Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune, who serves as vice president for Grace and Race Ministries, Inc., represented the ministry at a press conference on Jan. 26, 2015 at the National Press Club for the launch of a public awareness campaign about Sikhism. Sikhs have lived in America for hundreds of years but a majority of Americans do not know anything about adherents of the faith. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th many Sikhs have experienced increased incidents of violence, bullying and discrimination because of what they wear and others’ ignorance about what they believe.
Grace and Race Ministries supports the Sikh community and their efforts to educate Americans about their faith. Increasing awareness and understanding of Sikhs can only strengthen America and lead us toward full reconciliation and healing from a checkered past of bigotry and prejudice.
Below are Dr. Copeland-Tune’s remarks from the launch of the National Sikh Campaign.
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this important event. I am honored to be here with you today representing Grace and Race Ministries, which has as its mission to help foster racial understanding, healing and reconciliation.
It was just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 when the world as we knew it changed. We could not have envisioned such devastation on American soil. We could not have fathomed such hatred wielded against innocent people. But, sadly, the hatred that drove planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in NY did not stop there. It spilled over to Mesa, Arizona so that four days later the life of another innocent person was taken, that of Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was not killed because of anything that he had done. He was not killed because of anything he said. He was not killed because of his job or because he was serving his country. He was not even killed because of his religious beliefs. He was murdered because of mistaken identity. Because someone simply looked at him and decided his life was collateral damage in a war—not against terrorism—but against those who look different and have different beliefs. Can you imagine living with that kind of daily threat to your life and that of your family? Can you imagine your life hanging in the balance based on someone else’s perception of who you are and what you represent?
Yes, 9/11 was a tragedy of epic proportions. But 9/15 was also a tragedy and one that tears at the very fabric of American society and values. We are here today because the remnants of that tragedy continue as Sikhs are discriminated against and mistreated because of how they look and what others think they believe.
With information and understanding just a click away, this kind of discrimination should not be happening in America! This is the place where every person is supposed to have a fair chance. The land of the free and home of the brace is the place where everyone is supposed to be free to practice their religion when and where and how they see fit. This has been true for Sikhs who have been a part of American society for hundreds of years. They have been our neighbors and our friends, our classmates and our co-workers. We have enjoyed, together, this promise of America.
And, yet, we know that America is struggling to live up to its promise. As we stand here, we recognize that repeatedly that promise has come with a huge caveat for Sikhs and others in America. Sikhs are sadly a part of a long list of people in our nation who have been mistreated and even worse, have lost their lives because of prejudice and hatred. All too often those who have waved the flag of these United States and held up the banner of liberty and justice for all have denied those who don’t look like them and those who don’t believe what they believe or wear what they wear or pray like they pray, the right to have the same freedoms that they enjoy.
Yes, too many of our fellow citizens have paid the ultimate price because of someone else’s ignorance and it is time for this madness to come to an end!
As a Christian and a Baptist, I know that there was a time when we were misunderstood and reviled because of our faith. As an African-American, I am painfully aware that we too have had to live lives that contradicted the freedoms that are embodied in the promise of America.
But, today we stand together with a clarion call for our nation to recognize that wearing a turban does not make someone a terrorist any more than wearing a hoodie makes them a hoodlum—or a thief or a criminal!
Through this public awareness campaign about Sikhism, today, we begin the process of re-writing the script that led to that fateful moment on 9/15 when a turban became a death sentence. Today, we begin the process of reshaping our understanding and our thinking about the Sikh community. Today, we begin to repair that piece of fabric that was shred when Balbir Singh Sodhi lost his life. Today, we begin again to live up to the promise that is America.