“Regardless of what the situation is, we need to always spread love and peace and keep helping each other.”
This Wednesday, Aug. 5, will mark three years since a shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, claimed the lives of six worshippers. It was one of the deadliest mass killings at a house of worship, and the most recent one until the June 17 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
To commemorate the tragedy, Sikhs in 14 cities around the country are hosting community service projects this weekend. They hope to send a message of love and community solidarity even in the face of hate.
“What happened [in Wisconsin] was a tragedy, but Sikhism is always about moving forward,” J.D. Singh, who is organizing one such event in New York City, told The Huffington Post. “So where on one side we have this tragedy, we’re taking that energy and turning it into a positive.”
The National Day of Seva is celebrated on the first weekend of August each year. The Sikh Coalition, a volunteer organization that focuses on civil and human rights for the Sikh community, started the tradition in 2013 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Oak Creek shooting. “Seva,” a Sanskrit word for “community service,” embodies a fundamental tenet of the Sikh faith. The Guru Granth Sahib, the religion’s central text, states: “There can be no worship without performing good deeds.”
Seventeen service events are scheduled in 14 U.S. cities, and include projects like serving meals to the homeless, reading books to children and cleaning nature trails.
Singh, who works for the Manhattan Sikh Association, is organizing a cleanup at Morningside Park in the Harlem neighborhood. The event is in its third year and is expected to draw at least 100 volunteers from Sikh and non-Sikh communities in and around New York City.
The cleanup will involve cleaning and weeding, as well as planting flowers and beautifying the park. Asked whether a service project of this nature can serve in place of a memorial, Singh admitted that he had been unsure at first.
“After the first year, I was very curious as to what peoples’ thought process was around this. Would they have preferred something more somber?” he reflected. But the response was “overwhelmingly positive.”
“It’s a really great feeling at the end of the day — you’re exhausted, you’re filthy, but you see what you’ve done to make this park become beautiful,” Singh added.
Jasvir Singh, a Michigan Sikh Coalition ambassador and no relation to J.D., is coordinating a food packing project for the Day of Seva on Saturday. His Detroit-area Sikh community is teaming up with Kids Against Hunger, a humanitarian organization that sends nutritious meal packages to hungry families in the U.S. and in developing nations. Singh says he expects between 80 and 100 volunteers to show up to the Sterling Heights Gurdwara, where they will measure servings and pack roughly 10,000 meals.
Sikhs in Detroit packed thousands of meals with Kids Against Hunger last year.
The Michigan event builds on another tenet of Sikhism, the principle of langar or food service. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, established the practice by offering free food to anybody who needed it.
“It’s a big part of our community to help and feed others who are hungry,” Jasvir Singh told HuffPost. “Helping organizations who bring meals to the table of the needy is something that is really in line with our thought process, too.”
That resolve remains strong, he said, even in the wake of tragedies like the Oak Creek shooting.
“One of the concepts we have in our religion is … staying in high spirits,” Singh explained. “Regardless of what the situation is, we need to always spread love and peace and keep helping each other. There will be people who will be ignorant or hate others, but we can’t let that get the better of us.”