In light of the deaths of six devout Sikhs, gathered for worship in the sanctity of their gurdwara when they were brutally murdered on Sunday in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, this story from the days immediately following 9/11 has taken on new meaning for me. These latest victims are not alone. Hate crimes against Muslims and those imagined to be Muslim rose 1,600% after 9/11. The number of devout, peace-loving, non-violent people who have been profiled, beaten, stabbed and shot over the past decade have been legion. But this time the whole country was watching.
On the morning of September 16, the Sunday after 9/11, I chose to return to the site. Down the subway steps I went, praying for an uneventful ride, but the car I entered felt anything but safe. In fact it was seething. On one side sat an wizened Sikh in an elaborate gray silk turban clasped in the middle with a Gurmukhi pin. He was alone on the bench to my left, sitting very straight and still, with tears pouring silently down his ancient face.
On the other side of the car every seat was taken. All the passengers were packed together like sardines glaring at him with narrow eyes. No one would sit next to him. I staggered toward him as the car rocked and planted my rear on the bench next to him with a decisive and ungraceful thud. Then everyone was glaring at us both.
We rocked along for a couple of stops. I remember how much emotional energy it took just to sit there. I remember trying not to glare back.
Then suddenly the Sikh stood up and crossed the aisle. He took a position near one of the doors, standing over a Hispanic mother holding a small infant. His new proximity caused people to flinch. He took his right hand and reached into his back pocket. There was a collective protective gasp. Muscles clenched in a man a few seats down who looked like he was poised to pounce.
The Sikh, beaming through his tear-streaked face drew out a harmless crumpled dollar bill. Then he reached down and stuffed the dollar into the baby's fist. The mother looked at me with dismay - a huge question mark on her face. Instinctively I leaned into the aisle, cupped my hands around my mouth, and said to her in a loud stage whisper, "Don't stop him. He needs to do this."
The mother frowned and leaned forward. "So?" she hesitated before finishing. "We know...he is...not...cruel?"
"Yes!" I answered, nodding vigorously - almost desperately. "So we know he is not cruel."
With that the car screeched to a stop. The subway doors opened. The Sikh stepped out. The doors closed. Every person in the car exhaled and burst into tears.
When I told this story last September on the BBC on the anniversary of 9/11 (editor's note: you can hear the author tell this story on the BBC by pressing the play button below. This story will begin at around 2:45), three theologians were asked to respond. The first was the Yugoslavian Christian theologian Miroslav Volf. He felt it was an incredible story about "a simple, almost desperate act of tenderness on the part of one on whom the most horrendous images of violence are projected."
Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at the University of Glasgow, as well as the Director of its Centre for the Study of Islam saw it as a story that teaches, "it takes the smallest acts to change people's minds whether their minds are made up out of fear or ignorance." Finally Damion Howard, saw the Sikh as "an icon of Christ." He says, "Violence is projected onto him but he does not return retribution or hatred or bitterness but instead does something that reaches out very powerfully and makes a universal connection with human beings."
Now that we have American's attention, what do we as people of faith do about this kind of insane murderous projection on innocent people? It does not stop with Sikhs, but in fact terrorizes immigrants of many backgrounds and religious traditions. When will we stop this and how? If small acts can be powerful transformers of minds, what should ours be now? How can we follow in the footsteps of the courageous and holy Sikh who redeemed a subway car full of hate in a single gesture?