Last month I had the honor of speaking at a candlelight memorial service for the local Sikh community who were grieving the heartbreaking murders of their brethren in Wisconsin.
I was not as put together and prepared as I like to be when addressing an audience. Because of a series of unfortunate events that made us half an hour late and reduced me to tears of frustration, I arrived off kilter. Then the coordinator of the speakers asked if, instead of delivering my prepared speech, I would offer up a three minute prayer of forgiveness for the shooter and his family.
Typically, curve balls energize me. Adrenaline kicks in, my mind focuses like a laser, God tells me what to say, and brilliance soon follows. However, that night it was as if there was a thick membrane separating us. God wasn’t getting through; nothing but static. With shaking fingers I appealed to my Facebook friends for prayer and called my pastor for suggestions.
Within minutes I was being introduced with only one small idea in my frenzied head (a sentence that stuck amidst the wonderful paragraph my pastor had suggested). Resigned to sputtering nonsense in front of a large crowd of mourners, suddenly the Holy Spirit pierced like a sword through my racing thoughts and sparked the outline for a three minute speech. Honestly, I don’t remember most of what I said, and that’s OK; the important things are those I will never forget.
I will never forget that God totally showed up. Yes, it was at the last minute, but he did and always has for me. I am grateful for this tangible reminder.
I will never forget the dear Sikh people I met that evening. They were welcoming, gracious, friendly and engaging.
I will never forget the Sikh man who sat with me at dinner and shared his heart. He said that for 500 years his people, who build their faith on peace and tolerance, have had to fight. Always in the minority, they never had a voice. He spoke of how hopeful Sikhs were that America would be different; here they would have freedom of speech, of worship, and not be discriminated against because of the great diversity this land houses. Their reality has been quite different. America has been no better.
“We are so hurt,” he said. Their children are bullied on the playground. Their men are roughed up in the streets. They are treated with derision and suspicion. “Why do we have to give up our culture and become just like you to be accepted? Why can’t we all embrace and learn from each other’s cultures? Do you really want to eat only hamburgers every day? Don’t you want variety?” Eloquent point.
America has not been safe for the Sikh people. “There was only one place where we really felt safe,” he told me, “Our temple; and now that has been taken away as well.” I will never forget the heartache, and pain I saw in the tear-filled eyes of a man who my beloved country has so thoroughly disappointed.
Speaking of eating hamburgers every day, this may sound shallow, but I will never forget that Langar. The Sikh people practice lavish generosity, and this meal, Langar, is just a small example. After every prayer service they open the kitchen and feed any and all who come, no matter their color or creed. At this temple, they do this three times a week!
Usually food prepared en mass is bland – you know, stuff of the nasty cafeteria variety. Not this food. It was an Indian feast most would pay top dollar for. We sat on long rows of lovely carpet while Sikh men and women went up and down the aisles laden with stacks of warm naan, large pots of steaming rice and spicy vegetarian dishes with chasers of the creamiest, most perfectly spiced chai tea it has ever been my pleasure to drink. For hours they went from person to person, encouraging more food like the proverbial Italian mother. It was glorious.
Finally, I will never forget that I was able to share all of these wonderful experiences with my children. They saw my anxiety when we were running late, and that we actually arrived at the perfect time. They witnessed God showing up, giving me the words to say. They feasted upon and appreciated the food of another culture and, most important, heard the stories of the Sikh people that touched tender places in them.
What happened in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin is heartbreaking. It was evil at its height. However, God brings beauty out of ashes, and I saw the evidence that day when people from many faiths and cultures came together in defiance of a hateful act against diversity to heal as one. My prayer is that America can be a country where we embrace and learn from our different cultures and backgrounds while standing together in unity – which is what we are supposed to be about.
Because personally, while I love them, I don’t want to eat only hamburgers every day.