Central Square Sikh community looks back 18 years after hate crime
CENTRAL SQUARE — Eighteen years after an arson attack on a Sikh temple in Central Square, founders and community members gathered Saturday at the new site of Gobind Sadan to celebrate rebuilding efforts made possible by devotion to the power of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is probably the greatest demonstration of kindness and one of the greatest demonstrations of compassion,” said Ralph Singh, a founding member of the Gobind Sadan temple.
Gobind Sadan is a temple of worship for practicing Sikhs that encourages interfaith meditation. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region in India and preaches the idea of a “world without walls.” Gobind Sadan was founded in 1986, but suffered severe damages in 2001 due to a fire caused by four teenagers.
In statements to law enforcement, the teenagers said they acted in response to the 9/11 attacks.
“I thought the place was called ‘Go bin Laden and the people who lived there supported (Osama) bin Laden and his attacks on America,” one of the teenagers who caused the fire told police.
The fire provided an opportunity to test one main teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikh’s holy scripture, which temple officials say was found unscathed after the fire.
“These aren’t choices you can make,” Singh told the Palladium-Times. “You never know how you’re going to respond until an act occurs. In a 100-plus-year-old farmhouse with flames shooting out the roof, the holy scripture is not on fire or anything. I mean, that’s gotta be uplifting. Some people consider that a miracle.”
Singh said the aftermath also presented an opportunity to “broaden the community.”
He recalls immediately going to the temple after hearing of the fire. The place was “hung with darkness and negativity.”
“You could call it evil,” Singh said. “It was so thick you could cut it.”
The Sikh temple members and supporters on that day — Nov. 18, 2001 — offered prayers of forgiveness so “whatever ignorance or hatred that caused this senseless act be taken away,” according to Singh.
“[The arson attack] provided us an opportunity to rebuild a broader community based on loving and understanding, so this type of ignorance doesn’t occur and people come together. In that process, the temple and the community will be rebuilt,” Singh recalled.
The transformation of the community had a parallel effect in the life of one of the teens involved in the incident, who along with the other three people pleaded guilty to hate crimes in 2002.
Cassie Phillips, who is now a traveling nurse and a mother, wrote a letter to Singh. The letter was read aloud during the ceremony:
Phillips’ letter spoke of “questioning [her] own faith and questioning if there even was a god or higher power.”
“‘If there was, would he really allow me to be involved in such acts of hatred or ignorance? I couldn’t say thank you enough for all the forgiveness given with kind hearts and open arms. Never in a million years would I have thought so many miracles and blessings could come from such a negative act. This lovely community didn’t only forgive me when I did not know how to forgive myself, but they led me to the light,’” Singh said, reading from Phillips’ letter.
Phillips wrote she has reflected with her children on the lessons she learned through the incident.
“It has been very important for me to raise my children to instill morals through the understanding and knowledge to see everyone as one, regardless of their outside appearance and beliefs. It is important for me to instill forgiving hearts so they don’t carry feelings of hatred,” her letter concluded.
A new temple, which stands adjacent to the old building, was inaugurated in 2008 and is the product of a collaborative effort from members of the community and first responders.
Palermo United Methodist Church Pastor Tammie Chawgo-Nipper, who helped in the rebuilding efforts, was present at the 18th anniversary celebration Saturday and reflected on her journey in spirituality.
“I needed to be someone that radiated her light into the world of darkness, which I had just witnessed myself,” she said of her time helping Gobind Sadan. “I love you as brothers and sisters and it is an honor and privilege to be part of your history and part of your future.”
Rev. Andrea Abbott of the First Universalist Society of Central Square thanked the members of Gobind Sadan for their service to the community as an interfaith center for prayer.
“I’ve been grateful for your presence in the community and the fact that you have stayed here,” she said. “In you, we found love rises above hate,” Abbott said.