To the casual observer, the leafy vegetation in the corner of Diwan Hall at the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Lower Nazareth looks like an ordinary houseplant. But to those who know how it got there, it’s a vessel.
The plant was delivered to the Lehigh Valley congregation in the aftermath of the Aug. 5 shootings at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. It came from a local well-wisher as a message of condolence and support for Sikhs everywhere.
Area churches also wrote letters to the Valley Sikh congregation condemning the rampage and offering their prayers. Other people donated money to be forwarded on to the Sikhs in Wisconsin.
"The whole of America stood with us, the people, the media, the politicians," Tajinder Tung of the Guru Nanak Sikh Society of the Lehigh Valley, told me last Friday. "There are no words to thank them."
I think it’s fair to say that the overarching message to the local Sikh community was this: That crazed gunman with hate in his heart for anyone different – that’s not who we are.
I visited the Guru Nanak Sikh temple – called a Gurdwara – during Friday evening’s service to talk to members about a donation they made to the police officer who was seriously injured trying to stop the Wisconsin rampage.
To say I was welcomed with open arms is an understatement. From the moment I arrived, members were giving me a crash course in Sikhism, explaining the history and rituals, the hymns and prayers.
They invited me to eat the meal that follows the service – free to all who attend. They spoke proudly of their history and creed that emphasizes living honestly, treating everyone equally, service to society, generosity to those in need, and keeping God in mind in all things.
Sarabjit Singh of Upper Nazareth told me that he drove a taxi for 16 years in New York City, including after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. With his turban and long beard, some potential customers evidently assumed that he was Muslim – Sikhs are not -- and avoided his cab when they saw him.
“Some would point to me and say ‘Bin Laden, I’m not getting in your cab,’ ” Singh recalled.
He said he even tracked down radio host Alan Colmes of “Hannity & Colmes” fame to give him a booklet about the history of Sikhs and what they believe.
But many Sikhs are careful in the aftermath of the Wisconsin shooting to avoid sounding like they are running away from the Muslim label -- as if they didn’t deserve to be shot but somehow Muslims do. In an interview on National Public Radio, Amardeep Singh, a Sikh who is an English professor at Lehigh University, told host Audie Cornish that if the attacks were aimed at the Muslim community, “we would be as shocked and horrified.”
“Well, I think our orientation as a community has been to stress that we are opposed to religious hostility and hate crime-type violence directed against any community, whether it be the Muslim community or the Jewish community or any other religious community in America,” Singh said.
Tajinder Tung, a calculus teacher at Mount Olive High School in New Jersey and my unofficial guide Friday, said the congregation knew after the rampage that Sikhs everywhere would contribute to their brethren who were victims, but the Valley community wanted to thank the officer who was wounded trying to stop it.
So they collected $1,100 which they gave to Colonial Regional Police Chief Roy Seiple who forwarded it to the Wisconsin officer’s police association.
Just like the stranger who dropped off the plant at their temple, they were sending a message. Answering hate and fear and tragedy with kindness and generosity – this is who we are.