Sikhs give back through Detroit Day of Seva

Mark Hicks and Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
People The Sikh Coalition, Harswaroop Kaur, left, 15, of Rochester, and Shubhpreet Singh, center, 30, of Plymouth talk to twins boys Rashad Wright, left, 11, of Detroit and Amir Robinson-Wright, 11, of Detroit. Sunday.

Despite the heat Sunday afternoon, homeless people danced on a vacant lot in Midtown Detroit.

They were moving to the sounds of a gospel band but could just as easily been doing a dance of thanks. Before them was a bounty of food and clothes.

“It’s awesome,” said Jennifer Cain, “ ‘Cain’ like in the Bible.”

Seva4Everybody, a Sikh humanitarian group, and the Central Baptist Church in Detroit held neighboring events in a neighborhood with several homeless shelters.

The Sikhs doled out sandwiches, fruit and toiletries while the Baptists provided barbecued chicken, T-shirts and underwear.

“It’s pretty impressive,” said Gary Jones, 57, who, like Cain, is homeless.

This was the first time Jones had solid food since having part of his colon removed two weeks ago, he said. He pronounced the chicken and green beans a big success.

Several hundred people filled the lot, which was covered by a giant white tent with chairs and cloth-covered tables underneath. Most lugged plastic bags full of food and necessities.

For the Sikhs, a central concept in their faith is seva: selfless community service inspired by love and support for all other human beings. Their effort Sunday came around the fifth anniversary of a deadly attack in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, an unforgettable tragedy that has touched Sikhs across the globe.

To those giving back, helping out honors both the victims and their beliefs.

“The reason that Seva is so important in the Sikh faith is that we believe God’s light exists within all humanity,” said Harman Singh, director of operations for Seva4Everybody, a regional volunteer-led group that is heading the distribution. “So there is no such thing as a stranger because God exists within ... everyone on this planet. So that connection that we feel to each other is essentially God. When we’re serving others, we’re serving God.”

Service anchors Singh’s group, which he and other like-minded friends formed in early 2016. They long had partaken in volunteer projects in the area and sought to formalize their pursuits to attract others.

Since its launch, Seva4Everybody has pursued numerous programs each month that typically fall under several categories: community revitalization, youth mentorship, humanitarian aid, interfaith collaboration and social equality. Participants have also worked with groups such as Miracle League of Plymouth and the Salvation Army as well as headed to domestic violence centers and homeless shelters.

Doling out food to the less fortunate has become routine, so for the Oak Creek anniversary, the group opted to collect donated items from the Sikh community, Singh said.

“To be able to hand that out to people as they need them is really important,” said Harluxsh Singh, 27, the group’s development director. “That’s really going to affect and help people.”

The Detroit Day of Seva is infused with even more meaning as Sikhs work to share the tenets of their faith, which originated in South Asia and includes more than 25 million devotees worldwide.

Citing misunderstandings about their beliefs, Sikh officials note their demographic has frequently become targets for intolerance and discrimination since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The most notable incident occurred Aug. 5, 2012, when a gunman entered a gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and fatally shot six attendees.

Sunday’s Motor City event is among more than 20 across the country that aim to remember those lost, said Jagmeet Singh, media and communications manager at the national Sikh Coalition. “The events also get Sikhs out into their communities and serve to educate the public not only about the massacre, but about the Sikh faith and community throughout the United States.”

Like many other Sikhs, Harman Singh recalls the anger and frustration he felt when learning about the slayings. But through the connections his organization has cultivated, the 28-year-old Plymouth resident sees a chance to open minds and hearts.

“It’s a great way to bring the community together and do something positive from a situation that was very negative,” he said. “The purpose of our organization was really to do good in our community because these are our neighbors and we are care about our community. Along the way, those bridges that are artificially created start to fall down once you actually get to know someone.”