A Vincentian View: “A Visit to a Sikh Community”
On this past Friday, we held an Interfaith Day at St. John’s University. This full day began at 10:00 in the morning and lasted till 10:00 in the evening as we strove to come to an appreciation of some of the different religious traditions which make up the University community – both students and employees. The participants ranged across the entire gamut of the St. John’s family. After an opening lecture, 52 of us boarded a bus and initiated our day’s adventure starting in an Islamic Mosque and concluding in a Jewish Temple. At both, we were warmly welcomed and shared a meal, prayers, and conversation.
It was the visit in the middle, however, which was most enlightening for me. We spent this time in a Sikh gurdwara (place of worship). I think that I know something about Islam and am reasonably familiar with Judaism, but I knew little about the belief and practice of the Sikhs. Visiting this community in its place of worship offered a particular joy for me. Among other things, I learned three terms.
The first was the “Guru Granth Sahib” which is the name that the Sikh community gives to its scripture. The presence of this text—reverenced as a human presence—makes the gurdwara (“door to the guru”) a place of worship. While we were there, Ragis(musicians) sang hymns. Another played an instrument like a sitar, though with a deeper and more melodious sound (to my ear). People constantly moved in and out of the sanctuary offering their prayers and reverences. It seemed like a different world right there in New York City.
The second word which I learned was langar which is the name for the kitchen and the free meal which the Sikhs prepare each day. Anyone may enter the gurdwara and eat freely without embarrassment or distinction of any kind. The meal is vegetarian. Some people were eating on our arrival. It made me think of a culturally different “Bread and Life” which is operated in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. There, too, people who are hungry can find a warm meal and a place to rest. The langar was so different yet so familiar.
The third word added to my collection of Sikh terms was seva which means “selfless service.” This kind of ministry is carried out in the gurdwara and in the langar, but also reaches beyond the boundaries of their places of worship. Wherever people are in need, the Sikhs find themselves compelled to offer selfless and personal service.
The difference between the Sikh approach to the divine and that of Christianity remains mysterious to me. Their connection to a sacred text is more understandable. What fits so well into my Vincentian heart, however, and lifted my spirit is the way in which the Sikhs commit themselves to the care of those who hunger and who need compassionate care. I felt a commonality with them which trumped so many of the differences. Vincent would recognize these good women and men as collaborators.