by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
I come from the Sikh tradition, a faith that many people in the United States don’t know a lot about. While it’s the world’s fifth-largest religion, it’s also a tradition that is often misunderstood here and abroad and especially in India, which is where it originates. Growing up in England in the 1980s and 90s, my father (who wears a traditional Sikh turban) was frequently accused by strangers on the street of being a terrorist. For my entire life, Sikhs being referred to as terrorists has been a racial slur that people sometimes use out of hate, but mostly use out of ignorance and misguided fear. I’m sure you can imagine how the problem escalated in the wake of September 11th.
I was born in England. Simran Jeet Singh, a religious scholar who wrote a booked called The Light We Give, is my American counterpart, a Sikh with Punjabi roots who was born and raised in Texas. He has also dealt with a lot of racism and misunderstandings in his life. He wears a turban like my dad’s, and has also been called a terrorist. Singh points out that one of the many ironies of a common taunt he receives – “go back to where you came from” – is that even in India, Sikhs are a minority who have faced genocide and terrible human rights violations against a government that persecutes them. But of course, if he were to go back to where he came from, that would be Texas! It’s a pertinent reminder to not judge a book by its cover.
Another irony layered into this persecution is that the Sikh tradition is all about equality, justice, and unconditional love for everyone – even those who would wrong us. Sikhs are the original social justice warriors. We believe in loving our neighbors, respecting other people’s beliefs, community service, and honoring difference. These values are very holy to us, and we put a lot of emphasis on them, and on the practical matter of how to live up to our values in the course of everyday life. Because we’re human, we don’t always live up to those values. But it’s important to try.
Lately I’ve been reflecting my Sikh roots and beliefs in preparation for my presentations at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. (It will take place June 29 – July 4 and July 6 – 9 on the National Mall. You’re invited!) I’ll be leading daily “kitchen table”-style conversations that explore stories as living expressions of culture, faith, tradition and meaning making. The theme of the festival is living religions. The Sikh faith, like Catholicism and Islam and any number of the world’s religion, isn’t static; it’s always changing over time, and of course varies from region to region or even person to person.
With Sikhs in particular, doctrine isn’t really a big focus. So instead of talking about the theological roots of my Sikh beliefs, which go back hundreds of years, it makes more sense to talk about how these values were passed along to me: as a story. When I was little, my mother taught me something she called “the journey of five.” She described it as a sort of heroic quest where you embrace and learn from five traditions different than your own, at the end of which you fully come into your own as a Sikh. Our journey of five took us to a variety of places and events (Midnight Mass, for instance), and afterwards we’d talk about faith and love and difference. This experience was so real to me that I only recently became aware that this was seemingly my late mother’s idea, and not a traditional Sikh teaching—a perfect example of how “living religions” work within our families and among communities.
My mother’s journey of five has always stayed with me, and perhaps as a result (along with the Sikh tendency to focus on learning and curiosity), I’ve always had an interfaith bent. Early in my career, when I was a teacher in Scotland, I lived just off the Royal Mile. I liked to joke that John Knox, the founder of the Scottish Reformation, was my neighbor because his historic house was actually literally a stone’s throw away. St. Giles Cathedral, the Church where he preached during the Reformation, was a place that I would go to rest and regroup after work. Sometimes I’d sit there for a while—before an antiwar protest, for example—and embrace the beauty of that sacred space. I loved the stillness and the quiet. But I also loved how I could hear the soft sounds of traffic and activity outside. It gave the space a womblike quality that was comforting and affirming, and it was always a good place to collect my thoughts.
The journey of five isn’t just about learning about different religions. It’s about community, places, and experiences. Different ways of life. It’s a form of spiritual travel, not unlike enjoying a trip abroad and experiencing the wonders of new sights and how other people do things. It’s good to go home, but there’s always something to take with you—maybe a newly cultivated appreciation for a food, a new form of greeting, or the memory of a beautiful painting in a museum.
I’m reminded of the time more than two decades ago, just out of school, when I lived in a shared flat. It was a ragtag crew, including writers, poets, artists, travelers—and a little mouse called Simon. We always had a basket with different kinds of bread on the table. Some days the basket was filled with fresh bagels or delicious fresh almond croissants taken from the bakeries where some of my roommates worked along the Royal Mile. Some days the bread was stale and hard, and other days, by the time I got out of bed, there were just multicolored seeds and crumbs. The contents of our breadbasket were unpredictable, much like the household itself. By telling you about it now, you understand more about who I am and where I’ve been. Every story is a new opportunity to share our humanity, even if we do so imperfectly.I try to remember that when I’m confronted with ignorance and hostility toward my own faith, and as I encounter beliefs that are new to me.