Last Wednesday, a young man sat with members of a Bible study group at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After an hour with the group, he pulled out his gun and killed nine people before fleeing to North Carolina.
It sent a chill down my spine to learn that, soon after the shooting, the suspected killer was at a Charlotte ATM just a few miles from my house. All I could think about was keeping my children safe, while memories of the 2012 massacre of Sikhs in Oak Creek and the 2014 Kansas City Jewish Community Center shooting both raced to the forefront of my mind.
If we can’t feel safe in our own places of worship, where in modern America can we feel safe? What is left for our children?
The rash of violence in religious spaces makes me realize that, today, not even religious institutions are a safe haven. I think of my Sikh Gurdwara as a spiritual refuge from the chaos of my surroundings. People like the suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, have taken that security away from my family and me.
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We often have curious visitors at the Charlotte Sikh Gurdwara who are seeking to learn more about the Sikh tradition. By definition, Gurdwaras doors are always open to all, irrespective of caste, race or gender. I cannot imagine changing our policy of openness, yet I wonder how I will react the next time I see an unfamiliar face. Will I hold my children more tightly? Will I stop letting them roam freely in our own place of worship?
I wonder how someone could sit for an hour in religious discourse and then slaughter those same people. I wonder how deranged he must have been to dehumanize people who, by all accounts, were warm and loving Christians. I wonder what we, as a community and as a nation, could have done differently to prevent this attack. I wonder what we have to change in order to prevent future attacks.
After the shootings in Charleston, I have more questions than answers, but what is clear is that we have so much more work to do to combat the crisis of hate in our country. I know that keeping the doors open to all guests at our Charlotte Gurdwara is critical to combating hate. We must continue to open our arms to each other, to educate each other about our differences, and not be afraid to share. Despite my fears in the face of this violence, I know that our greatest strength as a nation is our diversity.
I understand that the gunman wanted to start a “call to action.” I think we should all be called to action. Just in February, three Muslim students were shot in cold blood in their apartment in Chapel Hill. As the violence comes closer and closer to home, how long will we wait before we are personally affected?
As a community, it is our collective responsibility to come together and support our brothers and sisters. We all come from different backgrounds, and we all have unique experiences. It is critical that we make an effort to understand and connect with one another. Only then can we systematically tackle this ignorance, hatred and unimaginable violence.
My family and I traveled to Charleston just a few weeks ago. We walked down Calhoun Street on our way to the aquarium and stopped to visit the historic Emanuel AME Church. We told our children about the anti-slavery efforts of the church and talked to them about our values of freedom and equality. We walked around the church, taking pictures and soaking in its history. We came across worshippers, each of whom was warm and welcoming. This memory is now etched in my mind forever.
Suneet Kaur is a clinical assistant professor at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte and serves as a board member at the Sikh Coalition.