Alex DiBlasi and Alexa Altman are a pair of writers who left their lives in NYC to go on a cross-country adventure to “see what it’s all about.” A friend and colleague, Alex is also a committed civil rights advocate with the Sikh Coalition. During their travels, Alex and Alexa recently visited the Gurdwara in Jackson, Mississippi, to join the local Sikh community in their commemoration of Vaisakhi (one of the most significant celebrations on the Sikh calendar). Below, Alex has graciously shared their experience at the Gurdwara.
As a friend of (and now a certified advocate for) the Sikh community in the United States, I can say as a pure fact, bereft of any egoism, that I know far more about Sikhs and Sikhism than the average caucasian male. When my fiancee Alexa and I were living in New York City, I made friends with a Sikh tabla player at our favorite Indian restaurant (and site of our first date), Taj Mahal. The friendship started with a passing “sat sri akal” from me as I put a five dollar bill in the jar he and the sitarist had for tips. He smiled big and bowed as best he could while still playing a complex tin-tin-tal on his drum. On consequent visits, as we waited for our food, I would always face the musicians and get the nod/smile of recognition. I enjoyed the music, and I am certain he appreciated having a fan – who also happened to be a drummer.
At the present time, Alexa and I are traveling across the country, visiting and writing about all fifty states for a book project. In our travels (and we have been through eight states so far), we have seen Sikhs at the state history museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the street in Washington, DC, and – most unique of all – running a gas station on State Road 72 outside of Elberton, Georgia. If the utterance of “sat sri akal” evoked a smile in New York City, then one can easily imagine the stunned delight of hearing it in rural Georgia! Needless to say, it has proven to be an instant icebreaker and conversation starter in our encounters with Sikhs across the United States.
In our travels across the southern states, we realized that Vaisakhi was right around the corner, and that we would be passing through Mississippi just in time for the holiday. As luck would have it, one of the Sikh Coalition’s advocates from 2011, Arvinder Singh Kang, hailed from Mississippi and had been a presence in the Magnolia State’s sangat. Although he has since moved to Vancouver, he got me in touch with a friend of his, Amrik. We exchanged contact info and Amrik gave me the address for the gurdwara in Jackson. Alexa and I learned that on Vaisakhi, the gurdwara would host a program put on by the children of the sangat, with more formal Vaisakhi celebrations to take place the following Sunday.
We arrived early at the gurdwara, where a curious and amicable lady from the sangat named Sophia introduced herself to us. I told her that I worked with the Sikh Coalition, and that we were passing through the area in time for the holiday. Sophia ushered us into the langar hall, where we enjoyed some chai, pakoras, and halwa. Halfway through our tea, Sophia came up to me with an older man from the sangat and made introductions. She asked if I would be interested in briefly speaking after the children’s program. I said I would be more than happy to.
I don’t know how true this statistic is, but throughout my childhood, adolescence, and now adulthood, I have heard time and again that public speaking is the one thing people fear more than death or illness. Coming from a background that includes acting, speech team, mock trial, and (more recently) academic conference presentations, an impromptu five minute speech about the Sikh Coalition, its recent achievements, and primary directives – things I have committed to memory – is something I could happily do, and without much panic.
The service itself ranged from the adorable – several toddlers recited the mul mantar, starting and finishing with “Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki fateh” each time – to the purely powerful, as a group of young teens led the sangat in kirtan. With the lyrics projected on a screen in Punjabi, transliterated Punjabi, and an English translation (something, Amrik told me, that is now a simple computer program used in gurdwaras), I saw the words of the kirtan dealt with not having a fear of death, and that good Sikhs should be happy to lay down their lives in defense of justice.
I was reminded of our advocacy training in DC last summer, when the Sikh Coalition’s legal director Amardeep Singh, on our final day, rhetorically asked us why the Coalition fights so hard for its cause. He answered with a picture of his two beautiful little boys, one of whom, as Amar had learned that morning via text message, had just learned how to tie his own patka. Pointing at the picture, with tears in his eyes that were all too contagious, Amar said, “That’s why!”, adding that he wanted his sons to grow up in a better world than he did, free from bullying, harassment, and profiling.
These kids – and there had to have been at least forty of them – are proud Sikhs, proud of their heritage, proud of their identities, and proud of their community. When the young girl spoke in English about the “visitors from New York,” calling me “Mr. Alex,” I walked up to the podium feeling that the most powerful message of the morning had already been given, that the forty pairs of young eyes right in front of me were more than enough of a message that the Sikh community – even in a place where one might not expect to see Sikhs, in Mississippi – was alive and well, and that its future was more than certain.
Several days later, I have already forgotten what I said. It was a little bit about the Sikh Coalition’s work in legal and educational initiatives – including Manbeena Kaur’s successful push in Texas to have Sikhism included in social studies curricula dealing with religious studies – before talking about the advocacy program. I told them what we do as advocates before urging the community to get involved.
With my parting words, one of the young boys sitting near the front shouted, “BOOOOOLLLLEEEEEEE………SOOOOOOO………NIIIIHAAAAAAALLL!!!” and the sangat erupted with a collective, “SAT! SRI! AKAL!”, and this time it was me who was left beaming in stunned delight.
(A version of this piece also appears on American Weirdness.)