Aug. 15 2012 12:00 AM

The Lansing Sikh community responds to Wisconsin shooting


It was standing room only in a small south Lansing church as community members gathered to celebrate the union of a young man and woman. As the ceremony neared its end, photographers and videographers scrambled to capture every moment of the event. The bride and women in the congregation dried their tears to keep their makeup from smudging. The event was a joyous occasion for the Sikh community in Lansing in the wake of tragedy.

The shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 5 claimed the lives of six worshippers. The gunman, Wade Michael Page, a known white supremacist, took his own life after being wounded by police gunfire. National news outlets covered the tragedy extensively in the days following the event. The event hit hard in the Lansing Sikh community.

Harpreet “Rocky” Singh, 35, is a Lansing business owner and a member of the Guru Nanak Sikh Center, 4701 Pleasant Grove Road, the only Sikh temple in Lansing, which has a “tightknit” congregation of about 200 people. He said the overwhelming feeling in the community following the shooting was one of “sadness.” 

“They’re not mad, I can tell you that much” he said. “But they’re just confused on how to digest it, so to speak. If you’re praying in a temple, why should you have to look behind your shoulder to see if you’re safe? From that day, it’s kind of in the back of your mind now.”

A day after the shooting, Mayor Virg Bernero, city officials and nearly 100 others attended a vigil held at the Guru Nanak Sikh Center. 

“We are part of the American Dream,” said 42-year-old Ladi Multani, director of the temple. “People felt that we are maybe misunderstood. But we have very good relations with the neighbors and everyone in Lansing.”

Sikhism was born in the 15th century in the Punjab state of northern India. It was founded by the first of ten gurus, Guru Nanak Dev. Those who practice Sikhism, Multani said, worship one God and look to their 1,430-page holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, for answers to life’s problems. The religion is based on a doctrine of peace, Multani said, and nothing should be done forcibly. 

Multani highlighted the three main tenants of Sikhism: Make your living honestly; share what you have with the needy; and remember God all the time. 

The temple floor, where members sit during services, is blanketed with white sheets. Those who enter the church must cover their heads with a turban or scarf and remove their shoes before entering as a “sign of respect,” Multani said. The services are conducted in Punjabi, the language of the Punjab state. English translations to the songs are projected onto a screen next to the altar. 

“In our temple, anyone who comes in, we believe they belong here,” he said. “We believe our aim is the same. We just take different roads to get there.” 

People might confuse Sikhs with Muslims because of their dark complexion and turbans, Singh and Multani said. It’s speculated that Page, the Wisconsin shooter, thought the Sikh temple was an Islamic mosque and that’s what drove him to commit the deed.

“Even that resemblance shouldn’t give someone an excuse to kill anybody,” Singh said. 

“I don’t think most people know what we believe in,” Multani said. “Our beliefs are very similar to American founding beliefs. We are all created equal: men, women and children.”

The wedding on Sunday showed a blending of cultures, both Sikh and American. While the bride and groom weren’t sporting a white dress and tuxedo — and instead were adorned in gold, beads and jewels — the meaning is the same. 

“The idea is the same, it’s just a different medium of expressing it,” Singh said. “We are not all so different when you think about it. If you were to attend a wedding, it’s so traditional and, in a way, so religious. But when it comes time for (the reception), there is an American side of the life, an American part to the culture we’re a part of.”

One thing that would surprise people about the Sikh faith, Singh said, is how open and accepting they are of all religions and people. He said it’s reflected in their morning and evening prayers.

“Ek Onkar” opens the morning prayer, he said, which means “God is one.”

“God is like the CATA bus station downtown,” Singh said. “Buses come from everywhere. Someone comes from East Lansing, south Lansing, the west side, someone is coming from the airport. So we’re all taking different routes, but our main goal is to achieve that one God. We just have different routes.” 

At the end of the day, Sikhs close out their prayer by asking, “May it be better for everyone?” 

“It doesn’t have anything to do with being a Sikh,” Singh said. “It doesn’t have anything to do about being my family or my friend — that’s everybody. You want it for the whole world.”

“We’re a peace-loving, little community and I don’t know what else to call it,” Singh said. “We love Lansing. Personally, I came here and settled here for a reason. It’s well spread culturally, we have everybody and you don’t miss anything. I just wish and pray nothing happens like (Wisconsin). We don’t need anything like that here.”