Twin Cities Sikh community opens its temple doors

Sikh Holy Book
Kehar Singh, past president of the Sikh Society of Minnesota, uncovers the Holy Book at the Sikh Society of Minnesota in Bloomington, Minn. Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. The book, which is 1,430 pages, documents the teachings of the Sikh's gurus.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A small but growing Sikh community in the Twin Cities is opening its temple doors in the wake of the horrific shootings in Milwaukee.

The Sikh Society of Minnesota will hold a prayer service Friday evening to honor the seven who died. One of the seven is the suspected gunman who officials say might have been a white supremacist.

Followers of the often-misunderstood Sikh faith are trying to educate their neighbors about who they are, while staying vigilant for other attacks.

Kehar Singh has heard all the names and slurs thrown at him while living as a Sikh man in America.

"I've been here 52 years, so I've seen it all, the ups and downs," Singh said.

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A smile emerges from behind the bushy beard of this gregarious 78-year-old man. The beard, and a turban that covers Singh's unshorn hair, are the two trappings of his faith that have provoked curiosity, mystique, and indignation from other Americans.

Sikh community leaders
Daljit Sikka, president of the Sikh Society of Minnesota, and Kehar Singh, past president of the Sikh Society of Minnesota, stand near their gurdwara stage in Bloomington, Minn. Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. Singh estimates there are between 500 and 600 Sikh families in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

But Milwaukee's mass shooting was especially unsettling.

"It's not a question of being afraid. Those things happen, and you pray that they happen in isolation," Singh said. "When you come to know it's an organization, you get more concerned, and you like to be more vigilant and make sure your community is protected."

Singh refers to reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, that the suspected shooter, Wade Michael Page, was a neo-Nazi and a leader of a racist white-power band. Singh is troubled by the idea that there might be others who share Page's ideology and want to target anyone who is different.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists a dozen active hate groups in Minnesota, which the center describes as ranging from neo-Nazi to black separatist.

In the wake of the shootings, leaders of the Bloomington temple are accelerating plans to install security cameras in the building and the parking lot.

From the outside, the suburban temple -- known as a gurdwara -- has the pitched, steeple-like roof of a church, which is what it used to be. The Sikhs gutted and rehabilitated the building, and moved in about a year ago after outgrowing their old worship space in Fridley. Singh estimates there about 500 Sikh families in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Most are Indian immigrants, along with their children or grandchildren.

Temple leaders have toyed with the idea of topping the building with a traditional gold dome, but decided it might be best to keep a low profile. The dome could also be mistaken for part of an Islamic mosque, which would add more confusion.

Sikh gurus
Photos depicting Sikh gurus are displayed in the Sikh Society of Minnesota in Bloomington, Minn. Monday, Aug. 6, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Meanwhile, Muslim Minnesotans are showing support and sympathy for the Sikh community. The state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is urging mosques and other houses of worship to review security procedures to protect against attacks rooted in bigotry. Lori Saroya, the chapter's president, said she received several calls from Muslim leaders on mosque safety in the wake of the Sikh shootings.

Daljit Sikka, who goes by "D.J.," is president of the Minnesota Sikh society. He's been here for 40 years, and recalls when people would call him "Ayatollah" after the Iranian Revolution.

"Sometime they say that, but all you can do is walk away. If you want to confront somebody, you're asking for trouble," Sikka said.

Then 9-11 terrorist attack happened. Sikhs around the country were mistaken for Muslims. The most disturbing case was a shooting of a gas-station owner in Arizona, who was killed by a man who sought revenge for the terrorist attacks.

In Minnesota, Sikka recalls the mistreatment typically hasn't gone beyond jostling and taunts. But shortly after the attacks, one woman wearing a turban reported being assaulted by high-school age boys outside of a suburban grocery store.

Inside the Bloomington temple, a crimson carpet with gold stars welcomes visitors. In the back is a gold-canopied platform where the holy book of the Sikhs rests. Despite the constant misunderstandings in the U.S., Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion. Sikhs believe in one god, and stress hard work, giving back to the community, and equality.

Sikka said all are welcome to attend future prayer services to learn more about the faith. He said the vigil Friday evening will honor the lives lost in Wisconsin.

"We want to make sure everybody comes here, whoever wants to, and prays for the people who died — including the suspect. We believe in praying for everybody."

Sikka said of the gunman: "May God help him."


When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Society of Minnesota, 9000 W Bloomington Freeway, Bloomington, Minn. 55431