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USA 'Sikh 101' Forum Leaves Some Hopeful, Others Doubtful


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
'Sikh 101' Forum Leaves Some Hopeful, Others Doubtful

Peg McNichol

Anne Marie Graham-Hudak would have been happy to see 50 or 60 people show up to learn more about the Sikh faith Thursday evening. She was delighted when nearly 75 attended the event at St. Thomas a’Becket on Lilley Road.

Her group organized the forum after a Bentley Elementary incident last month involving a fourth-grade Sikh boy. He was at recess when his kirpan, a religious item representing a sword of mercy, fell out of his clothes, and a parent complained to the media.

Plymouth-Canton Schools’ policy prohibits look-alike weapons, but the issue is complicated because it is a religious item. The boy has stopped wearing it, but his family and school officials continue to look for a solution, according to district spokesman Frank Ruggirello Jr.

A kirpan is one of five symbols of faith worn constantly by Sikhs as a religious act, and it is kept in a sheath worn out of view. The other articles of faith are uncut hair; a small comb; a steel bracelet; and undergarments that represent chastity.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t turn into anger toward the Sikh community and their customs,” said Graham-Hudak, founding member and board president of the Plymouth-Canton Citizens for Diversity and Inclusion.

St. Thomas a’Becket’s pastor, the Rev. Pat Casey, welcomed attendees to the church’s sanctuary telling the crowd that he was honored to have his church host the event. He set the tone by sharing something he said he hadn’t disclosed to his own congregation.

“Tomorrow’s my 23rd anniversary in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. In AA, you turn your life over to a higher power,” he said, going on to note that most religions are devoted to some form of higher power, whether that is called God or not.

“As a Catholic, I’m not afraid of my religion, and I’m not opposed to other religions,” Casey said.

Graham-Hudak followed his greeting by asking people to help the community become stronger by communicating more and to consider joining Plymouth-Canton Citizens for Diversity.

Robert Bruttell, who teaches religious studies at University of Detroit Mercy, reminded the crowd that as recently as the 1960s, Roman Catholics were viewed with suspicion. Bruttell, also chairman and president at InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit and a member of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion board of directors, said the values in the Sikh faith mirror American values.

He then introduced Jaspal Neelam of Troy, a 20-year Michigan resident, certified public accountant and mother of three, whose children play soccer and ski. “Doesn’t that sound like a typical American?” Bruttell said, calling Neelam a “soccer mom.” She then led a brief slideshow titled “Sikhism 101.”

Neelam said Sikhs have lived in Metro Detroit since the 1920s and that Detroit’s first Sikh house of worship, called a gurdwara, was building in the early 1960s. Canton and Plymouth each has a gurdwara: the Gurdwara Sahib Singh Sabha on Canton Center Road and the Hidden Falls Gurdwara on Schoolcraft Road in Plymouth.

“Sikhs are pretty well-integrated into the Michigan fabric,” she said. About 3,000 Sikhs live in Michigan including 2,500 in Metro Detroit.

Neelam said Sikhs have four core beliefs:

* There is one God.
* All people belong to the brotherhood of humanity.
* All people are equal (Sikhs reject caste systems).
* Truth and justice are tied together.

Practicing these beliefs requires Sikhs to be committed to truth and justice, “which requires us to do something about it,” Neelam said; committed to service, a constant remembrance of God in all acts; and committed to hard and honest work and sharing “what you have with the needy," she said.

“If you have God in your thoughts, your actions will be right,” she said.

The kirpan and other articles worn by Sikhs who have undergone a ritual similar to baptism includes a commitment to never use the kirpan as a weapon, Neelam said.

She said a turban is the most visible sign that a man is a Sikh, and it is an article of clothing that must never be removed in public. In the wake of Sept. 11, that belief — and Americans' widespread misunderstanding of it — led to hundreds of hate crimes against Sikh men, Neelam said, including the fatal shooting of an Arizona man.

“It was like being attacked twice, first as an American, then as a Sikh,” she said.

Her own three children, particularly the eldest of her two sons, were mercilessly teased for wearing turbans. In the eldest son's case, it reached the point where she began driving him to school instead of letting him ride the bus.

“The things our kids have to go through — and that their Sikh identity is intact — shows you their strength,” she said.

But her children, 17-year-old twins and a 9-year-old, are “typical American kids,” she said. “We have the same hopes and dreams and desires as any other American.”

Bruttell instructed attendees at Thursday's meeting to divide into six groups and discuss why they moved to the Plymouth-Canton area. He asked them to talk about how each person’s religion reflects American values.

Hasina Abdu, a 10-year Canton resident, is a Muslim woman who has lived in India and Brazil. She attended Thursday's forum to get a better understanding of the Sikh faith while sharing her own.

Kit Belvitch of Plymouth, who was in the same discussion group as Abdu, and said, "Dialogues like this are really important."

Attorney Jassi Sachdev of Northville, who said he follows the Sikh faith, said he hopes to help people develop “a better understanding of our religion.”

After hearing the kirpan compared to flags and crosses representing the crucifixion of Christ, then finally seeing a kirpan that was passed around the room, Patricia Gresock of Canton said she understood its symbolic importance. But, she wondered, “Couldn’t it be a cardboard kirpan than can bend and be really stubby … or something else that was nonthreatening?”

Raman Singh of West Bloomfield heard the question later in the evening, after Gresock had left. Singh, who attends both the Plymouth and Canton gurdwaras, said anyone who agrees to wear a kirpan is “making a huge commitment” to never use it.

Ruggerillo said courts have exempted religious artifacts from laws against look-alike weapons, but he added, “We are optimistic that we will be able to work out the details of an accommodation plan.”




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