In a show of solidarity with Sikhs in the Inland Northwest, Governor Jay Inslee traveled to Spokane Wednesday to celebrate vaisakhi, the holiest Sikh festival.
Following an incident in early March where a naked man vandalized the gurdwara, or temple, in Spokane Valley, Inslee assured the Sikh community that Washington embraces a diversity of religions.
“In our state, in the Evergreen State, there are no others. There are only Washingtonians,” he said.
Jeffrey C. Pittman is accused of breaking into the temple because he was hungry and cold, according to court documents. Prosecutors allege he told investigators that he became convinced the temple was a Muslim mosque connected with the Islamic State after he went inside. He was found holding two ceremonial swords.
He desecrated the holy book and rolled around naked on the carpet, Sikh Temple members said.
Sikhs are sometimes targeted by people who incorrectly assume they’re Muslim. In December, a masked robber shot a Sikh store clerk in Michigan, accusing him of being a terrorist and member of the Islamic State.
Sikh men typically wear a turban, and most are from the the Punjab state in North India where the religion originated - a region of the world that’s also home to many Muslims.
Inslee said he’s also heard of similar crimes and acts of vandalism committed against Muslims and Jews recently, and said it’s important for people of all faiths to recognize they’re not alone.
“I know that this can be a very painful thing for a community,” Inslee said.
After sitting in the temple, Inslee went downstairs to the gurdwara’s kitchen, where he ate samosas, roti and other Punjabi food with temple members. Sikh gurdwaras have community kitchens where anyone can come in and eat a meal during the day, regardless of their religion.
Sikh Temple members said they’ve been moved by the showing of support following the vandalism incident.
The break-in happened on a Thursday. By Sunday community members came together to replace the carpet and sheets and clean everything up in time for regular services on the following Sunday.
“It brought the community together,” said Maneet, a temple member.
Subarna Nagra, a member of the Sikh community and spokeswoman for the gurdwara, said people from all over the world contacted them to show support.
Inslee reached out several weeks ago and made plans to come celebrate vaisakhi, the day which marks the start of the harvest in Punjab and the date the religion’s tenth guru united Sikhs under a common set of values and practices.
“He could have been at any other Sikh temple or any other gurdwara in the state, but he chose us. We’re very honored,” Nagra said.
Temple leaders say the vandalism has renewed their desire to educate the community about Sikhism.
“It is just a lack of education and identification,” said Hardyal Singh Virk, a leader at the gurdwara. “He thought that we were some other people.”
Because of popular demand, the Sikh Temple, located at 1420 N. Barker Road in Spokane Valley, is hosting an open house during its regular services on Sunday, April 24 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Pittman’s trial on charges of burglary and malicious mischief is scheduled to begin May 9. He has also been charged with malicious harassment, Washington’s version of a hate crime.
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