HUGHSON -- Two priests and six members of the Sikh temple here gathered Monday afternoon to express their shock at Sunday's fatal shooting in Wisconsin. Other area Sikhs and faith leaders were united in condemning the killings even as they urged people to celebrate religious diversity.
It's not the first time Sikhs have been targeted because they wear turbans and have beards, local Sikhs said. After the Sept. 11 attacks by Muslim extremists, the first retaliation killing was of a Sikh man in Arizona, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Around the country, some Sikhs including many of the thousands in the Northern San Joaquin Valley have been wrongly suspected of being anti-American.
But Sunday's attack, which left six victims and the gunman dead, was the nation's first mass killing of Sikhs.
Daljeet Mann, a member of Hughson's temple, or gudwara, said he heard about the shooting as his family was getting ready to attend the weekly Sunday morning service.
"We delayed going while we watched the news," he said. "It was very shocking to us. When I learned (the shooter) was a white male from the Army, I thought this was an individual hate attack, an ignorant person who doesn't know the difference between other religions and ours."
Gardeep Samra of Turlock, who came to this country when he was 6 months old, said: "Our religion is based around peace. The church is open to any denomination; they can visit at any time. Everyone is considered equal."
There are two Sikh temples in Livingston and one each in Turlock, Ceres, Manteca and Tracy. One of the state's oldest Sikh temples is in Stockton and celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
"There are maybe 10,000 Sikhs from Stockton to Merced," said Naranjan Samra, who served as the secretary for the Hughson temple in 2011. "People misunderstand our identity. They think we are the people who are fighting the Americans. We are not. We are the Sikh community from Punjab. My uncle came to the United States in 1910. We are part of this (valley) community and culture."
Jarnail Dosanjh, a Hughson resident who helped start the temple there, added: "We pray for that (Wisconsin) policeman who took a bullet for our community. He saved lives, and we salute him. We believe in one God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In all this trauma, we shall overcome."
Railway, field work
Sikhs began emigrating to the United States in 1882, with thousands arriving in the early 1900s to work on the railway, said Gurjatinder Singh Randhawa, owner of the Punjab Mail newspaper in Elk Grove. About 2,000 of them worked to build the railroad between Salt Lake City and Oakland, he said. Others found work harvesting the valley's crops.
Gurpal Singh Samra is the former mayor of Livingston, where Sikhs make up about 17 percent of the population, the second-largest minority population after Latinos. Samra, who attends both gudwaras in town, said he like many Sikhs believes the shooter mistakenly thought the temple's members were Muslims. But, he added, "To me, it doesn't matter if you're Sikh, Muslim, Christian or even atheist. No one deserves to be mowed down like that, especially in a house of worship."
Samra said the two Livingston gudwaras will offer special prayers for the Wisconsin victims before Sunday's services, and later this week will contact the temple there to find out what other assistance the community needs. Temples in Turlock, Hughson and elsewhere plan similar actions.
"I have no doubt Sikhs all over the world will contact them," Samra said. "I wouldn't be surprised if other (faiths) reach out, too. In America, we do those things for each other."
Harinder Grewal, a Turlock school board member who has organized outreach educational programs at the Turlock temple, said she is "stunned."
"My heart is bleeding, and I feel for the victims. We all know that diversity is our strength. America belongs to all of us. Whoever this (shooter) is, he was misguided."
An outpouring of condemnation for the attack and support for the Sikhs came from across the religious spectrum.
"This is a nation that values religious freedom, and when that freedom is violated, the freedom of all Americans is diminished," said the Rev. Chuck Adams, senior pastor at The Carpenter's House, a Christian church in west Modesto.
The Rev. Wilson Koppula, a native of India and a Christian who leads India Community Ministries of Turlock, has worked with Sikhs for 17 years, helping them learn the English language and become U.S. citizens. He also gives talks on the differences among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.
"I've been talking to many Sikhs today who are so sad," he said. "We've all come to this country for the same reason, to lead a prosperous life and to be blessed."
Rabbi Andra Greenwald of Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto said the biblical story of Abraham and his son, Isaac, makes clear that God does not want one of his children to die at the hand of another.
"We mourn, along with our neighbors, the loss of those killed this week in Wisconsin, and pray with those left behind," she said.
The Rev. Jon Magoulias of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Modesto said: "Like most religious institutions, the Sikh people are people of prayer who value human life. What will it take for us to realize that this great nation was built on respecting the diversity of people's ethnic and religious backgrounds?"
Prayer for the victims as well as the shooter's family was the first response of the Rev. Ramon Bejarano, pastor of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto. "Only God can give strength where words cannot explain such acts of evil," he said.
The Rev. Erin Matteson, co-pastor at Modesto's Church of the Brethren, has been a driving force of the community's annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration. "We pray
for an end to the violence that is too prevalent in our country and in the world," she said. "This is not a 'Sikh event,' but a tragedy for all people of faith and all people of our country."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.
SIKHISM AT A GLANCE
It is world's fifth-largest religion, with 26 million followers; most live in India.
Began with the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji in 1469; there are 10 gurus in all.
Worship one God, the creator of the universe
Treat everyone equally, regardless of race, class or gender
Regard human life as precious
Do not believe in heaven or hell
Must carry or wear the five K's: kesh (unshorn hair, covered by turbans for men and scarves for women), kangha (comb), kirpan (ceremonial dagger to protect oneself and to fight injustice), kara (iron bracelet as reminder of a bond with God and a ban against prohibited sex) and kachhaihra (undershorts, worn for agility and also a reminder of sexual purity)
Do not smoke tobacco, drink alcohol or eat meat
Have daily prayers in the gurdwara (temple) morning and night; gather Sundays for the main worship service