Although I’m interested in learning about other faith traditions, I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about Sikhism. When Ruchi and Durga invited me to the Lohri celebration at the Sikh temple in San Jose on January 13th, saying it was in honor of their young son, I assumed it would be like a baptism–family and friends standing in solidarity with the parents, offering their prayers and promise of support for the child’s introduction into the faith and the secular world. Maybe a reception or light meal, and gifts, possibly kicking off a college fund for the child.
I asked Durga and Ruchi more about it, and Durga sent me to the Wikipedia page for Lohri, where I learned that it is a new year celebration (related to the end of the month with the winter solstice) and celebrated with special note by households celebrating a recent marriage or birth.
I was also impressed to learn that caring for the community is a key tenet of Sikhism, practiced by serving a free meal to all who come. Since Lohri is an especially auspicious day, the San Jose temple was expecting a large crowd, serving several thousand meals, perhaps up to 8,000. So, to honor their son’s birth, my friends sponsored the meal that day. They prepared some food in advance (Ruchi personally responsible for some 600 rotis, 30-50x the typical volunteer’s output) and were stationed on the serving line during the food distribution. Their friends also helped out, and rather than asking for gifts for their son, guests were invited to bring rice, flour, sugar, or beans for the temple’s meals.
In addition to the generosity of providing meals, I was impressed by the willingness with which I was welcomed. As I was casting about looking lost, people helped me find and tie a head covering, stow my shoes, and walk to the main meeting room, even showing how to pay respects to the holy book and leave my gift of rice at the altar. Not understanding the language, I didn’t stay long for the reading/singing, and went up to the hall where the food was being served. From time to time the steady music would break into the foreground of my attention, reminding me that the worship service was continuing.
On my way out, I noticed another surprising sign of openness. The temple’s financial statements were posted on the bulletin board for all to see. It appeared that this massive building and social program was run on an almost exclusively volunteer basis. The salary line was a shockingly small percentage of the total.
I came away with a slightly greater understanding, and a general sense that while I was not expected to know much, I was welcome on my own terms. I was impressed with the community, and sense of equality and service. I admire my friends for choosing to celebrate in this way, and was glad to be a part of it.