December 1, 2005
A Sikh Thanksgiving in Queens
-- Matthew Weiner
The Sikh community of New York City hosted a thanksgiving feast for local religious leaders, the NYPD, court officials, and a representative of the DA's office, hoping to initiate a program of hospitality and patriotism—and they succeeded with a little help from the Interfaith Center of New York, which co-organized the event. United Sikhs, the sponsoring organization, originally considered having the feast on Thanksgiving Day, but friends persuaded them to move it to the Monday before, so that more guests might be able to attend.
And attend they did. The Sikh Center of New York is in downtown Flushing, Queens, a place of remarkable religious diversity. The Center is across the street from a synagogue, and down the street from a Protestant Chinese church. Representatives from the Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist communities, along with police and Queens Court officials, gathered at the temple, or Gurdwara, at 6:00 p.m. With these other guests, I took off my shoes, donned a headscarf, and sat on the floor in the main hall.
The first activity at the event was to observe the day's final ritual. The Sikh priest, or Granthi, sings hymns to Guru Granth Sahib, who appears in the form of the Sikh scriptures. The scriptures are placed on a throne, or Takht, beneath a canopy. Following the songs, the Guru is put to sleep in a fascinating ceremony, called Sukhasan, in which the Granthi carries the scriptures on his head to a bedroom before tucking them beneath sheets. The following morning, the Granthi wakes up the Guru, carrying the scriptures back to the throne.
This ceremony was followed by a short presentation from each religious leader on the role of "giving thanks" in his or her particular tradition. The NYPD and Queens Court officials offered a secular expression of thanks for being included in the program. Next was an informative presentation on Sikhism, which included explanations of the turban (Dastaar) and the sword (Kirpaan) that all Sikhs must carry, as well as a historical description of how Sikhism emerged in relation to Hinduism and Islam during the middle ages in India. A few words were also spoken about the obvious problems Sikhs face in the west, including the racial slurs regularly cast their way: "Ali Baba," "raghead," and most recently, "Osama."
After the presentations, food was served in the kitchen and dining room, or Langar—a necessary feature of any Sikh temple. The Langar is traditionally open twenty-four hours a day to all comers, whether from the Sikh community or the public at large—so a thanksgiving feast seemed a natural extension of Sikh social customs. The guests sat on the floor alongside community members, while their hosts fed them delicious curry and chai. Though orthodox Rabbi Craig Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council had to refrain from eating due to his own religious observances, he was happily enthralled by the proceedings—as were the other guests. Though the more than 100,000 Sikhs in New York make up a considerable population, none of the invited religious leaders or city officials in attendance that day had previously been in this or any other Sikh temple.
The contemporary spirit and aspirations of the Sikh community in Queens were introduced in one of the slide show presentations on Sikhism. The show depicted Sikhs serving in the English armed forces during World Wars I and II. Today, American Sikhs are lobbying for the right to wear turbans in the police force and the American military. And there lies the current tension: the wish to be patriotic while remaining faithful to religious tradition—that is, the hope of becoming true Sikh-Americans.
Whether this can be accomplished remains to be seen. Meanwhile, inviting religious leaders and civil servants for a thanksgiving meal in the Sikh tradition marks a promising further step.
Matthew Weiner is Director of Programming at the Interfaith Center of New York, and a Ph.D. candidate at Union Theological Seminary.