SALDEF’s SikhLEAD class of 2017 raises 10,000 dollars, packages 500 meals for the needy
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, July 25, 2017 – The fourth annual Langar on Capitol Hill was co-sponsored by Indian-American lawmakers, Senator Kamala Harris and Congressman Ami Bera, both Democrats of California, and drew over 200 attendees on a Monday evening. The event was held ahead of a packed week of hearings, meetings, votes and negotiations for members of Congress who will soon be leaving town for the summer recess.
Langar is a 500-year-old Sikh tradition of serving a free vegetarian meal promoting a spirit of equality and anti-segregation. The event on Capitol Hill was organized by ten members constituting the SikhLEAD class of 2017 – students who are serving as interns this summer in the nation’s capital under the umbrella organization, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF). It is an educational opportunity for bipartisan US lawmakers and their aides to learn more about Sikhism, the world’s fifth largest religion.
“This is my fifth year in Congress and my fourth Langar on the Hill”, Congressman Bera said. “I think what’s incredibly important about the work that SALDEF does and the interns do is celebrating the strength of the United States, the different ethnicities, the different religions, the different cultures all coming together. At a time like the one we find ourselves in, it’s incredibly important to celebrate that diversity and make sure that members on the Hill, the staff, understand that diversity and understand the message that the Langar says which is that we are all in this together, that we all have a responsibility in looking after one another”.
The lawmaker believed the sharing of a meal, the breaking of bread which is found in many religious traditions, is easily forgotten. “But, we are only as strong as the weakest amongst us, and that is what this Langar is representing”, he said.
Recalling that Dalip Singh Saund was the first Indian-American member of Congress elected in 1956, Bera said, “For the last four years, I have had the privilege of being the only Indian-American member of Congress, but after this last election cycle I am not by myself. There are now five Indian-American members of Congress and we should keep growing that because this body should be a reflection of the diversity of the United States”.
In a statement Senator Harris extolled the Sikh community for their “work to bring all Americans together” at a time when divisive rhetoric is escalating across the country. She noted that their efforts have included condemning the hate crimes targeting religious, racial and ethnic minorities outlined in Senate Resolution 118.
“I was proud to support that Resolution which was unanimously passed by the Senate in April”, she said. “Our nation is stronger when we stand united and I applaud the SikhLEAD internship class for creating a space to celebrate the diversity of the United States of America”.
In welcoming remarks, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman who represents a diverse district in Colorado told the Langar gathering that he goes to the Sikh temple periodically and assures the ‘sangat’ (congregation) that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them. “They have a right to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or violence”, he said.
The lawmaker spoke of an upcoming meeting next month in his district with leaders of the Sikh community and school representatives “to talk about what can be done in public education to broaden the understanding of the Sikh faith in order to minimize the amount of discrimination that our young Sikh students face”.
Congresswoman Judy Chu of California, co-founder and former Democratic Co-Chair of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, lauded the culture of Sikh Americans and the spirit of Langar. “It is so important to celebrate our diversity and appreciate all the cultures we have around this country”, she emphasized.
About launching the Caucus, she said, “I wanted to make sure people knew about the great contributions that Sikh Americans have made to the US”.
She expressed pride in all the successful strides to change policy mentioning that Captain Simratpal Singh serves in the US army with his articles of faith, and the International Basketball Federation is now allowing Sikhs to play with their turbans.
At the same time, she noted, “We are facing new challenges. We have a very difficult atmosphere in our country with our current president”, she said, referring to recent hate crimes including the attacks on Deep Rai, a Sikh American of Washington state, who was shot in the arm while fixing his car in the driveway, and two Indian engineers, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, who were shot in Kansas, and the former succumbed to his injuries.
Noting that in both cases the assailants told the victims to go back to your country, Congresswoman Chu said, “This is our country. We belong here and we earn the right to gain respect from everybody”. The lawmaker spoke of how she joined her colleagues in the House, Congressman Joe Crowley (Democrat-New York) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (Democrat-Washington), “to urge the Department of Justice to investigate these incidents as hate crimes and called on the president to end his divisive and inflammatory rhetoric”.
“We must continue to speak out”, she said. “We want a country that is accepting of everybody, of all our diverse cultures, of all our diverse religions. That is what has made America strong”.
It was a heart-warming sight to see Americans of various faiths seated on the floor of the Rayburn House Office Building foyer, donning orange-colored headscarves, and bonding over a meal. As in previous years, the Langar was prepared by the staff of Bombay Café based in Fairfax, Virginia, with owners Davinder Singh and Gagandeep Bajwa overseeing the arrangements. Instead of a traditional meal, guests were served savory snacks including ‘samosas’, ‘pakodas’, ‘chaat papdi’ and ‘gulab jamun’.
“I applaud SALDEF for continuing this great tradition that seeks to eradicate segregation and build bridges by bringing diverse communities together around a shared meal regardless of caste, creed, class and gender”, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas stated. “Events like Langar remind us of the core values that define the Sikh faith – optimism, humility and service”.
“We can only hope that this type of leadership makes it’s way up to our nation’s highest office”, she added.
Noting that Houston is home to a large and vibrant Sikh community, Congresswoman Jackson Lee said she sees “first-hand the valuable contributions” of its members that make the city an open and inclusive place. Whether it is running small businesses, providing medical care or teaching in schools, “Sikhs are a cherished component of our diverse and welcoming city”, she emphasized.
The addresses by US lawmakers were interspersed with remarks by members of SALDEF.
“At a time when we see divisive rhetoric escalating across the country, these opportunities for dialogue are especially important”, said Amrita Bamrah, program manager at SALDEF. She lauded the SikhLEAD internship class for organizing an event which celebrates the diversity of the nation. To their immense credit, the interns raised 10,000 dollars for Langar on the Hill.
Furthermore, in addition to raising awareness, they demonstrated ‘Unity through Seva’ (selfless service) by packaging 500 meals for the needy which were delivered to the DC Central Kitchen.
“Our vision for this year’s Langar on the Hill is inspired by the recent rise in rhetoric that targets minority communities”, explained Sunmeet Kaur, a SikhLEAD intern. “By engaging in seva, we reaffirm our commitment to standing in solidarity with all communities”, she said.
The current batch of SikhLEAD interns are placed in the offices of Indian-American Congressmen Ami Bera and Raja Krishnamoorthi (Democrat-Illinois), Senator Joe Donnelly (Democrat-Indiana), and organizations including the National Institute for Civil Discourse and the National Council for Asian Pacific Americans.