by SS Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa, Phoenix AZ
2021 (Third Quarter)
The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 had left our sangat on edge. Images of Osama Bin Laden, with beard and white turban, played over and over again on the news. That Tuesday night we scheduled a memorial Gurdwara service at Guru Nanak Dwara in Phoenix, but many people were too afraid to come.
In the next few days, we sent out press packets explaining who the Sikhs were, and we participated in an interfaith prayer gathering. Then, on Saturday afternoon, September 15th, we received a call that Balbir Singh Sodhi had been shot and killed.
Balbir Singh had been planting flowers in front of his gas station in Mesa when he was shot in the back by Frank Roque, who had been pushed over the edge by the news images of Bin Laden.
My husband, SS Jodha Singh, and I immediately decided to go out to the station. When we arrived, Balbir Singh’s body was still lying on the ground, covered up, several hours after the shooting. His family was in great distress.
We talked with Rick Romley, the Maricopa County Attorney, who was at the site. An intense conversation ensued, in which we impressed upon him how upset the family was.
The body was removed a short time later. Within hours of the shooting, an impromptu memorial emerged, where neighbors and caring strangers came with flowers and messages about this generous man and about the need for seeing the God in us all.
Balbir Singh’s murder—the first hate crime after 9/11—attracted international attention. The BBC and other news organizations as far away as Japan picked up the story.
We contacted Dr. Paul Eppinger, Director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, who sent an urgent appeal to local congregations to lend their prayers and support. I set up a special bank account to receive donations to help the family. It was determined that the memorial would be held at the Phoenix Civic Center on Saturday, September 22nd, just one week after the shooting.
SS Guru Roop Kaur sent out a call to the Espanola sangat for help. Sardarni Guru Amrit Kaur rallied the troops and a contingency of sevadars descended on Phoenix on the 19th, just days before the event.
A whirlwind of activity followed: SS Ek Ong Kaar Kaur wrote press releases; MSS Avtar Hari Singh and SS Ravi Kaur designed the program at the Civic Center; MSS Daya Singh and Akal Security provided security for the ashram, Sodhi family, and Civic Center; and SS Mukta Kaur hosted dignitaries and politicians.
Finally, the day arrived. Over 4,000 people attended the memorial service, including Janet Napolitano, the then-Governor of Arizona. MSS Guru Singh, SS Snatam Kaur, and SS Pritpal Singh and Jatha provided beautiful music to lift people’s spirits during this time of sorrow.
With the help of MSS Avtar Hari Singh, SS Ravi Kaur, and SS Seva Kaur, an interactive board was created where people wrote their heartfelt messages to the family. This was a way of bringing people together at a time when our unity felt shattered.
Perhaps most moving of all—Balbir Singh’s family members shared their special memories of their beloved brother, father, and uncle. Many tears were shed that day, but through it all, the gentle kindness of Balbir Singh permeated the service and pervades to this day. We were privileged to have been able to lend a helping hand to bring light in this dark time.
About the Author
SS Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa is an ordained Sikh Dharma Minister. In 1971, Gurukirn Kaur was introduced to Sikhism at Pomona College. She obtained her BA in Art from UCSB and became a Sikh Minister in 1974. She has written several books, including Pure Longing Fulfilled and Living with the Guru. In 2002, the Centennial Foundation of Toronto, Canada honored her for her artistic contributions to the Sikh religion. She has presented at four Parliament of the World’s Religions and is an Arizona Interfaith Movement board member. She pursues her passion for plein air watercolor around the Southwest. Gurukirn Kaur lives with her family in Phoenix, where they serve Guru Nanak Dwara.