A few weeks back, we attended our first Sikh Parade of the season.
Like every year, we love making the trip downtown to join our sangat and spend a beautiful spring day outside celebrating Vaisakhi. Amongst the sea of kesri dastaars and chunnis, there was keertan, gatka, and jakaaray filling the streets.
As we began marching down the main avenue, I started to notice the passerby’s reaction to us. Some were irritated they had to wait for us to cross the street, some took out their camera phones to take pictures of us, but the vast majority looked, well…confused.
And who can blame them?
None of our floats and few of our signs would make any sense to a non-Sikh. The overlapping keertan, jakaaray, and political slogans were obviously all in Punjabi. And there was little to no interaction between us and the onlookers. I wondered, why did we come here to do this?
If our purpose was to have a nagar keertan and to celebrate Vaisakhi in our own traditional way, then why waste the time and money to do it out here? Why not just do this on our own Gurdwara premises? But if our purpose was to educate the greater community on who Sikhs are, then what exactly were we doing to accomplish that? Sure, many people were taking pictures of us, but was it because of the spectacle we created? Or because people were so happy to see the Sikhs that they’ve heard so much about – followers of Guru Nanak, brave soldiers, and defenders of the downtrodden? Which do you think?
If we were so interested in educating others about us, perhaps we could have delegated volunteers to walk through the sidewalks handing out information cards (no bigger than an index card), explaining who we are and what we’re celebrating…or at least hand out free water bottles with labels reading “Happy Vaisakhi from the Sikh Community” and maybe they’d be encouraged to learn more about us later. Given the recent news regarding Sikhs in the US and Canada, we could really use all the positive PR we can get. And since we’re already here marching through a major metropolitan society, why not take advantage of it?
As the parade went on, I started to grow more frustrated. I kept thinking, Sikhs have been in the US for over 100 years, is this really the best we can do?
Toward the end of the parade, as we all congregated at the park to listen to shabad keertan and speeches, a young couple riding bikes passed through. Since it is common for festivals to occur during this time of year in the city, the couple decided to stop and check out what was going on. They parked their bikes and sat right behind us to take in the sights and sounds. After observing the crowd, interacting with our kids for a bit, and seeing folks come back from the langar tent with plates full of hot food, the woman got up and said to the man, “Looks like there’s food over there, I’m going to get something to eat.” The man replied, “Do you have any money on you?” My wife then kindly interrupted and said “You won’t need it, it’s our free community kitchen…it’s called langar.” The woman smiled and said “Well that’s nice” and made her way to the langar tent.
Somewhere in all my cynicism, I lost sight of why we were there. We were there that day to celebrate the Guru and his gifts. And in all of Guru Sahib’s brilliance, his gift of langar is still finding ways to bring people of all races, religions, cultures, socio-economic groups, and beliefs together to share a common meal.
I looked around…I saw how efficiently the sevadaars were managing the langar line. For a moment, I thought about all the men and women who woke up early that morning to make food for hundreds of people. I noticed all the humble volunteers who swiftly filled everyone’s plate with a smile on their face. Then I saw all the sevadaars who were quickly picking up the trash and recyclables and disposing of them properly, leaving the park spotless!
If I looked close enough – there was love, service, and humility all around us – and if this is what passersby learn about Sikhs, then all is not lost. In fact, this is the essence of who we are…and no pamphlet is going to show you that.
There is a lesson to be learned here…even outside of just our parades. So often we try to find creative ways to explain to non-Sikhs exactly who Guru Nanak’s Sikhs are, when sometimes, all we need to do…is show them the Guru Nanak in us.