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Images: Gurdwara Plainview, Long Island, New York, USA.

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"You're Always Welcome!"

LARA KLOPP

 

 

 

On occasion I accompany my husband on business trips to Long Island (New York, USA). Near the hotel we stay in is a somewhat dilapidated little house which has a sign declaring it to be a Sikh temple. I’ve driven past it taking my husband into work many times on these trips, and yet over the course of several years I’ve barely give the small tired building a second glance. 

I’ve always been curious about religions. Not having one myself, but loving the sense of community, devotion, and comfort that religion, at its best, provides, I try to see the world through the lens of various faiths. 

Even in high school this was the case, as I’d accompany my friend to Baha’i firesides and relish the casual, warm, and intelligent conversations to be had in the various living rooms where they’d meet.

I’ve discussed the Book of Mormon with the Mormon missionaries (and my first husband became a Mormon; it’s a faith I deeply respect, though I disagree with many of their basic tenets, especially with regard to homosexuality). I’ve been to Catholic mass, to Buddhist meditation, and to a variety of Christian denomination services.

Many of the best people I have known have been deeply religious, those able to take from their faith all the goodness that is offered, and focus on the message of love inherent in every religion. That is the grail I seek when I explore religion, though I fear I haven’t found it yet.

So this most recent trip to Long Island, for some reason, I truly noticed the Sikh temple, and wondered if its members would welcome a visit from a stranger. I looked up this particular temple, and Sikhism in general, and everything that I found declared this to be a most hospitable and warm group of people.

The temple listed daily events, with Bhog at 7 am, and Langar at noon. Research told me that Bhog is a reading of the scripture, and Langar is a communal meal (for which the Sikhs are famous, I learned, for welcoming anyone and everyone, and not ever charging). 

I didn’t want to intervene in a reading of scripture, and I didn’t feel comfortable showing up just for a free meal (though I am certain, especially now that I’ve gone, that it would have been absolutely fine to do so), so I decided to go to the temple at 11, which I thought might be a period of free-time between the two.

I arrived, and in my car I looked at my purse, and my large SLR camera (which I literally take everywhere). I was aching to take pictures of my experience, because I see the world through my camera, and try to use it to show the beauty that surrounds me every day. But I also worried, that a camera in a temple would be unwelcome and intrusive, so I left all in my car and entered the temple carrying nothing.

Immediately, I was in a small, somewhat shabby lobby. The first thing I saw was a sign saying that shoes were not permitted in the temple, and a (corresponding) area for shoes to be placed, and two bins of head coverings, one for men and one for women. I removed my boots, and found a gorgeous long orange and maroon head scarf to place over my hair, but I wasn’t quite sure how to put it on.

As I fumbled with it, my eyes met a bearded man behind a reception desk, talking on a portable phone, and I smiled and shrugged and he smiled in return. Still on the phone, he walked over and adjusted my scarf, and we shared a moment of silent laughter at my earnest but inept attempt to cover my head.

I heard singing and talking around a corner, so I headed in that direction (and the kind man at the desk, still on the phone, smiled and nodded as I gestured to mean “so, can I go in there too?”). I’d read enough to know that women sit on one side in the temple, men on the other, and everyone sits on the floor. (Unfortunately, I hadn’t read enough to know that you should never point your feet at their sacred text, in the front of the room, and after an hour of sitting cross-legged, I shifted my position and did just that; to them, and any Sikhs reading this, I apologize deeply.) 

[Note: being seated in the temple by gender aside, Sikhs don’t have any class distinctions, all are equal: regardless of caste (originally and primarily a religion from the subcontinent), ethnicity (I dislike the term ‘race’ ... we all are the same ‘race’, which is ‘human’), or gender (my understanding is that men and women alike can serve in the various positions of Sikhism).]

I entered the temple, in which there were maybe 10 women on the right, and two men on the left, and all were sitting on the floor and reading aloud from a small book; two women at the front of the temple seemed to be leading the proceedings. I sat quietly and cross-legged in an empty space on the floor by the women, and listened to the melodic voices chanting (and occasionally singing) in beautiful harmony. People would come and go on occasion, and when new worshippers entered, they would bow to a small area in the front of the temple before taking their seat. (Another faux pas of mine, is that I didn’t know to do this).

As I sat in the temple for almost an hour and a half, more people came in, until the women’s side was almost completely full, with perhaps 40 women sitting and chanting. Their clothes, I must take a moment to point out, were stunning; so many colorful outfits, incredibly crafted, with gorgeous head scarves over flowing black or silver hair, it was a breathtaking sight.

I so wish I could have photographed that beauty.

Not used to sitting still for so long, I began to get fidgety. I didn’t want to be disrespectful with excessive movement, so I got up and went back out to the entry area, preparing to leave. The kind man at the reception area was nowhere to be seen, the foyer was empty. As I started to put my boots back on, I noticed stairs leading downward, and I heard voices, so I decided to see if someone in that part of the temple might be free to talk.

I ventured down the stairs, and was greeted by another kind man who asked if I was a first-time visitor. I said yes, and he said, “We have a meal, it’s all vegetarian, please, come eat, it’s free!  Please, come eat!” 

I said thank you, and he accompanied me to a large table full of delicious-looking Punjabi dishes (I love Punjabi food).  Several times he mentioned that the food was all vegetarian (perhaps used to dealing with people who want meat?  I told him in return that that was wonderful, as I’m a vegetarian, and he seemed somewhat – relieved – by that?). I felt awkward taking a meal when the service was still continuing upstairs … I actually told the man I’d been at the service for an hour and a half, I believe so he wouldn’t think I came just for a free meal (though of course that was only a problem in my head; he would never have cared, I am positive). 

He said they’d be another half hour, but please, I should eat.

I took a plate, and tried a small amount of each dish, though with so many people about to come eat, I didn’t want to take very much. There were 4 or 5 older men sitting in the room eating already, and I asked the man if it would be ok if I talked with them (not being sure if genders ate separately). He said they didn’t speak English, so I prepared somewhat uncomfortably to eat alone. But then a smiling woman entered and took some food, and I asked her if she spoke English and she said yes, and we sat together and talked. 

She was from Punjab, and has been in the US for 40 years. We talked about how most Sikhs are actually from Punjab, and when I asked if many Americans convert to Sikhism, she was puzzled, and said we are meant to be what we are born, so why would people convert?  We talked about the welcome Sikhs receive in the US, especially after 9/11, and she said people are definitely not as friendly, overall, as they used to be, and that made her sad. 

Sitting and eating my small plate of absolutely delicious Punjabi food, talking with this lovely woman (whose name I don’t even know) is one of my favorite meal memories ever, I have to say. For a brief 20 minutes we had this beautiful intimate connection, and I am so appreciative that she was there at that time.

She wasn’t even a member of that temple, but rather a different temple in the Bronx. She was just in the area visiting a friend, and had stopped in to have lunch before heading back home.

After she left, I felt a bit uncertain of what to do next, so I decided, once more, it was time to leave. I went back up the stairs, and put on my boots, and took off my borrowed head scarf. At that point, I noticed several older gentlemen sitting on a bench in the foyer area, and I smiled and nodded at them. The one closest to me said hello, and asked if I’d gotten food.  I said yes, thank you, it was delicious. He said, “Please come back, anytime. Come for a meal. You are always welcome.” 

I smiled and thanked him, and headed out to my car. My visit was slightly awkward, and not quite what I had expected, but I am so incredibly glad I went, and I will definitely return.

 

Edited for sikhchic.com

January 30, 2014

 

 

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 31, 2014, 5:47 AM.

Lara, now that you have taken the first tentative step into a gurdwara, and have received a warm welcome, the next step is to go and google the basic tenets of Sikhism. Briefly, they are: a) Remember God at all times. b) Earn an honest living. c) Selflessly serve others and share part of your income. Every gurdwara has a free kitchen where all are welcome, regardless of their gender, race, caste, sexual orientation, creed or colour. I am sure your next visit will be more fruitful ... and do write about it too.

2: Kulwant Singh (U.S.A.), January 31, 2014, 7:05 AM.

"We are meant to be what we are born, so why would people convert?" I disagree. You are a Sikh when you practice the religion. It isn't a birthright.

3: Amy Yawanarajah (Seremban, Malaysia), February 01, 2014, 11:55 PM.

This story evokes many memories of the lovely delicacies at the gurdwaras around the world and particularly the one in my home-town, as well as in Perth, Western Australia. Way back when I was young, I was taken to the gurdwara in our home-town of Seremban by friends and yes, I could not help notice the kindness that pervaded the gurdwara. There was no division by rank in any way - or by position or wealth, or was there any division by religion. No one asked me if I was of any particular religion, suffice it to see if my head was demurely covered with a scarf. The division was by sex only and this for convenience, so that the gentle sex went to get the offerings arranged properly / or made ready so that it was laid out well for everyone. I really enjoyed this seamless gathering and came home with a lovely feeling, not just with the atmosphere but the lovely food served as well. While in Perth in the 90's with my undergraduate son, I came to know how the young men would make way to the local gurdwara - their target was the ever free-flowing food served with love and generosity at the gurdwara in Perth, in the area where he and his friends lived. During my visits to be with him, I could not cease to be amused how his friends would call him up to remind him to 'not to forget to be up early on Sunday' when I found out that they relished the food that the generous Sikh community would so kindly hand out to the students, knowing how they would be thankful for a meal, being always short of funds! But once when I accompanied our son there, I was stunned at the amount of sweetmeats as well as rotis and daal that was served without question to anyone who turned up at the gurdwara on a Sunday. The one thing that I admired most was the joy that I could see in the faces of all those present. The more people came, the more the community seemed to welcome them. They welcomed everyone with the same regard. This I felt was true worship of God.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 02, 2014, 5:55 AM.

Amy, go back to Seremban Gurdwara whenever you feel like, to partake in the Guru's kitchen which remains open to all. Thanks for your lovely description. You will have noticed the langar is served by volunteers and if you peep outside you will also see the used thalis being immediately cleaned by a battery of volunteers. There is a well known saying: "Nobody goes hungry in Amritsar." An average of 70,000 partake food in the Guru's kitchen daily. On festival days the number swell up to hundreds of thousands. If a king were to come to the gurdwara he too would be sitting with commoners without any distinction.

5: Aryeh Leib (Israel), February 02, 2014, 12:16 PM.

A beautiful and descriptive account. One point bothered me: "Unfortunately, I hadn't read enough to know that you should never point your feet at their sacred text, in the front of the room." I seem to recall a janamsakhi about Guru Nanak sleeping with his feet pointing in the direction of Mecca, and a qazi taking offense, and Guru Nanak's gentle answer ... or, have I gotten the whole thing wrong? Please clarify, my dear cyber Sangat, from whom I always learn so much!

6: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), February 02, 2014, 12:45 PM.

Your point is well taken, Aryeh ji. You have an eagle eye! Guru Nanak's admonishment -- which applies to Sikhs today as well -- is that God is everywhere, and not limited to 'holy places' or specific locations or directions. The custom, however, of sitting in the gurdwara with one's head covered, and avoiding to show one's back, or point one's feet towards the Guru, stems from the traditional manner of showing respect to royalty (which is how the Guru's physical presence is seen in the form of the Guru Granth Sahib) and to one's teachers (Guru!) and elders (such as parents, e.g.). The point made by Guru Nanak was the all important one, and is never over-ridden by the worldly traditions and customs we follow in our daily lives. But, thank you, for catching this dichotomy ... you have given us food for thought. Indeed, the customary practice therefore should not ever become a ritual or its transgression ever deemed to be a 'sin' or anything more than bad manners.

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