Bob Ray Sanders | Sikh prayer service offers peace

Entering the vestibule of a Garland, Texas, house of worship Sunday, I removed my shoes and placed them on a rack with many others as a greeter assisted in tying an orange covering on my head.

I was escorted to the front of the temple and took my place on the floor with scores of men and young boys sitting on the right side of the sanctuary. The women and girls were seated to the left.

The Gurdwara Akaljot, a meeting place for Sikhs, had invited the larger community to join them in a “Prayer for the Peace of Departed Souls,” in memory of the six Sikhs killed at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis., earlier this month. The gunman, described as a white supremacist, also died at the scene, shot by police and then by himself.

Among those present for Sunday’s service were area local officials, leaders of various cultural organizations and representatives of other religions, including Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

Since the shooting, in which three other people were wounded, Sikhs have been amazed by the outpouring of support they have received from people who knew little about their religion before this tragedy.

They, in turn, have used the event as a teaching moment, a chance to reach out to others to let them “get to know the people behind the turbans and beards,” as one young man explained.

Throughout the service, speakers talked about the importance of diversity in America, the need to combat fear and ignorance – the roots of bigotry – and the importance of not dwelling on the “why,” but on “what we do now.”

A couple of young people spoke about the rise of hate crimes against Sikhs after 9/11 because many people think they are Muslim. They too issued a call to action in fighting against “ignorance, intolerance and injustice.”

It has been pointed out by many since the Wisconsin tragedy, and again at Sunday’s gathering, that when police Lt. Brian Murphy arrived on the scene of the shooting, he didn’t stop to think about a person’s color or religion. He did his job of trying to stop the assailant and was shot nine times in the process.

Murphy, who earlier this week was listed in serious condition at a Milwaukee area hospital, is a hero in the Sikh community, and rightly so. Several told me they believed a lot more people would have been killed that day if Murphy hadn’t shown up so quickly and taken decisive action.

As I sat listening to those voices of unity and praise and forgiveness, there were echoes in my mind of the voices of hate that seem to be getting louder in this country.

Yes, we of different colors, races and religions can come together in the wake of tragedy, but we too often and too soon return to our comfortable corners while the hate mongers continue to spew their venom and act out their dirty deeds.

Intolerance, disrespect and incivility is exhibited on a daily basis and takes on many forms, from highly charged rhetoric in the halls of Congress to blatant bigoted attitudes expressed on the airwaves and even mass violence against those who are different.

The recent wave of anti-immigrant revolts and overt religious discrimination is quite disheartening and makes me wonder if we’ll ever truly be united in this country.

I’ve always emphasized that prejudice and bigotry are not innate traits. They are taught. The question is, can we help people change their minds and hearts, or do we simply put our faith in the next generation?

Sitting in the gurdwara Sunday, I watched the children as they made their bows, responded respectfully with their chants and sat and listened carefully to the words of their elders.

Knowing that these children were getting an early lesson in tolerance, love and peace gave me hope.

Contact Sanders, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, at bobray@star-telegram.com.