Recently a few of us from Devon United Church gathered over a couple of weeks to talk about this very question. To aid us in this discussion we watched three different TED talks. Each speaker has a grounding in a different world religion and vastly differing life experience but strikingly parallel, hopeful messages for our day.
Valerie Kaur is a woman whose grandparents immigrated to California from northern India early last century. One early, difficult memory was how she was teased mercilessly by other children for being dark skinned and for not being Christian. When she turned to her grandfather for comfort, he quoted the founder of his Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, who had said, “I see no stranger. I see no enemy.” (Please note how similar this sounds to the Jewish/Christian teaching “Love your neighbor as yourself” as well as the teaching of Jesus to “Love your enemy.”)
This saying didn’t seem to help the child Valerie in the moment, so he went on to tell her the story of a brave woman, Mai Bhago, who helped defend the Sikh homeland against invaders. Not only did Mai Bhago show bravery in staying at her post as the battle raged, she assumed a leadership role when no one else would do so.
This story meant something right away for a young Valerie, but also stuck with her. She remembered the lessons: “Be brave,” “Don’t abandon your post” and “Be the leader you are yourself looking for.” Valerie carries both of these lessons forward as a journalist and as a national and international human rights activist.
Another story of Valerie’s also left a deep impression. Valerie’s uncle, Baldir Singh Bodi, was the first American killed after 9-11 as a direct result of the events of that day. On September 15, in Mesa, Arizona, Mr. Singh Bodi was gunned down in front of the gas
stationed he owned because he was not white and was wearing the distinctive turban of a man of the Sikh faith. His killer, filled with rage at the 9-11 attacks, took it upon himself to shoot the first foreign looking man he saw, not knowing or caring that Sikhs, let alone this individual, had nothing at all to do with 9-11.
In 2016, with the 15th anniversary of 9-11 on the horizon, the event and its very personal aftermath weighed heavily on Valerie and her family. Valerie remembers her Uncle Rana and Baldir’s brother asking a question stemming from their Sikh faith: “Who have we not yet tried to love?” Very quickly, Frank Roak, Baldir’s killer, came to mind.
They phoned the prison and were somewhat surprised that Roak was willing to speak with them. Early in the conversation Roak
stated that he was sorry for what he’d done, but also sorry for those who had died as a result of 9-11. Valerie heard her uncle’s killer trying to minimize and excuse what he had done. She began to shut down emotionally thinking that there was no point in continuing the conversation.
However, her Uncle Rana heard something else in that statement. He heard Frank Roak say for the first time that he regretted what he had done. So Rana asked Roak directly if this was the case, if he truly was sorry for what he’d done, to which Roak replied, “Yes.” Frank Roak went on to say that when he died he hoped that he would meet Baldir so he could ask for his forgiveness. Rana responded, “You are already forgiven.” Reflecting a couple of years later on that conversation Valerie Kaur says that “Forgiveness is not
forgetting. Forgiveness is freedom from hate.”
Today, with a child of her own, Valerie Kaur’s learnings of “Be brave,” “Don’t abandon your post,” “Be the leader you are looking for,” and the Sikh principle of “See no stranger, see no enemy,” have taken on a renewed urgency for her. They are also ideas we can take to heart.
Learning, remembering and practicing each of these, Valerie reminds us, can only take place in a supportive family and community. May we also have others with whom we can learn, remember and practice these important teachings and others like them.
- Rev. Dirk
Next Week: Overcoming Anxiety