Connected to Tragedy, SoCal Sikhs Find Sympathy, Security, Solace

Ajit Singh Nimana, head priest of Los Feliz's Gurdwara Vermont Sikh temple. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

When a lone gunman opened fire upon a crowded movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado last month, both mainstream news media and digital media granted well-deserved coverage to the tragedy. But when another lone gunman opened fire upon a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin earlier this week, media coverage was relatively scant.

Yes, the former had more casualties and a caught-alive suspect, but many media observers of immigrant groups believed the latter incident was glossed over due to its lessened "it could happen to me" factor, where the targets were of an ethnic and religious community that's largely unfamiliar to the American mainstream.

But as clues pointing to the shooter's motive gradually became uncovered in the shooting's aftermath, it's that very same unfamiliarity that likely drove the gunman to act upon his mistaken views with violence.

There are about 250,000 Sikhs living in the United States, the majority of which have roots in India's Punjab state. Over 20,000 live in the Southern California area and the faithful are members of our region's 15 Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, which serve as the spiritual and cultural anchors for the community.

I visited Gurdwara Vermont, which has a congregation of over 500, located in Los Angeles' Los Feliz neighborhood, to find out how the local Sikh community responded to the Wisconisn tragedy.

"I felt a great deal of sorrow," said Ajit Singh Nimana, the gurdwara's head priest, speaking mostly in Punjabi through an interpreter, "We had a ceremony here that day. Some people were scared and left; others just didn't come."

He went on to describe the direct connections to the tragedy in Southern California: A member of the gurdwara in Walnut lost his brother-in-law in the shooting. Another was injured by the gunfire while visiting Oak Creek from the L.A. area.

"I don't know why this happened," Nimana said. "We don't believe in aggression. We don't believe in violence."

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Banner hanging inside Los Feliz's Gurdwara Vermont Sikh temple. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Four LAPD units arrived at Gurdwara Vermont that day and patrolled the surrounding area to provide protection.

"There was fear among us here that day," Nimana said. "We felt we needed security. I felt secure when the police arrived."

Nimana also mentioned that the gurdwara received lots of calls that day from non-Sikhs expressing concern and condolences. Some brought flower bouquets. He was also humbled that President Obama ordered American flags to fly at half-staff until August 10 to honor the victims of the Wisconsin shooting.

I asked him how his community is responding to the tragedy. He pointed to their faith. They will be having a noontime memorial ceremony at the gurdwara this Sunday. Another temple, Guru Ram Das Ashram in L.A.'s South Robertson district, will have a special observance on Saturday to honor the victims.

"We will just pray -- that the deceased will rest in peace. Pray for the well-being of the injured, and pray this will not happen again," Nimana said.

I was invited inside the gurdwara, where I had to observe custom and take off my shoes and cover my hair with a bandana. I was treated to their langar, or a free meal, of Northern Indian food in their cafeteria, and afterward, Nimana sang and played a Sikh spiritual song on a harmonium (I sing and play piano at my church; looks like we had something in common).

My first experience with Sikh people was an elementary school classmate named Dipi. He wore a turban and some of us begged him to remove it -- only so we can see how long his hair was -- but he always declined. But being in a class full of kids from immigrant cultures, the most peculiar thing about him for us actually wasn't his turban or accent, but his physical disability (one of his legs was damaged in an accident with a Coca-Cola truck back in India). We were all "different" anyway, and we all had something to share. Dipi might have walked with a noticeable limp, but he was still treated like one of us.

My little cultural experience at the gurdwara, as it turned out, became my response to the shooting: Instead of fearing or attacking one's culture, I got to immerse myself in it, learn more about it, and appreciate it.

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