Recently, the Sikh American community has marked an exciting anniversary: 550 years ago, the founder of our religion, Guru Nanak, was born. More than half a millennium later, we strive to carry on his teachings of love and unity.
And because many people aren’t familiar with Sikhs, the Sikh community right here in Pennsylvania, and around the country, are taking this historic anniversary as a chance to reintroduce ourselves.
Sikhism, or Sikhi, is the world’s fifth-largest religion; there are around 500,000 of us in the United States today, where we’ve been an integral part of society for more than 125 years. You might have seen us without even knowing it, given that the Sikh identity includes five articles of faith—most visibly the unshorn hair and turban.
You may not know, however, that Guru Nanak and those who came after him imbued our faith with core values like love, service and justice.
Two months ago, we hosted an open house event at our gurdwara (or house of worship), the Sikh Society of Harrisburg. It was heartening to see more than 150 people turn out to the event, where guests also enjoyed langar, the free community meal that we cook and eat together every week. I was glad to see local law enforcement officers, as well as the principals from several nearby schools in attendance—the latter especially, because education has been a big part of my life since I moved to the area.
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When I first came to Harrisburg back in 2016, we had to drive more than 45 minutes to get to a gurdwara. That thankfully changed with the opening of our local temple, and it enabled me to create a safe environment for the community’s children. Now, more than 60 Sikh youth spend two hours each week learning about Sikhi and the Punjabi language. Given how much all Americans sincerely value education, our open house presented a wonderful opportunity to build bridges with our children’s teachers and the wider community beyond.
Part of the reason that Sikhs strive to be open and welcoming is because of one of our core values mentioned above: seva. Seva is selfless service to the community, and it can take many forms, including the donation of time, money and effort in any endeavor that is meant to help others. In fact, one could even argue that civic engagement is a form of seva.
It is in that spirit that the Sikh community mobilized to support a package of hate crime bills in the Pennsylvania General Assembly late last year. Introduced one year after our Jewish brothers and sisters suffered a horrific attack in Pittsburgh, these bills will strengthen our commonwealth’s hate crime laws with key provisions like police training and support for schools and universities. All eight of Pennsylvania’s gurdwaras, including my own, signed onto a letter of support for this key legislation.
Sikhs believe in the oneness of humanity—that we are all interconnected. The U.S. Constitution, of course, holds that all Americans are equal before the law. Both of these truths urge us to protect everyone who lives in the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and they are exactly why all our legislators should support this commonsense, bipartisan legislation.
So how do a historic anniversary and new hate crime bills all tie together? It comes down to you—and the three things I would ask of you as my neighbor, regardless of your family’s faith background or history.
First, support these hate crime bills. No person or community deserves to feel unsafe, and measures like these are an easy way to show each other interfaith unity. We are at our best, after all, when we stand united.
Second, if you’re in the neighborhood on a Sunday, come visit the Sikh Society of Harrisburg. The great thing about gurdwaras is that any weekend can be an open house—Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike are always welcome for services and langar.
Finally, and easiest of all: next time you see one of your Sikh neighbors, say hello! We are excited to get to know you, and to continue sharing this wonderful community as we work together for a better future for all.
Gurmeet Kaur Kalra is a Sikh community member who lives in Harrisburg with her family.