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Images below: second from bottom - courtesy, Rohit Markande. Third from bottom - courtesy, Mei Chun Jau.

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Upper Room

by NEHA SINGH GOHIL

 

People remember different things about their school days: their locker numbers, the big game, their best friend's laugh.

As a Sikh-American brought up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I have a lot of memories that set my experiences apart from those of my classmates growing up - from the mornings spent watching my father tie his turban before heading out the door for work, to the first grade boys who made fun of my long black braid.

One of my most enduring memories from my early teens is of a Christian periodical called Upper Room.

At the time, I was studying at a Protestant boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. There, copies of the periodical were scattered throughout the chapel, where we would gather for morning and evening prayers.

Occasionally, a teacher would read aloud an entry from the little magazine. A typical story would come from a reader who'd recently been through tough times and was reminded of God's love and benevolence in their daily routine.

I would devour the entire text, reading each month's edition from cover to cover the day it arrived in the chapel.

My interest was less in the spirituality of the stories than in their bylines: Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, Kansas were regular contributors. At the time, far from my family, I was hungry for any slice of home, any familiar city name or American turn of phrase.

These writers became my friends, teaching me about parts of my own country that I'd never visited.

I haven't picked up a copy of the magazine in years. But earlier this summer, as I drove across the country from New York to San Francisco, I passed through a number of places whose names rang a bell.

At first I couldn't recall where I'd seen them. Maybe in a newspaper clipping or in my AAA guide book?

But then, I remembered.

Good Christians in each of these towns had nourished my homesick soul all those years ago, half a world away. It helped me feel closer to all the people in those towns, my fellow Americans, from whom (especially after the 2004 presidential election) I've often felt a planet apart.

Today, at a time when the world is at war over faith, when so many devout Americans regard people who look like my father or brother as an enemy, when even a respectable presidential (Christian) candidate regards it as offensive to be mistaken for a Muslim, and when America is split along religious lines, I find myself wondering whether people will ever understand how it was that a Sikh-American teenager learned about her country, her devotion, and yes, even about her own Guru, from a Christian storybook.

 

[This piece originally aired on KQED Radio on November 7, 2008. The broadcast can be accessed at http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R811070737.]  

November 14, 2008

Conversation about this article

1: Navroop Kaur (New York, NY, U.S.A.), November 25, 2008, 7:30 PM.

Dear Neha, I almost had goosebumps after reading this and you are so right: we talk about faith and equality but we fight against it. Why is it that we preach all religions should be respected but we get so offensive when someone mistakenly takes as Islamic. I am sure there can always be a better way to make others understand about who we are, but getting offended is pretty much always the first response. And just as you said, look at our very own President-elect. I believe one of the major reasons why Guru Nanak started our Faith of Sikhi was to abolish the whole caste system and inequality that existed. But where are we heading now? Far from homeland, here on the streets of New York, we have gurdwaras called "lubana gudrwara", "ramghariya gurdwara", "ravi-dasiya gurdwara" and many more. It's sad to see the hypocrisy in this world, comparing what we preach with what we practice. Life has its own ways of connecting us to our roots and sometimes they can be the most random ways, but only a few learn how to appreciate them and you are one of them.

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