I handed Ramandeep tickets in 4s, the maximum we could purchase at once. When we finally procured day passes for everyone, thirty students (and me) rushed down the stairs to catch the Orange Line to Sullivan Square, where we would catch a bus to the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara in Medford, Massachusetts (we didn’t end up getting the bus, but that’s another story for another time). A Gurudwara is a Sikh place of worship, and there are currently two in the Boston area.
Outside the Gurudwara, I rushed to put on my scarf, and then to pull my boots off before our first encounter: breakfast. I piled my plate with pakoras (fried vegetables) and chutney, and my new favorite sweet: besan burfi. After cleaning my plate, I circled back to the buffet line and reached for a second burfi…woops! The man behind the counter gently pushed my hands away and put three on my plate (my hands were dirty from eating). Then, he wrapped a big pile of them for me to take home- he could tell I was enamored.
We made our way upstairs to watch the Kirtan, an expression of praise to God based on singing and chanting. I tried to match the Romanized Punjabi words on the screen with the music, frequently distracting myself by watching the children around the room. You can learn much about a community by observing children, I find- their actions are nothing but authentic. My coworker Karin and I sat cross-legged among the women on the right side of the Kirtan hall. Everyone faced the screens behind the Guru Granth Sahib (a compilation of words of the Guru) and remained seated for the most part. At a few points, we stood and bowed. When the music ended, everyone chanted for a few minutes, and finally the Guru Granth Sahib was carried back to a resting place.
As others headed back downstairs for Langar, the practice of serving a meal to everyone on long carpets, our group gathered for a question and answer session. A Sikh man, Gurinder, and some others shared some basic knowledge about Sikhism, relating the concepts to those in other faith traditions. Hardeep and Ramandeep, two leaders of the Northeastern Sikh Student Association, chimed in the lively presentation. As I listened, I caught myself nodding my head often, showing that I was familiar with what we were hearing. And I paused, realizing something crucial about religious literacy.
My job for the last nine years as an interfaith leader has been to build my knowledge of other faith traditions, from practice to theology to the languages these faiths speak. I have shown off my knowledge to adherents of these faiths- speaking the few words of Arabic, Japanese, or Punjabi that I know, seeking acceptance and perhaps some praise. I have spoken up when people around me are not familiar with a practice or concept- delightedly sharing my wisdom that has come with the amazing experiences I am blessed to have. Yet today, I realized that no matter how many times I hear someone describe the Five Pillars of Islam, the contention over the meaning of the Eucharist, or today the “Five Ks” (five objects Sikhs carry with them, symbolizing different values), that each person’s story is unique to their own experience, and it is a privilege to hear these stories. Watching our presenters dialogue with each other over a ritual’s meaning, history, and the relationship with their faith prompted me to quiet my mind and listen.
I think sometimes religious literacy feels like a huge hole that we seek to fill with knowledge, and as we fill the hole, we “advance”, we increase our literacy. Yet today I wondered if religious literacy is more a mindset than holding on to “what we know”. Visiting sacred sites like the Gurudwara today reminds me that embracing the current experience and learning to be a good guest by dropping assumptions is the best way to be an imperfect stranger. Knowledge of rituals, greetings, and practices is certainly important, but even more so is the willingness to learn something new every time we encounter someone new. This openness is what interfaith work is about- taking the time to hear one person’s story, even if we know the basics. Stories connect us on an individual level, a human level, regardless of our way to find meaning. This to me is what truly defines global citizenship.
As I enjoyed Langar number two with the other Northeastern students, we joked about the bus mishap earlier, noting that despite this, we all enjoyed ourselves. I find that putting ourselves in new situations is a good thing for two reasons: it allows us to learn, and it allows us to laugh. As we continue our “Souljourns” this semester, my hope is that everyone will learn and laugh. We grew together as a Northeastern community today, and we get to keep growing as we share more experiences together.