Vancouver Sikhs answer violence with kindness

Vigil draws hundreds from many faiths and across the region

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoBefore the candlelight vigil, a prayer service was held inside the Guru Ramdass Sikh temple.

(/The Columbian)

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Hospitality and openness are central to Sikhism. So what did Vancouver's Sikh congregation, the Guru Ramdass Gurdwara on "O" Street, do after a sister group in Wisconsin was victimized by senseless gunfire?

It opened its doors even wider. Made new friends. And prayed for peace.

"People are sad, but also we are feeling optimistic," said Sarabeet Teja, a leader of the Guru Ramdass Gurdwara, where hundreds of people representing faiths of all sorts gathered Thursday night to stand in solidarity with local Sikhs. "Maybe we can turn this into something positive for the whole community."

A long prayer service was held inside the temple at 3600 O Street, with a holy man chanting in the sacred language Gurmukhl; meanwhile, outside, congregants and visitors from across the region exchanged greetings and waited for a candlelight vigil to begin.

The vigil was in honor of six Sikhs who died when an alleged white supremacist and former Army soldier walked into a Wisconsin Sikh temple and started shooting. The gunman was eventually wounded by police and killed himself. The incident has locals recalling a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona who was gunned down after Sept. 11, 2001, by a shooter who boasted that he was motivated by patriotism.

Sikh men wear turbans and beards; they're painfully aware of being confused with not only with Muslims but with the most notorious Muslim terrorist -- turbaned, bearded Osama bin Laden.

Just because Sikhs point out that they aren't Muslims doesn't mean they're aiming violence at Muslims or anyone else, said Amreet Sandhu, a former public safety adviser to Portland Mayor Sam Adams. Nobody deserves to be terrorized in their place of worship; nobody deserves to be stereotyped because of appearances, Sandhu said.

Sandhu called for tighter gun control laws, better mental health care for military veterans, and more education about Sikhs in American public schools.

"We need to explain who we are, but we are tired of explaining who we are," she said. "This is a teachable moment, but we are tired of teachable moments."

The Guru Ramdass Gurdwara has about 200 member families and regular weekly attendance of 150 to 200 people, according to spokesman Pawneet Sethi. They come from all over the Portland area and even as far away as Longview.

According to the writings of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanek Dev, the underpinnings of Sikh life are honest and diligent work, kindness and sharing the fruits of labor, and devotion to God through chanting and meditation. Tolerance for other religions, human rights and equality for women are also important in Sikhism.

"We know what it means to feel victimized, isolated, alienated," said Rabbi Joey Wolf of Havurah Shalom, a Jewish group based in Portland. "It's a terrible moment for these people, and we want to be there for them."

The Rev. Mark Gallagher of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver echoed that. He said a gunman walked into a Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tenn., a few years ago and killed congregants. "Our hearts were broken, but our hearts were sustained" by the support of the same kind of diverse friends at Thursday night's gathering, he said.

Assistant Vancouver Police Chief Chris Sutter told the crowd that law enforcement is there for them. He told The Columbian that Vancouver police are working with regional law enforcement and the FBI to monitor hate groups and racist extremists. "We take this very seriously," he said.

"We are here with you. We feel your pain," said Mayor Tim Leavitt, who added that he'd met with local Sikhs to discuss how the city can learn more about its Sikh citizens. "This is an opportunity. We should seize this opportunity," he said.

Polly Lauser, a Zen Buddhist who lives in Felida, chalked some of the latest wave of gun violence up to violence in media. "We have to stop celebrating violence as entertainment," she said.

Pawneet Sethi said he was gratified to see so many faiths represented. "The eternal message is always the same," he said. Human religions are "all little tributaries and rivers that lead to the same ocean."

He looked around the very diverse crowd that had come together and concluded: "This is how it's supposed to be."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.