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Sikhs in Espanola feel kinship with Wisconsin

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By Tris DeRoma

Sunday was a sad day at Hacienda de Guru Ram Das, the Sikh gurdwara (place of worship) that sits off a quiet road in Española. This was the day many members of Española’s Sikh community chose to pray with their fellow Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wis.  

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On Aug. 5, Wade Michael Page, 40, walked into the Oak Creek gurdwara during services and opened fire on the sangat (congregation), killing six and wounding four others. After being wounded by a police officer, Page killed himself before he could be taken into custody. 

This Sunday in Española, Hacienda de Guru Ram Das member Daya Singh Khalsa gave a 20-minute sermon that included remembrance of the killed and wounded. 

“Our community here feels so much solidarity, sympathy and gratitude for the community in Wisconsin,” Singh said.

Daya then produced a copy of a letter that he sent to the Oak Creek gurdwara on behalf of the Española gurdwara.  In it, he wrote: “The Sikh sangat of Española, New Mexico sends to the Oak Creek, Wisconsin sangat its deepest sympathy and strongest support as you live through the shock and lasting impact of this challenging and tragic event. We especially send our prayers and love to the families and close friends of the worshipers who were murdered in this senseless act of hatred and insanity.”

Daya also thanked the non-Sikh New Mexico community for reaching out to their sangat shortly after the tragedy. He noted their gurdwara received phone calls and letters from many state and congressional officials was well.

Congressman Martin Heinrich, Congresswoman Heather Wilson, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, and former governor Bill Richardson all reached out personally, and that means a lot during a tragedy like this,” Daya said. 

“In the name of religious freedom I think it’s important that our public officials stand up and defend these core freedoms and values, because if they don’t our basic human freedoms can become endangered and eventually lost.”

Other than Daya’s speech, nothing else seemed out of the ordinary at the ashram Sunday. After services, members of the sangat freely milled about the grounds, catching up with friends and laying out their goods for sale as others prepared the langar, the free vegetarian meal served after every service to all those that attend. There were no armed guards or policemen on duty, no locks on any door. There are about 350 sikhs in Northern New Mexico and about 100 attended Sunday’s service.

“One of the core aspects of Sikh faith and of Sikh service is that it is open to anyone,”  Daya said. “A traditionally built Sikh temple or gurdwara is that it has a door on each side, in all four directions. That’s symbolic of the belief that all faiths are based on the same god that is in all of us, and that everyone’s welcome. So we are not going to allow anything that’s going on to close off that openness out of fear.”

To Sikh Parmatma Singh Khalsa, Sunday was another day in the life. As an author and bookseller, Parmatma said that since coming to Española 40 years ago, he and his wife have weathered all sorts of reactions, both good and bad. The worst times, though, were right after 9/11, when people began to mistake them for radical Muslims. Since it is against Sikh religion to cut ones hair, all Sikhs, men and women, tend to wear their hair wrapped up in a turban. Men also tend to have full beards.

“People would yell at us, it just didn’t matter to them that I was born here,” Parmatma said. He also noted that people were very hostile to them when the Sikh community started in Española 40 years ago. He noted the reason why there are not any windows facing the street because they were advised that people might shoot them out. 

But, he said, except for 9/11 and a few other rough spots, people in Española as well as New Mexico have grown to accept them. 

“Much of that is because we have one of the largest businesses in New Mexico, Akal Security, and many of us are also contractors who hire locally,” Parmatma said.

Since the shooting happened in Wisconsin, Daya said he and the rest of the sangat have chosen to put aside any specific feelings they may have toward Page and instead use the event to teach people about who they are and what they represent.

 “Our response has been to make something positive out their sacrifice, using it to raise the consciousness about the issues of religious freedom, human rights, the great value of diversity and what a core value of America that is,” Daya said.