic violence at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. As we enter 2013, Susan Baller-Shephard’s story about the Sikh community continues to resonate and offer lessons for us all. Ed.

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Twenty-five years ago, I worked in Walsall, England, in the West Midlands, near Birmingham. Birmingham is a city known for many things, including having the largest Sikh gudwara outside of India.

In Walsall, in Caldmore (called "Karma"), I worked with countless Sikh families and experienced incredible hospitality from all of them. I was moved by the family cohesiveness and equality within the Sikh families with whom I worked. I had never known any Sikh families before I met those in Walsall.

Langar, a free meal, is served by the Sikh community to the thousands attending the Barcelona Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2004. Photo: Rowan Fairgrove

Langar, a free meal, is served by the Sikh community to the thousands attending the Barcelona Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2004. Photo: Rowan Fairgrove

In 2004 at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona, Spain, the Sikh community at the Parliament hosted langar for thousands of us daily. We would enter a tent at lunch time, remove our shoes, put a covering on our heads and sit down with thousands of others to have a vegetarian meal. As a Presbyterian minister, I was struck by this hospitality to strangers. The Christian tradition speaks a great deal about hospitality, because Jesus was all about it: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in."  

Sitting with others in Barcelona, enjoying this food that had been labored over for hours, I was a bit awestruck and deeply grateful. I knew the people who had prepared the food had been up before sunrise and had prayed over it while preparing it, and I felt blessed by the whole experience.

After lunch, when we, by the thousands, went to put our shoes on again, we found they'd been polished and cleaned while we'd been eating. Had I not already had such a positive view of the Sikh tradition from my time in Walsall, the experience in Barcelona would have won me over. Their kindnesses were impressive. 

In the Face of Violence

The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

To hear that a lone gunman once again was on a rampage is something akin to a stone dropping in the stomach. "Not again!" we think, before we learn the details, hear who was hurt and how. To hear that in this case, a lone gunman targeted a Sikh temple in Wisconsin? What is there to say? What can be said to a faith tradition that has been targeted with malice and foresight? If a Sikh family can't be safe in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where can they be safe? 

In the last month I've been preparing to teach World Religion at a local community college. I've been deciding which religions are "in" and which are out, meaning we won't have time to cover them this semester. It's harder than I thought. I had been thinking in the last week what I'd lecture about regarding the Sikh tradition. It dawned on me that if I knew Sikhs from only World Religion materials, I'm not sure what I'd say. I know I'd miss much. 

It's easy for people and religions to become caricatures, simplified and flat. It's easy to dismiss what we don't understand, easy to put people into pigeonholes that work for us, while missing the essence of who the person is, what the person believes. Since 9/11, Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims in hate crimes across the U.S. Is this how little understanding there is, that we don't even know whom we hate for sure, but as long as they are different, they must be suspect? Really?

Breaking bread with someone means that you might share more than just food at the table, wherever you are. Sit down on the floor with thousands of people and be served a delicious meal, with people concerned that you do not go away hungry? For me, having the experience of eating lunch daily with the Sikh community in Barcelona, experiencing that level of hospitality, means I will always be interested in the well-being of the Sikh community worldwide. Sharing a meal with someone has that sort of power. It sounds really simplistic, and yet, maybe it is that simple: a meal shared?

As the shooting details emerge, it appears clear Wade Page was full of hate. What is frightening is there are more Wade Pages out there, and we didn't see this coming. We rarely do. We can't predict the next targets, the next innocent human beings victimized by a gunman. We do know religious groups often bear the brunt of hate crimes. While Christians are busy attacking each other verbally over the issue of gay marriage in the U.S., a gunman tears holes in the fabric of the Sikh community that will go deeper and wider than the press will have time to report. As Wade Page gives hate a human face, may we, who are members of religious communities, wake up and take the abstract notions of "love," "peace," and "understanding," and give them human faces as well. May the Sikh community in Oak Creek and across the U.S. feel an upsurge of support as they experience this dark hour of domestic terrorism.