Vignettes from a Vigil

“I don’t think of them as victims–I think of them as martyrs. It took their deaths to bring us all together here tonight,” a twelve-year-old girl says, holding a microphone in the middle of hundreds of people clutching candles.

It is a vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin this past Sunday. In front of the White House, vigil-goers mingle with curious tourists, a mix of photo-snapping sightseers and solemn faces.

“We must stand against hate of all kinds and against all people,” says another woman, taking her turn at the microphone.

Volunteers hand out Indian food, a part of Sikh tradition known as langar (a community meal). This is what the victims at Oak Creek were preparing when the shooter entered the building. “If you haven’t had any food yet, please eat some,” urges the director of the event. “This is part of our religious tradition.” I bite into a spicy, warm samosa that has been handed to me as he jokes, “Why pay $30 for a meal at an Indian restaurant when you can come to a gurdwara any Sunday and get a better Indian meal for free–and with better company?”

After he speaks, an elderly priest takes center stage. He quotes from Sikh scripture, a line about how the world is God’s garden and each person is a flower with a unique fragrance. “Whenever you feel alone,” he reminds us, “just close your eyes and realize: you are one with God.” He begins to sing a hymn in a raw, beautiful voice, and the people who know the words respond to him, voices calling back in harmony from the far reaches of the crowd.

Before we light the candles, we have a moment of silence for the victims. Each of their names is read aloud: the grocer, the elder, the temple priest–the defenders and the loved ones. The air nearly hums with the strength of emotion emanating from so many bowed heads.

The candles are lit from person to person, a passing of light. The event organizers encourage us to mingle and share and, of course, to eat some more. I see the singing priest pass by me, and catch his attention to tell him that his words were beautiful. I also ask him about the significance of orange–the color of so many turbans in this crowd, the color of a ribbon given to me to pin on my dress because I helped with getting the candles ready–and he smiles, explaining that it signifies freedom.

This makes sense to the Sikh boy my age that I make friends with at the end of the night, discussing everything from how he deals with prejudice (his answer–by employing humor) to the need for the acceptance of LGBT Sikhs. When I mention what the priest told me about orange, he says, “Yeah, we have a history of being oppressed,” describing how Sikhism teaches the equality of all, something that appealed to the lower castes of India. “So we know the importance of freedom. We have found it here in America.”

And there, standing in a sea of candles in front of the White House, where the American flag flies at half-mast for the tragedy, I want to believe it he is right.

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