Seeing the Service

[deck]Siri Kaur Khalsa uses her divine vision to unite a community.[/deck]

Solala Towler plays guitar and sings some traditional and non-traditional hymns before the interfaith prayer service begins.

[caps]“T[/caps]his is the sing-a-long part,” Solala Towler says. He adjusts his glasses to peer at the congregation, acknowledging with an ironic gleam in his eye that not many would accompany him as he sang the Hindu prayer,  “Hare Krishna” to the soft melodic tune of “Amazing Grace”.

Towler takes the stage to begin the evening of that month’s Interfaith Prayer Service. He sits alone on the stage as the audience files into the First Christian Church, shaking the rain from coats. Behind them, Siri Kaur Khalsa, “Siri Ji” when using terms of respect, overlooks the congregation. Although she stands away from the presenters, her presence is constantly felt. Clad in white from blazer to socks and with an intricately wrapped turban, Siri Ji moves among the pews, orchestrating the event while casually leaning over to quietly fold her hands in salutation, whispering “namaste” to one friend and “hello” to another.

For nine years, Siri Ji, along with a close group of board of directors, has conducted a prayer service on the eleventh of every month in hopes of bringing people of all religions and faiths together in peace, harmony, fellowship, and safety.

The idea of religious harmony is told eloquently through the life of Siri Ji. She was born Native American, following what she calls “the red path” (the spiritual traditions of Native Americans). However, her parents’ tribes were influenced, or saved as some would call it, by Jesuit Catholic and Episcopalian groups.

While spending time with family members, Siri Ji also participated in Methodist, Buddhist, Baha’i, Judaism, and, Sikh Dharma religions, her current practice. Siri Ji explains that religion to her is a path that can help her understand the ideas of others. She made it a point, even when she was young, to visit temples, churches, and synagogues with her family.

When she started her own family, she gave them the freedom to experience religion as they pleased.

Siri Ji’s husband practices the Baha’i faith, while her children dabble in various religions based on the questions they seek and the lifestyles they choose.

“Your path is personal,” Siri Ji says. “If you find yourself on a path that doesn’t work for you—find another.”

It was while following her own path of Sikh Dharma, that Siri Ji found the necessity for religious tolerance and unity.

In August 1996, Siri Ji entered a deep meditation; a practice encouraged in the Sikh religion, and began to gain an awareness of a greater being. Siri Ji describes this presence as a divine, compassionate wisdom. In this meditation, Siri Ji began to see a scope of disastrous events. The events ranged from wars and genocides to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Throughout the meditation, the consciousness, as Siri Ji remembers it, asked her to help not only her community, but the world.

After her meditation, Siri Ji took her vision and worries to the Eugene Sikh Administrative Council, for which she was a senator since the early 1990s. At the meeting she proposed holding consistent congregations where people of many faiths could live and learn together.  However, the council turned down the idea of a monthly interfaith service.

Although Siri Ji had seen disasters strike, the visions were not complete, preventing her from taking actions to stop them. Instead, Siri Ji explains that she wanted to have the services set up for people to have a safe place to come in case disaster did strike.

However, “In 1996, Eugene was still pretty comfortable,” Siri Ji says.

The community was not thinking in the future because they had not seen the same visions that Siri Ji had.

Handing a program to a late comer to the service held on November 11, Siri Ji is the originator of Eugene's monthly Interfaith Prayer Service.

“But how can you turn down a divine request?” Siri Ji asks.

For five years, Siri Ji continued to worry that she had not acted upon her meditation. Siri Ji quit her job working with senior citizens to give her family more attention.

“During my wait, it was my job to stay alert and pray,” she says.

Siri Ji followed the news carefully, praying that the atrocities she saw during her meditation would not come to life. She continued to carry a heavy conscience for not answering the divine wisdom’s request.

Then on September 11, 2001, Siri Ji saw a piece of her vision come to life and she was once again presented the opportunity to act upon her vision. If the world had been comfortable before, this was no longer the case. September 11 acted as the turning point for Siri Ji’s argument and convinced the Eugene community of the necessity for religious tolerance.

“Even now, it hits me,” she says. “I saw this happen and it was disaster so great that it covered the world in fear.”

In the days after September 11, Sikhs, Indians, Muslims, and many others faced racism and violence around the country. The hate crimes stretched from Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder in Arizona to a woman being arrested in Eugene, Oregon for attempting to pull off a Sikh man’s turban.

Siri Ji called an emergency meeting with the Eugene Sikh Administrative Council. Her first concern was for her Islamic brothers and sisters; however, she explains that she was also concerned with the safety of Sikhs. The council quickly agreed to Siri Ji’s proposal, knowing well that people around the world were in danger.

The terrorist attacks had struck enough fear in people that they were willing to take as many steps as necessary to make their communities feel safe. Siri Ji successfully convinced the council that creating interfaith services would foster interfaith peace and religious harmony.

She was finally able to answer her divine request.

Snatam Kaur Khalsa and Viriam Singh Khalsa (Khalsa being a formal name given to Sikhs who have been baptized through the Amrit Sanchar ceremony) were among the first to support Siri Ji’s proposal. With their help, Siri Ji began to make plans to reach out to the Islamic community in Eugene.

“The fear and terror were so great throughout,” Siri Ji remembers. “We prayed together and shared our experiences, but it wasn’t enough.”

However, Siri Ji emphasizes that with the gathering of many religions, people would be able to regain the calm, respectful atmosphere they were previously used to.

After a program filled with music, chant, speakers, and meditation, visitors leave the Interfaith Prayer Service held at First Christian Church the 11th of each month.

In order to create this respectful atmosphere, religious harmony as Siri Ji describes it, the members of the council, Siri Ji and Snatam in particular, decided to attend an interfaith meeting of the Two Rivers Interfaith Ministries (TRIM). These meetings were formed in the fall of 1994 by the senior minister at First Christian Church.

“I think you could say that we sort of crashed the meeting,” Siri Ji says. “We weren’t invited to the TRIM meeting, but we were welcomed with open arms. They made us feel very comfortable.”

During the introductions, Snatam, and later Siri Ji, put the proposal on the table. They both stressed the necessity for services that would foster the ability to work, live, and pray together in harmony.

The first service started small. Vida Ellins was the organizer and a member of the board of directors along with Veena Howard, Nola Woodbary, Sandra Hunter and Siri Ji. The first meetings and services provided the directors an opportunity to adapt to what people were comfortable sharing.

Bryant explains that after nine years of services there’s a wide spectrum of changes. It took a few years for the board of directors to settle on a format, finally deciding that services pick a theme and ask eight to ten people to participate in music, poetry, and word throughout each ceremony.

“They had to figure out how to represent each culture without offending another,” Bryant says. “People need to feel safe and respected.”

The board of directors set up rules and guidelines to help their congregation remain loyal and feel safe.

“We don’t do introductions and we don’t give applause,” Siri Ji explains.

This tradition is to show that all speakers are valued equally and that the audience is there to learn and pray, not to appreciate a show.

Siri Ji believes that the interfaith services have been a phenomenal success that has spread influence throughout the U.S., Canada, and England. The board of directors recently received emails and pictures of other interfaith groups around the world. These  groups started after observing the Eugene services.

However, she acknowledges that it is often hard to please everyone. She remembers encountering a man who became very upset and racist toward two directors when they told him that he couldn’t be in every single service.

“We try to have a new group of people every month,” Siri Ji says. “But this man, who had no following that we could see, wanted to come to our services and preach his views. That didn’t fit with the principles of our program.”

These guiding principles are adapted from Siri Ji’s vision and used as a guideline for running all services. They include: to uplift and heal, to build a sacred space of deep respect and appreciation, and to provide a venue for the common good of all.

Nine years later, the services continue. October 2010 marked the program’s anniversary with nearly five hundred people in attendance. Doug Scheuerell played a sarod, a stringed instrument used in Indian classical music, during the prelude of the service, accompanied by Kusum Kanwar on the tampura, a long-necked, stringed instrument plucked to accompany in Indian classical music.

“These services give us the opportunity to express our unity,” Schuerell says. “No matter what our faith, we are all connected and more understanding, and cooperation will help enable us to live fruitfully. When I attend an interfaith service my faith is truly renewed.”

Representatives from a variety of religions including Islam, Baha'i Faith, Tibetan Buddhism, and Taoism sang traditional songs and recited prayers during the November 11 service.

Towler strums his fingers across the guitar strings, subtly indicating the transition of his song from “Hare Krishna” to “Amazing Grace” and then back again.  The tune lingers long enough for the congregation to get comfortable and reach for its songbooks, but changes before it can forget the lyrics of previous songs or get too settled in one religion’s traditions. The unity of tune continuously echoes the divine vision Siri Ji had fought so hard to orchestrate.

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