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Seeking Equality, Serving Others (Never Enough Sundays Blog)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
This article is from the Never Enough Sundays blog: Never Enough Sundays
A weekly visit to a different faith group for 52 weeks to discover how people intentionally meet God in corporate worship.

A person's faith tradition is made up of at least two things: first, what they say they believe, and second, how that plays itself out in their actions. This year I have been to lots of faith traditions whose people—even in the one hour I visit—say one thing and do another. I have been to churches whose preachers teach simplicity and whose parishioners dress lavishly; whose ministers say it's all about serving others while the congregation's members are the first to take the aisle seats; whose leaders say God loves everyone, and yet the worshipers treat a stranger as if they'd like them to remain so. It's not unusual to hear one thing and see another. When I visit the Sikhs this morning at the Sikh Satsang Gurdwara Temple off of I-74 East in Indianapolis, I have no idea what they are saying in the service because it's all in Punjabi, but their actions do speak loudly and clearly. I don't need a translator to understand that they hold at least three things in high regard: equality, sharing, and service to others.

From the moment I arrive, several people greet me. Three young girls stand by politely until I acknowledge them. Everyone has a head covering...not just the women. The men and boys are wearing either a turban or a short scarf (like a bandanna) wrapped to cover their hair. The women and girls are wearing long-ish dresses and loose pants along with a scarf that covers their head and hair. Everyone removes their shoes and places them on a rack or on the floor. Everyone washes their hands. Everyone is encouraged to come inside and have some chai and a little refreshment. And in the meantime there are men, women, and children behind the food counter who are replenishing the Pankora (a deep fried vegetable appetizer) and the cookies along with several other Indian standards. I see no difference in the way the sexes operate, other than the fact that the men seem more outgoing. I don't know how the visit would have played out had I been by myself as a single woman, but I am with my husband and so one of the men introduces himself and suggests we remove our shoes and wash our hands. Given the freezing temps this morning, I have arrived with a scarf already draped over my head, but my husband is instructed on how to don a bandanna. Then we are both ushered into the room to the left of the front door...a place of food and fellowship.

Sharing Their Faith
The room is festive and spacious. The ceiling is festooned with colorful fabric. The floor is lined with long, narrow oriental rugs that serve as seating for the Gurdwara members. There doesn't seem to be a special place for men or women...people are just sitting on the floor in groups, eating and talking. Overhead, the music from the other room is piped in through speakers and while there is plenty of talking going on, it is hard to hear each other over the singing. The people with whom we speak over the next 40 minutes have thick accents, and so it takes a bit of work to understand what they are saying. We talk about what they believe, but I don't get the sense that they are trying to convert me to their faith. I have arrived interested to learn, and so they are happy to inform me that they believe in only one God and that they identify themselves as Sikhs by five distinctive items: hair that has not been cut, a small comb that they keep in their turban or under their scarf in order tend to their long hair, a sword (quite small) that they wear underneath their clothing to protect themselves and the weak, an iron bracelet to remind themselves of their bond with God, and, lastly, special shorts that serve to remind them of their commitment to sexual purity. These five items are necessary for all Sikhs—male or female. In order to help answer many of my questions, they provide me with a 16-page pamphlet entitled "Who Are The Sikhs" which includes a brief summary of their history and their beliefs.

As we are talking, I look around the room to see pictures of the individual Gurus (from the founder in 1469 to the last who died in 1708). I also see lots of children's depictions of ancient war rituals and gory stories. To be fair, these are not unlike the David and Goliath pictures I might see in the hallways of a Jewish temple or the crayons drawings of the story of Jael, who drove a tent peg into the head of Sisera, displayed on a Sunday School room at any Protestant church. There is lots of blood and gore in the Bible and apparantly, also, in the history of the Sikhs. Their own Holy Scriptures are replete with stories of battles won, martyrs lost, and selfless acts of the faithful. But in truth, the people here tell me that the takeaway is that they worship the one God who is revealed through the sacred writings, not the sacred writings themselves. They are also forbidden from worshiping idols, other deities, fasting and performing rituals.

Common Ground
As we continue to talk, we start talking more about the realities of their faith lived out in their lives. They talk about their children; "here's the new generation of Sikhs," one man says, waving his hand towards a group of three teenage boys who are wearing their bandannas like a rap singer and sporting American Eagle hoodies. They talk about their jobs, "I run a liquor store, but I don't smoke or drink," one of the men admits. And they talk about their health, "My job requires lots of hard work with my hands, and so I've had a lot of trouble recently," another confesses. Children, jobs, health...we all have these things in common, and so we sit around and share our own frustrations and successes. Meanwhile, children run by and occasionally one of the men will stop one and introduce us.

As the morning goes on, we are invited to join the members for a time of worship in the other large room to the right of the front doors. Our plates have been cleared (even though I didn't notice them being taken way) and we walk over to the room where all the music has been coming from. To my right there is a low table with man stationed there. It looks like he's taking attendance, but I find out later that he is actually recording prayer requests. People stop by with their money and pay a small sum for the prayer request to be written in a book. While this is not required, the next part is. The floor is draped in white sheets and carpet runners lay out a walking pattern for the members to follow. We all walk up the carpet path until we reach a colorful canopy under which a large altar has been set up. From what I can tell, after bowing low to the floor, people are dropping bills on the other side of a short bannister. I'm told as a visitor that I am not expected to participate. A pile of money builds up in front of the altar while people pass by to show their respect.

Many of them also stop by the stage which is set up to accommodate three musicians. There is a clear plastic container in which people place tips. The three leaders happen to be men and they are singing the scriptures and playing a pair of hand drums, one smaller than the other with a higher pitch. The man in the middle is playing a hand-pumped harmonium which sounds a bit like an accordion. (Hear a brief soundscape.) On a normal day, the scriptures they are reciting would be displayed on a projection screen to help people participate, but today the projector isn't working and so the participation is a bit weak. At any rate, they are using the time to sit on the floor and listen and worship, and sometimes chime in.

Learning The Scriptures
The hour or so progresses this way. The families and individuals come in and out as they wish, but while they are there they seem to be listening and participating. Some of them have their eyes closed and others are just staring or watching others as they listen to the devotional songs. I am sitting with one of the men who explains to me that the Holy Scriptures—all 1430 pages—are what they live by and that there will never be any additions or subtractions to it as decreed by the final Guru, Gobind Singh. Everyone is well-versed in the Holy Scriptures so that they will recognize if someone tries to change anything about it. The children are schooled both in Punjabi and in the Holy Scriptures, he says. "It has the answers to all of our questions," he adds. Sikhs obviously revere the book. It is the central focus of the Sunday morning service.

During the service a person stands behind the book, which is covered by an ornate orange cloth, and fans it with what looks to be a large yellow feather duster. I ask why they are doing it and my companion explains that back in the day when kings would sit on the throne they would have a servant who fanned him in order to keep away insects and to show respect. Likewise, the Holy Scriptures deserve to be shown respect.

On either side of the the altar, which looks strangely reminiscent of what I've seen sitting atop elephants in movies, there are two identical stained glass windows with a symbol that looks like two swords on either side of a large dagger. I read later in my pamphlet that the Khanda is a symbol of God's universal and creative power.

"In its center is a double-edged sword, symbol of the primal and almighty power of the Creator. The Chakra or the circle is a symbol of continuity. The two swords on either side are symbols of the spiritual and political balance in the universe." While it may seem to the outsider like there is a lot of emphasis on violence, I try to remind myself of how many times I've sung "Onward, Christian Soldiers," in churches across the country. "We believe in peace and protection," I am told by one of the men.

Serving Others
Exercising our right to go in and out of the service freely, we mention that we need to leave early. We decide not to stay until one o'clock when there is a free meal served to any who would like to linger. I am told that near the end of the service, the person who is fanning behind the massive book of Holy Scriptures will fold back the fabric that is covering the book and will turn the page to ready it for the next time it is read. Both my husband I take our leave before that occurs. Our companion follows us out.

As my husband removes his head covering, he notices a man who is smartly dressed in a white top, matching pants and a very dapper black turban. On the outside of his clothing he wears the traditional Kirpan (a sword which is not to be used as anything but a weapon of defense). Most people have theirs hidden under their clothes. Our companion explains that this man is an extremely dedicated Sikh who prays often and takes great care in his appearance. While we talk, the man goes about the business of wiping off other people's shoes to remove water and salt and street grime that lingers from the outside. We ask him what he is doing and he explains that he's doing this to be kind to people because there should be no egos. It's a great reminder that when we worship we come together to serve, not to be served. No matter what faith tradition you might hail from, that's not a bad place to start.



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