“Guru Nanak Dev jee said there are no untouchables… we’re (all) going to break bread on the floor, in humility,” said Amardeep Singh, a commissioner for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “Guru Nanak wanted to open doors for those who have been excluded. That is what this country did for us in our time of need.”
Perhaps the most poignant example that he gave of the Obama administration’s show of support was from March 2011 when the White House paid for busses to transport Sikh kids from New York City gurdwaras to Washington for a summit on bullying.
Sikhs from around the country were invited by the White House to celebrate Guru Nanak’s birth-anniversary gurpurab at the nation’s capital on Friday, Dec. 7. About 125 guests filled a room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located next to the West Wing, which houses a majority of the offices of the White House staff.
“Guru Nanak jee really stood for equality and justice,” said Grande Lum, director of the justice department’s Community Relations Service. “We’ll stand alongside you in making this country more free and equal.”
Paul Monteiro, associate director for the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Maryland-based Sikh Council on Religion and Education, organized the event. Other Sikh organizations, including the New York-based Sikh Coalition and United Sikhs, the Washington-based Sikh American Defense and Education Fund, and the California-based American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee also participated in the celebrations. They also invited their own guests.
“We can make huge leaps for our community,” said Harbir Kaur Bhatia of Santa Clara, California. “We have to bring it (his teachings) down to our day-to-day level… We are all responsible for all that is around us.”
A variety of high profile Sikhs made up the guest list. Among them were representatives of local gurdwaras, wealthy donors, activists and those who have suffered bias tragedies, including Lakhwinder Singh Sodhi whose brother, Balbir Singh, was the first person murdered in a post 9/11 hate crime, and family members of the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, gurdwara shooting.
After the Wisconsin tragedy, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the justice department’s Civil Rights Division, said he received calls from representatives of all religious faiths. “That was not an attack on a gurdwara, that was an attack on all of us,” they told him, he said. “Let’s call it what it was - It was a hate crime.”
Perez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said his least favorite word is “tolerance.”
“I tolerate brussel sprouts, and I tolerate broccoli,” he said. “(But) unless and until we embrace our diversity, that is when we will recognize our highest dreams as a nation.”
Rajwant Singh gathered all the children in the room to present him with a saropaa. “We need to elect one turban-wearing congressman in the next 25 years,” he said, addressing the kids.
The first Guru Nanak parkash gurpurab was held under the Bush administration, in 2004. When President Obama held the first gurpurab of his presidency, he made it a point to tell Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the event during his state visit in November 2009, Rajwant Singh said. This year’s event was the third gurpurab celebration under the Obama administration, he told SikhNN.
“(It) shows how much President Obama wants to include (our) community,” he said to the audience, and thanked “Paul Singh Monteiro” for hosting the gurpurab celebration.