On Sunday mornings, Gurpreet Singh walks up and down the corridor outside the gurdwara in Santa Ana, greeting friends and strangers before they head into the Sikh house of worship.
After the service, it’s not uncommon for Singh to approach people and ask whether or not they’ve eaten.
“A principle belief of the Sikh religion is to take part in the community,” said Singh, who’s been attending the Sikh Center for 25 years. “A great way you can understand what you learn through your spiritual journey is by conversing with one another.”
Singh greeted more new faces last Sunday, as the Sikh Center of Orange County in Santa Ana hosted an open house to celebrate the 550th birthday anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.
The temple invited the Orange County community, including local law enforcement, to take part in the morning service, stressing that anyone could participate as long as they removed their shoes and covered their heads.
The anniversary service, which featured songs from children from the Guru Nanak Children’s Academy and a brief history of Guru Nanak’s life, culminated in langar, a free community meal served by volunteers. Rice, roti, palak paneer and lentil soup were passed around.
Booths were set up carnival-style to offer free comic books and coloring pages for kids and new learners of the Sikh tradition.
The open house was part of a communitywide effort to educate others about Sikhism. Though it’s the fifth largest world religion — with more than 25 million Sikhs worldwide and 500,000 in the United States — much of the Sikh tradition remains elusive to many Americans.
Hate crimes against Sikhs have increased by 243% since 2016, according to the FBI’s annual report on hate crime in the United States. In 2017, the Sikh Coalition, a community-based Sikh civil rights organization, received 12 anti-Sikh hate crime cases and tracked a total of 24 anti-Sikh hate-related incidents nationwide.
The Sikh Coalition has been encouraging local gurdwaras to lead more open houses to create awareness of the faith.
Community members like Singh hope that with more open houses and interfaith gatherings, people can understand that the values of Sikhism directly oppose hatred and violence.
“Guru Nanak’s message was to invite people in,” Inderpreet Kaur, the Southern California Community Development Manager at Sikh Coalition, said. “The more we understand one another, the less distance we have between each other.”
Guru Nanak, who was born to common merchants, established Sikhism in 1469 after growing up in the Punjab region of India and disavowing the social inequalities he experienced. He spent the rest of his life traveling and sharing his principles of one creator; equality of all races, genders, and religions; and the act of selfless service.
Nine other gurus followed Guru Nanak as spiritual teachers before the written Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, was formalized as the main spiritual guide that Sikhs follow to this day. The name “Sikh” means “disciple” or “learner” in Punjabi.
While Sikh communities span across the United States, the largest populations are concentrated on the two coasts, in New York and California. The first gurdwara was started in Stockton, Calif. in 1912.
The Sikh Center of Orange County has been around for 30 years, and members will often visit between the center in Santa Ana and the Sikh Center in Buena Park.
According to Singh, who works as a surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, the influx of Sikh residents in Orange County over the past 20 years is owed to economic opportunities, as many Sikhs are working professionals.
After graduating from USC more than 25 years ago, Jasleen Kaur Brar moved to Tustin to start her dental practice. In addition to her full-time job, she’s also the principal of the Guru Nanak Children’s Academy, the Sikh Center’s Sunday school for children.
Along with teaching kids about their own faith, Brar also organizes interfaith events at local Buddhist temples, mosques, and churches each year to expose students to other religions, as well as to educate others on Sikhism.
For her, this particular gurpurab, or anniversary celebration, is about much more than celebrating Guru Nanak.
“We’re celebrating his birthday, yes, but also his principles,” Brar said. “We’re opening our space to everyone, regardless of faith. Maybe after today, more people will feel inclined to come back. We’re trying to walk the walk.”
“The Sikh faith is, in my opinion, the personification of the Declaration of Independence,” Singh said. “We believe everyone has the right to a good life, and that we must all stand up for justice. What’s more American than that?”