Sikhs plan vigil in Vancouver

Largest such congregation in the region is welcoming but worried after Wisconsin shooting

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photo“People have been very kind and understanding,” Pawneet Sethi said about life in the Northwest. However, he did say that he encountered prejudice as a teenager in Portland.

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What: Prayer service, candlelight vigil and community meal to honor the victims of Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting.

When: Prayer service begins at 6 p.m. Thursday; vigil at 8 p.m. followed by a community meal.

Where: Guru Ramdass Gurdwara, 3600 O St., Vancouver.

Information:Guru Ramdass Gurdwara website.

Living in the Pacific Northwest has been little but a pleasure for local Sikhs like Pawneet Sethi. At least, that's how he spins it at first.

"I love it, man," said the Camas resident and businessman, 32, who serves as spokesman for the largest Sikh temple in the region — the Guru Ramdass Gurdwara in Vancouver's Rose Village neighborhood.

"Seriously, I moved here when I was 16, I grew up here and lived in the area. I've never really had any complaints about this society. People have been very kind and understanding."

That's despite the traditional beard and turban — which makes for a surface resemblance, in the minds of the ignorant and angry, to fundamentalist Muslim terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. Apparently that was enough to set off Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist and former soldier who walked into a Wisconsin Sikh temple on Saturday and murdered six congregants. He fatally shot himself after being wounded by a police officer.

"Everybody recognizes that the root cause is ignorance," Sethi said, "and people are angry, of course. Why does it have to be us?"

Vancouver's Guru Ramdass congregation isn't just shocked and angry that Sikhs have been caught in what seems like a summer wave of massacres, Sethi said; it is nervous about security, too. Which presents a dilemma for a congregation that's all about openness and inclusion, Sethi said.

"For the last 500 years, at any temple at any part of the day, if you're hungry they'll feed you and if you want to come in they'll welcome you. We have an open door regardless of who you are. No questions asked. We believe in a higher standard of consciousness."

The Guru Ramdass congregation will stand by that open-door policy, he said, but it will also keep a keener eye on newcomers.

"With multiple acts of violence, with these hate crimes, it makes you more alert," he said. "I don't think we'll shun our history of openness, but we have a responsibility to our families and our youngsters."

The community is invited to experience that openness, and stand in solidarity with local Sikhs, Thursday evening. The Guru Ramdass Gurdwara will have a 6 p.m. prayer meeting indoors, followed by an 8 p.m. candlelight vigil outside the temple at 3600 O Street. That will be followed by a traditional community meal.

All are welcome, though the 6 p.m. service is intended for members of the congregation and won't be in English. The 8 p.m. vigil and community meal are the best way for the public to show support and learn something of Sikhism, he said.

"This came to us as a total shocker," Sethi said of the bad news out of Wisconsin. "The guy was an ex-Army man. If you knew Sikhs, you would know many great stories of heroism and valor among Sikhs in the Indian Army."

Sikhs in America

Sethi amended his earlier statement about encountering no prejudice or problems in America. His family came to Portland when he was a teenager, he said, and he briefly attended Southeast Portland's Franklin High School — where the bearded, turban-wearing newcomer was assaulted by students wielding shaving cream and razors, and taunting him about being from a "third-world country" that couldn't afford shaving equipment.

"I was bullied like you wouldn't believe," he said.

The other incident that stands out in his mind, he said, was walking on Belmont Street in the early 2000s when a driver tried to run him over — and shouted "Go back to Iraq" while fleeing the scene.

Sethi hails from northern India, where the Sikh religion was founded in the 15th century. Sikhism is an outgrowth of Indian Hinduism. At key points in their history, Sikhs have been in conflict with Muslims.

"It is a completely different culture," said Sethi.

And what about the traditional turban, which sparks such hostile reactions?

"Sikhs cannot cut their hair," at least if they are staying true to original teachings, Sethi said. "The turban is to keep the hair clean and tidy. The turban represents a Sikh adhering to the divine order." Not all modern Sikhs have stuck with the turban, he added. "It's a tough lifestyle," he said.

Sethi said he wears a lighter, smaller "work turban" at his job — he's the owner of a Subway sandwich franchise near Portland's Convention Center — and a more formal "full turban" when he's representing his temple and his truest self.

There are approximately 700,000 Sikhs in the United States today, he said. Sikhs are much more plentiful on the East Coast than here in the West, he said.

Associating Sikhs with Muslims, let alone Muslim terrorists, is "a wrong association that gets formed in the minds of the general public. It's a bunch of ignorance that gets swirled up into a frenzy. It's sad to see that." He recalled an infamous post-Sept. 11, 2001, incident when a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona was gunned down by a man who boasted how he was motivated by patriotism.

Sikhs in Clark County

Vancouver's Sikh temple happened to open its doors in September 2001, just in time to catch the wave of ignorance and hatred. Minor harassment was reported, but nothing truly terrible transpired.

Sethi said a small group of Sikhs met Wednesday with Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt to discuss public-education steps that could be taken here. "We want to show who we really are," Sethi said.

The Guru Ramdass Gurdwara has about 200 member families and a regular weekly attendance of 150 to 200 people, Sethi said, who come from as far away as Hillsboro, Ore., and Longview.

"We are immigrants and citizens, we are working-class people and professionals, we are teachers and doctors and even cab drivers and restaurant owners," he said. "It's a pretty good mix of people."

Sethi opened a Subway sandwich shop in Portland in 2004 and likes to joke that he's the city's original turban-wearing Subway franchisee.

He and his wife are raising two young daughters in Camas. The older of the two will start public kindergarten this fall.

In 2008, the Guru Ramdass Gurdwara purchased the former Landover Athletic Club facility in east Vancouver; plans to remodel the building have been waiting for fundraising to catch up, but Sethi said it's looking likely that work will get under way around the beginning of 2013.

Sethi emphasized his group's gratitude to quick-acting Wisconsin emergency responders who probably prevented the tragedy from being even worse.

"We really want to extend our heartfelt thank you to all the men and women in uniform who go beyond valor and heroism and put themselves in danger," Sethi said. "There is tremendous gratitude out there.

"And we want to thank all the people in our local communities, all the regular people in Vancouver, for example, who are standing up with us during this difficult time."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; http://www.facebook.com/reporterhewitt.