April 1-7, 2004
Walking the Path Together
By Kristen Fox / SUN Staff Writer
St. Andrew’s Parishioner Travels to India in a Spirit of Understanding
PALERMO –– When a fire destroyed a Sikh temple in Palermo, the community was devastated. But instead of inciting vengeance, the arson taught them big lessons about faith and forgiveness. Shortly after midnight on November 18, 2002, a fire was set at Gobind Sadan, a Sikh interfaith center where people of all faiths converged for work and celebration. The arson, which was committed by four teenagers from the Parish/Mexico area of Oswego County, was one rooted in fear and ignorance. The teens lacked understanding about their neighbors who wore beads and turbans and practiced an unfamiliar religion. While they were able to destroy the sacred Gobind Sadan, they did not break the spirit of the people who celebrated, worshiped and loved within its walls. Immediately after the fire, the Sikhs forgave the students —–– while acknowledging they had to be held accountable for their crime.
“Baba Virsa Singh, Gobind Sadan’s beloved founder and preceptor, constantly reminds us that forgiveness is central to all our traditions,” said Ralph Singh, who serves as spokesman for Gobind Sadan USA and currently serves as secretary of the North American Interfaith Network. “One never knows in advance when God will test your faith, so Gobind Sadan’s whole focus is that spiritual practice of prayer and meditation is meant to prepare you for whatever test may come.”
Ralph Singh said that the concept of forgiveness, led by Baba Virsa Singh, was the guiding force behind trying to grapple with the tragedy. “Out of hatred we would only perpetuate the cycle of violence that exists in the world,” Ralph Singh said. “By forgiving our enemies we have the opportunity to create peace.” In hopes of breaking down prejudices and promoting cultural understanding, Ralph Singh helped to create a documentary on the arson incident at Gobind Sadan. North of 49, co-produced by Richard Breyer and David Coryell, aired on March 28 as part of the documentary series, “The World of Faith & Values” on the Hallmark Channel. The film teaches important lessons about acceptance, Ralph Singh said. “We all have different ways to express ourselves, but as long as those expressions are out of love and compassion, we can learn to live together as brothers and sisters and learn to appreciate our differences,” he said.
Sara Farchione, M.D., a parishioner of St. Andrew’s Church in Syracuse, visited Gobind Sadan before the arson. She has also made three trips to Gobind Sadan in South Delhi, India. Farchione said what strikes her most about the Sikh community is their inclusion and acceptance of all faith traditions. “Part of Gobind Sadan’s mission is breaking down barriers that surround religions. There is so much love there. Everyone is welcome,” she said. “If the whole world could be like Gobind Sadan there would be much more acceptance and respect.” Farchione and her teenage son, Corey, traveled to India last month with a group of 10 students and parents from Syracuse and Oswego County. Over the past three years, Farchione has taken each of her three sons to Gobind Sadan in South Delhi. She believes it is important they experience the love and respect for all faith traditions that is present at Gobind Sadan. Baba Virsa Singh and the Sikh community view Jesus as one of several prophets who came from one God to bring His message. “There is a special devotion to Jesus at Gobind Sadan,” said Farchione. In the midst of the community stands a statue of Jesus with outstretched arms, surrounded by beautiful flowers. It is a place of meditation and reflection.
“Jesus is alive at Gobind Sadan,” she said. She recalled one of the most powerful images from her trip. “Each night at dusk, everyone gathers around the statue of Jesus and lights a candle,” Farchione said. “They then say the Lord’s prayer in the native languages of all the people there.” Corey said that his visit to Gobind Sadan gave him an appreciation for other religions. The community taught him lessons of love and tolerance. “Some people might not understand other religions,” Corey said. “You can’t learn unless you are willing to explore.”
While the Gobind Sadan center in Palermo has not yet been completely rebuilt, the Sikh community received an outpouring of support from Oswego County and beyond. Ralph Singh hopes that with the continued support and acceptance, the center will stand once again —–– this time, as an enduring tribute to a common desire to overcome differences and live in peace. “Wherever we go, people still recognize our turbans and say, ‘We really appreciate the stand you took to forgive those children,’ or ‘Wasn’t it wonderful that your Holy Books survived the fire?’” he said. “It is truly inspirational for all of us.”