My visit to a Sikh temple, or “You are always welcome!”

So on occasion I accompany my husband on business trips to Long Island, and near the hotel we stay in is a somewhat dilapidated little house which has a sign declaring it to be a Sikh temple.  I’ve driven past it taking my husband into work many times on these trips, and yet over the course of several years I’ve barely give the small tired building a second glance.

I’ve always been curious about religions. Not having one myself, but loving the sense of community, devotion, and comfort that religion, at its best, provides, I try to see the world through the lens of various faiths.  Even in high school this was the case, as I’d accompany my friend to Baha’i firesides and relish the casual, warm, and intelligent conversations to be had in the various living rooms where they’d meet.

I’ve discussed the Book of Mormon with the Mormon missionaries (and my first husband became a Mormon; it’s a faith I deeply respect, though I disagree with many of their basic tenets, especially with regard to homosexuality).  I’ve been to Catholic mass, to Buddhist meditation, and to a variety of Christian denomination services.

Many of the best people I have known have been deeply religious, those able to take from their faith all the goodness that is offered, and focus on the message of love inherent in every religion.  That is the grail I seek when I explore religion, though I fear I haven’t found it yet.

So this most recent trip to Long Island, for some reason, I truly noticed the Sikh temple, and wondered if its members would welcome a visit from a stranger.  I looked up this particular temple, and Sikhism in general, and everything that I found declared this to be a most hospitable and warm group of people.  The temple listed daily events, with Bhog at 7 am, and Langar at noon.  Research told me that Bhog is a reading of the scripture, and Langar is a communal meal (for which the Sikhs are famous, I learned, for welcoming anyone and everyone, and not ever charging).

I didn’t want to intervene in a reading of scripture, and I didn’t feel comfortable showing up just for a free meal (though I am certain, especially now that I’ve gone, that it would have been absolutely fine to do so), so I decided to go to the temple at 11, which I thought might be a period of free-time between the two.

I arrived, and in my car I looked at my purse, and my large SLR camera (which I literally take everywhere).  I was aching to take pictures of my experience, because I see the world through my camera, and try to use it to show the beauty that surrounds me every day.  But I also worried, that a camera in a temple would be unwelcome and intrusive, so I left all in my car and entered the temple carrying nothing.

Immediately I was in a small, somewhat shabby lobby.  The first thing I saw was a sign saying that shoes were not permitted in the temple, and a (corresponding) area for shoes to be placed, and two bins of head coverings, one for men and one for women.  I removed my boots, and found a gorgeous long orange and maroon head scarf to place over my hair, but I wasn’t quite sure how to put it on.  As I fumbled with it, my eyes met a bearded man behind a reception desk, talking on a portable phone, and I smiled and shrugged and he smiled in return.  Still on the phone, he walked over and adjusted my scarf, and we shared a moment of silent laughter at my earnest but inept attempt to cover my head.

I heard singing and talking around a corner, so I headed in that direction (and the kind man at the desk, still on the phone, smiled and nodded as I gestured to mean “so, can I go in there too?”).  I’d read enough to know that women sit on one side in the temple, men on the other, and everyone sits on the floor. (Unfortunately, I hadn’t read enough to know that you should never point your feet at their sacred text, in the front of the room, and after an hour of sitting cross-legged, I shifted my position and did just that; to them, and any Sikhs reading this, I apologize deeply.)

[Note: being seated in the temple by gender aside, Sikhs don’t have any class distinctions, all are equal: regardless of caste (originally and primarily an Indian religion), ethnicity (I dislike the term ‘race’ … we all are the same ‘race’, which is ‘human’), or gender (my understanding is that men and women alike can serve in the various positions of Sikhism).]

I entered the temple, in which there were maybe 10 women on the right, and two men on the left, and all were sitting on the floor and reading aloud from a small book; two women at the front of the temple seemed to be leading the proceedings.  I sat quietly and cross-legged in an empty space on the floor by the women, and listened to the melodic voices chanting (and occasionally singing) in beautiful harmony.  People would come and go on occasion, and when new worshippers entered, they would bow to a small area in the front of the temple before taking their seat. (Another faux pas of mine, is that I didn’t know to do this).

As I sat in the temple for almost an hour and a half, more people came in, until the women’s side was almost completely full, with perhaps 40 women sitting and chanting.  Their clothes, I must take a moment to point out, were stunning; so many colorful outfits, incredibly crafted, with gorgeous head scarves over flowing black or silver hair, it was a breathtaking sight.  I so wish I could have photographed that beauty.

Not used to sitting still for so long, I began to get fidgety.  I didn’t want to be disrespectful with excessive movement, so I got up and went back out to the entry area, preparing to leave.  The kind man at the reception area was nowhere to be seen, the foyer was empty. As I started to put my boots back on, I noticed stairs leading downward, and I heard voices, so I decided to see if someone in that part of the temple might be free to talk.  I ventured down the stairs, and was greeted by another kind man who asked if I was a first-time visitor.  I said yes, and he said “we have a meal, it’s all vegetarian, please, come eat, it’s free!  Please, come eat!”

I said thank you, and he accompanied me to a large table full of delicious-looking Indian dishes (I love Indian food).  Several times he mentioned that the food was all vegetarian (perhaps used to dealing with people who want meat?  I told him in return that that was wonderful, as I’m a vegetarian, and he seemed somewhat – relieved – by that?).  I felt awkward taking a meal when the service was still continuing upstairs … I actually told the man I’d been at the service for an hour and a half, I believe so he wouldn’t think I came just for a free meal (though of course that was only a problem in my head; he would never have cared, I am positive).  He said they’d be another half hour, but please, I should eat.

I took a plate, and tried a small amount of each dish, though with so many people about to come eat, I didn’t want to take very much.  There were 4 or 5 older men sitting in the room eating already, and I asked the man if it would be ok if I talked with them (not being sure if genders ate separately).  He said they didn’t speak English, so I prepared somewhat uncomfortably to eat alone.  But then a smiling woman entered and took some food, and I asked her if she spoke English and she said yes, and we sat together and talked.

She was from India, and has been in the US for 40 years.  We talked about how most Sikhs are actually from India, and when I asked if many Americans convert to Sikhism, she was puzzled, and said we are meant to be what we are born, so why would people convert?  We talked about the welcome Sikhs receive in the US, especially after 9/11, and she said people are definitely not as friendly, overall, as they used to be, and that made her sad.  Sitting and eating my small plate of absolutely delicious Indian food, talking with this lovely woman (whose name I don’t even know) is one of my favorite meal memories ever, I have to say.  For a brief 20 minutes we had this beautiful intimate connection, and I am so appreciative that she was there at that time.  She wasn’t even a member of that temple, but rather a different temple in the Bronx.  She was just in the area visiting a friend, and had stopped in to have lunch before heading back home.

After she left, I felt a bit uncertain of what to do next, so I decided, once more, it was time to leave.  I went back up the stairs, and put on my boots, and took off my borrowed head scarf.  At that point, I noticed several older gentlemen sitting on a bench in the foyer area, and I smiled and nodded at them.  The one closest to me said hello, and asked if I’d gotten food.  I said yes, thank you, it was delicious.  He said, “Please come back, anytime.  Come for a meal. You are always welcome.”  I smiled and thanked him, and headed out to my car.  My visit was slightly awkward, and not quite what I had expected, but I am so incredibly glad I went, and I will definitely return.