The officer at my local gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, always sat alertly in his SUV. He puzzled over families entering the building, which houses a behemoth kitchen used to prepare community meals and an unfurnished hall where worshippers sit barefoot and cross-legged. Above the car, an unmistakable orange flag featuring a khanda, the sworded symbol of Sikh faith, would sway in the wind.
The house of worship is nestled in a cookie-cutter neighborhood near my home in suburban Chicago. Gurdwara leadership only elected to station a police officer outside of our Sunday service—a costly and frightening endeavor—this summer.
Donations from the gurdwara’s congregation go towards building renovations, utilities, meal costs, soap and toilet paper for the restrooms, and now, the police presence. According to the whiteboard erected outside the main hall’s door, the gurdwara pays a couple of thousand dollars per month for the officer’s presence.
Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that originated in northern India, requires males followers to wear turbans in public. Consequently, they are often confused with Muslims and targeted as such. A gunman who open fired on a Wisconsin gurdwara in 2012 killed six worshippers.
The building, though ordinary on the outside, is a place of sanctity and devoutness for the Sikh community, which makes up less than one percent of the world population.
Just as other houses of worship serve different sects of the world’s population, the gurdwara collects people of one following to thank a higher being for their fortunate pasts or pray for better futures. And just like other global houses of worship, it is under fire.
On March 15, the Religion New Service, a nonprofit newsroom covering religion and culture, listed the most infamous attacks on religious institutions in the last decade, which charted 26 incidents and at least 1,184 deaths. The list’s publication preceded the Easter bombings at three churches in Sri Lanka, which killed hundreds more, by a handful of weeks. A number of attacks have made headlines this past summer. Because of religion’s relevance in our society, every one of us, regardless of who or what we believe in, should be concerned by this torpedoing rise.
With honorable intentions, governments often ramp up their police presence around religious institutions in the hostile and retrospective days that tail mass violence. For example, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to a string of attacks this past spring by instructing state police to “increase their security presence at synagogues and houses of worship,” according to ABC News.
Inevitably though, time uproots these widespread feelings of anger and injustice. Police forces are pulled back into their regular obligations, and congregations are left to fend for themselves.
Almost every religion preaches principles of peace, unity, and compassion. Regardless, many congregations have taken a preventative stance against growing threats of violence. Houses of worship are hiring their own security teams, grappling with city officials to fund armed guards, installing intricate networks of surveillance equipment, and fighting back in the face of danger. These safeguards sadly and frequently come with a steep price tag that falls into the laps of congregants.
But congregations should not have to pay for their right to safety.
I am certain every officer who stood guard outside the gurdwara this summer and in the seasons to come is committed to the safety of the people who file through on their watch. But it is unforgivable that communities’ right to be safe and their right to practice religious freedom is prescribed a monetary value.
And my gurdwara is not alone in its decision to explore precautionary yet pricey measures.
According to the Wall Street Journal, security consultancy companies are reporting a rise in inquiries from houses of worship. Congregants in Brooklyn proposed a bill that would force the city to reimburse houses of worships for private security costs. U.S. News and World Report even featured a rabbi in Key West who began going to target practice with a few worshippers.
Institutions’ decisions to fund preventative action, like additional police presence, are founded in evidence and concern.
In February, Vox reported on the effect cops have on crime, and the conclusion is obvious. “The research is clear,” writes Vox. “More cops = less crime.”
But when I first saw the cop car stationed outside the gurdwara, I felt oddly protective of a community and religion that has ousted me in the past. I’m an Indian American, born within national borders, who can speak a mashed yet understandable version of my native language, Punjabi. Yet the confines of religion and its sometimes traditionalist demands have mangled my worldview and sense of self in the past.
Still, the possibility that danger could be brought onto those who brandish the same label as me—Sikh—angered me to my core.
News of violence in houses of worship can feel absurdly distant, especially to those of us who steer away from religion and the idea of an overarching god. But the reality is that religious institutions surround our havens of education: the Park Street Church on the corner of the Boston Common, the mosque a few blocks down Boylston St., and the gurdwara a few stops down the orange line. Devout people take part in even the most menial aspects of our lives as friends, family, acquaintances, and teachers.
The safety of houses of worship then is a non-partisan and non-religious dilemma. Rather, it’s an issue of tolerance all of us should work to disassemble.
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