What I Said to the Sikh Community in Charlotte, North Carolina

Aug 09, 2012 | Updated Oct 08, 2012

When a horrific act takes place, like the one we saw in Wisconsin on Aug. 5, it is a national tragedy, in the truest sense of the words, because it strikes fear into the hearts of all of us. Who knows when and where a seemingly random act of violence like this could take place?

After this latest mass killing and the one only a few weeks ago at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the answer seems to be: anytime, anywhere, you just never know.

But the mass killing in Oak Creek, Wis., is also a local tragedy, because it threatens to strike fear and discouragement into the hearts of our Sikh neighbors in each of our communities.

When Ajaypartap Bajwa and Amandeep Arora came to share with us about Sikhism at Open Hearts Gathering just two months ago, I realized there was a lot I did not know about this, the world's fifth largest religion! I learned that Sikhs believe in a single Creator and freedom of religion for all to practice their faith freely and openly. Beliefs and values I share as a follower of Jesus.

I also learned that Sikhism seeks to create a just society. This is also something I share as someone who believes in the Gospel of the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about.

Candlelight vigil at Sikh gurdwara in CharlotteI had the honor of helping organize a vigil in downtown Gastonia, west of Charlotte, N.C., which took place on Monday night, just 24 hours after the shooting in Wisconsin. A large group from the Charlotte Sikh community came and participated in that vigil and, in return, invited me to participate in their candlelight vigil Wednesday night at the Charlotte gurdwara (Sikh place of worship), which corresponded with the National Day of Remembrance and Solidarity.

Here's what I said to the people gathered for this solemn occasion, as we stood outside the Charlotte gurdwara, preparing to hold and light candles together and observe a moment of silence for the seven who died in Oak Creek:

I want to begin by expressing -- on behalf of the Gaston Interfaith Center and the Open Hearts Gathering missional community in Gastonia -- our sincere sorrow at the pain and violation of the Sikh community caused by the events of Sunday, Aug. 5 outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, my sacred text instructs me, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another" (Romans 12:15-16).

I am here tonight, with my children -- Olyvia, Hayden and Elliot -- to mourn with my Sikh neighbors and friends here and across the United States who are mourning.

I am also deeply humbled and honored to be invited to share these few words with you.

I am ashamed to confess that when I moved to North Carolina nine years ago, I did not have any Sikh friends. I did not know any Muslims or Jews or Buddhists or Hindus or even atheists, agnostics, or Wiccans or pagans.

I didn't have any friendships or relationships with people outside of my white, middle-class suburban evangelical Christian bubble. Then, in 2005 two significant things happened to me. First, I met Anthony Smith and Rod Garvin, who became my first two African-American friends. In the past seven years, they've both taught me so much -- and they continue to teach me -- about my own unconscious white privilege. I'm deeply indebted to them for that.

That year, I also met a guy named Dennis Teall-Fleming, who was then director of spiritual formation at Queen of the Apostles Catholic Church in Belmont, North Carolina, and he was also the Christian convener of a monthly discussion group called "Trialogue" -- a group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in conversation with one another.

The "Trialogue" group had formed as a response to the tragic events of 9/11, and it was created in order to be able to respond if and when anything else happened in the community that required an interfaith response.

The relationships that formed through the "Trialogue" group eventually grew into the larger vision of a Gaston Interfaith Center, which now widens the circle to include people all faiths and no faith at all.

I'm grateful to my friend Dennis -- who, by the way, wishes he could be here with all of us tonight -- because he was G-d's instrument to open my heart and my world to people of other faiths and spiritualities.

Dennis introduced me to Ajaypartap Bajwa and Amandeep Arora, who came and spoke with us at Open Hearts Gathering in Gastonia just two months ago, to teach us about Sikhism and help us find the many points of common ground and unity. I'm grateful to them for their friendship today, and I want to again offer my friendship and partnership to them and to all of you.

We may look different, we may have different beliefs and cultural practices, but we share many of the same dreams for our world and for our children. It's time to be proactive and work together in greater unity to make those dreams a reality, here and now.

It's so easy to stay in our own cultural and religious bubbles and not reach out to make connections with those who are not like us. I know, because I've been guilty of doing just that for most of my life. But I'm grateful today for those in my life who have opened my eyes and who are opening my eyes, including my Sikh friends here tonight.

Because of them, I can testify to the truth that we are all connected. When bad things happen to one part of the community, it affects the whole. We all long for a just society, and I know that by working together, in friendship and partnership, another world is possible, a better world for all God's children.

Thank you again for inviting me, thank you for welcoming me, may God bless all of us as we work together for good.