Over 500 Attend Third Annual Event by SALDEF’s SikhLEAD Interns
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, July 6, 2016 – It is among the most heart-warming events hosted by US lawmakers: ‘Langar on the Hill’, sharing and partaking in a community meal in a spirit of equality, harmony and selfless service!
The third edition of the exceedingly popular event led by SALDEF’s SikhLEAD interns drew some dozen powerful lawmakers and a gathering over 500-strong to the historic Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Building on a scorching hot day in early July. SALDEF is the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund which offers a great initiative, the SikhLEAD Internship Program, to inspire and educate the future generation of Sikh American leaders by placing them in internships with congressional offices, federal agencies, think tanks, and other organizations.
This year’s Langar (a free meal for all) was co-sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Congressman Mike Honda (Democrat – California) and organized by 16 students comprising the largest SikhLEAD class in SALDEF’s 20-year history.
The most powerful lawmakers in the world waxed eloquent about the achievements and contributions of the Sikh community in America.
“Sikh Americans have made great contributions to this country – from their history of agricultural and business innovations to their outstanding military service”, said Congressman Honda. “At a time where entire communities are under attack for their faith, these opportunities for dialogue are especially important. I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Sikh American community, my congressional colleagues and their staffs for sharing this meal together. I hope we continue to recognize and advocate for Sikh Americans and all our nation’s diverse faith communities. I promise to continue to do my part as a member of the Congressional American Sikh Caucus”.
It was a very busy day on Capitol Hill – lawmakers were back on Tuesday from the July 4th break, for a short legislative session in an election year, and demanding votes on an issue of paramount importance to many – sensible gun control. Prior to the break, Democrats had staged a famous sit-in to protest the lack of votes on gun legislation.
Congressman Joe Crowley (Democrat – New York) told the Langar gathering, “During the sit-in on the Floor of the House of Representatives, I made it a point to remind the Speaker (Paul Ryan) of the massacre at Oak Creek in his District, in Wisconsin, where Sikh Americans were targeted by a gun man, just to remind people that this has happened all over the country and to all kinds of people. That is why we have to bring commonsense gun legislation to the Floor of the House and pass it in the House and Senate and sign it into law. The Sikh American community is going to be there to help us make that a reality”, he said, to much applause.
Referring to progress made over the last two years, Congressman Crowley pointed out that the Sikh festival of Baisakhi is celebrated at the Pentagon. He noted “the FBI has now started tracking hate crimes against Sikh Americans. We had over 100 bipartisan members of Congress call for Sikhs to be able to serve in our US Armed Forces”, he said.
The lawmaker predicted that in the next few months, the International Basketball Federation will rule that Sikhs can play in international tournaments with their turbans. “I believe we are making progress all over the country and all over the world”, he said.
Congressman Crowley thanked members of “SALDEF for their long-standing hard work here on the Hill”. Recognizing SikhLEAD intern Prabhjot Singh of Centreville, VA, who is serving in his office this summer, he declared the young leader “is doing an outstanding job”.
Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of California, who co-founded the American Sikh Congressional Caucus in 2013, told the Langar gathering, “I wanted to make sure people understood the wonderful tradition of heads covered, shoes off, and sharing a meal”.
Regarding the meal that was served, it comprised of daal (lentils), roti (Indian bread), rice, aloo-gobi (potatoes-cauliflower), yogurt, kheer (rice pudding), and was freshly prepared by Fairfax-based Bombay Café. Langar is a 500-plus year tradition started by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder and first Guru of Sikhism. It brings everyone together regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, gender, background or socioeconomic status.
At the SikhLEAD event, Congressman Ami Bera of California noted, “Langar is about bringing people together” and it “sends a message on Capitol Hill that we all have to come together as a nation. We have to celebrate our religious diversity, our ethnic diversity, our cultural diversity. That’s the strength of America”, he said.
Congressman Bera is the Democratic Co-Chair of the House India Caucus and currently the only Indian-American serving on Capitol Hill. He told the Langar gathering, “If you look at the rich history of Indian-Americans in this country, it starts with Sikhs migrating to California, to the west coast”.
Among other high-ranking officials who addressed attendees at the event were: Congressman John Garamendi of California, Democratic Co-Chair of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus; Congressmen Frank Pallone, Jr. (Democrat – New Jersey), Brad Sherman (Democrat – California), Mark Takano (Democrat – California), and Sanford Bishop (Democrat – Georgia); Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee (Democrat – Texas) and Zoe Lofgren (Democrat – California); Paul Monteiro, Director of Community Relations Service at the Department of Justice; and Chandra Bhatnagar, Senior Staff Attorney, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Congressman Sherman told the SikhLEAD event, “It has been a pleasure to represent so many Americans concerned with religious liberty over the last 20 years”, during which time he has served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The influential lawmaker stressed “how important it is that we change the rules on military appearance so that Sikhs who are religious and practicing can serve wearing the turban in the United States military”.
Drawing attention to a bill he co-sponsored on the FBI tracking hate crimes, he noted, “so often members of the Sikh community are subject to hate crimes from those of incredible ignorance here in the United States”. Recent studies have shown over 70 percent of Americans cannot identify a Sikh and more often than not, confuse turban-wearing Sikhs with Muslims. Ignorance is not bliss!
As a senior member of the Homeland Security Committee, Congresswoman Jackson Lee revealed she has encountered a number of challenges confronting the Sikh community over the years and she made a passionate plea for non-segregation, anti-discrimination, understanding and unity. The lawmaker mentioned that she has worked very closely with Sikhs on issues such as airport travel, introducing hate crimes legislation, and comprehensive immigration reform.
Noting that “we live in difficult and different times” when “people misunderstand”, she thanked members of the Sikh community for educating people who do not understand who they are or know about their faith.
“I’m sure that you have been called many different religions that you are not because people view your headdress in one particular mode or faith”, she said. “We are always better off understanding that over here are criminals (terrorists who have nothing whatsoever to do with Sikhs or Sikhism) and over here are believers in the faith”.
Expressing excitement on being involved in a 500-year-old tradition, Congresswoman Jackson Lee told the gathering, “Langar is something that is part of my efforts here in the United States Congress particularly as it relates to upholding the principle of equality between all people regardless of religion, caste, color, creed, age, gender or social status”.
Congressman Pallone spoke about the importance of embracing diversity and not merely paying lip-service to it. “In this country where we are so proud of our diversity, that has to be something that is real”, he said. “We can’t just talk about diversity. It has to be something that we practice”.
He emphasized the imperativeness of standing tall against issues which negatively impact Sikhs such as discrimination, racial profiling, hate crimes, and the presumptive ban on serving in the US Armed Forces with their articles of faith.
Congressman Pallone has the largest Indian-American community in the Sixth Congressional District of New Jersey, including a prominent presence of Sikhs. Reportedly, New Jersey is home to an estimated 25,000 Sikhs many of whom are based in Carteret and Woodbridge, boroughs which the lawmaker represents.
At the Langar, he Implored members of the Sikh community to encourage more lawmakers to join the House Sikh Caucus, and to visit Congressional offices whenever there are issues which concern them.
In his introduction of Congresswoman Lofgren, emcee Harmann Preet Singh, a former SikhLEAD intern (2014), hailed her as a “Champion for the Sikh American community who has called for national unity and celebrated diversity”, and immediately “condemned Oak Creek when it happened in 2012″.
The lawmaker represents the 19th District of California covering most of San Jose which houses the largest Gurdwara in the US. Describing the grand opening of the Gurdwara, which drew over 10,000 people, several high-ranking elected officials, and leaders from various faiths, Congresswoman Lofgren marveled, “What a great country we have – all religions can celebrate other religions, and all of us people of faith can celebrate the faith of others. I think that is what you are living through this wonderful evening, sharing not only good food but also goodwill”, she told the Langar gathering.
About the co-host of the event, Congressman Honda, she noted, “It is not unusual for him to stand up for people of faith. As a child, he was incarcerated with his family during World War II. He understands probably more than anyone else in Congress the ramifications of discrimination. I am so glad that he is once again standing up for diversity, the rule of law, fair dealing and I am happy to be in the District right next to his”, she said.
Congressman Takano mentioned that he represents most of the territory of the late Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian-American of Sikh descent elected to the US Congress in 1956. Hitherto, Asians could not become naturalized citizens of America. “Congressman Saund organized the Sikh community and became a citizen in 1949. He is one of the original dreamers”, the lawmaker told the gathering, evoking memories of another civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his ‘I have a Dream’ speech.
Monteiro emphasized the need to know about Sikhs and their religion, Sikhism. Referring to his former position in the public engagement office at the White House when he “had the privilege of working with faith-based communities”, he recounted “that terrible day, almost four years ago, the day of Oak Creek when people simply worshiping in their Gurdwara were shot down. I was immediately on the phone with people like Jasjit Singh (former executive director of SALDEF), asking, how do we respond? We were getting ready to send the First Lady out there to help the families who were grieving the loss of their loved ones”, he told the Langar gathering.
The high-ranking official recalled the candlelight vigils “with a lot of prayers by people in the Sikh community” which were held outside the White House in the wake of the Oak Creek Gurdwara massacre. “One of the saddest prayers, I think one of the things that goes to the nobility of this community, was: What more could we have done as Sikhs to teach that man (the gunman) more about us, so he wouldn’t have shot us? It is hard for me to think of any other faith community that would ask themselves what more could we have done to stop a hate crime from happening, and feeling a sense of obligation to tell people about what they believe. It was a very noble prayer and I believe it is emblematic of this community”, Monteiro said.