A Happy Camper: The Evolution of My Sikhi and Me

Every Wednesday before Thanksgiving, for as long as I can remember, I had the same schedule. I rushed home from school, washed my hair (always a process for Sikhs), packed my bags, and piled into the family minivan with my parents and brother. We would make the short 45-minute drive to a YMCA camp in Gurnee, IL, where we would spend the weekend with about 150 Sikhs practicing and learning about our faith together. Thanksgiving dinners were cooked by our parents, classes and activities run by our bhenjis and veerjis, and we would all gather each morning and evening to remember our Divine origins as a community.

Over the years, my relationship to my faith changed, as did my relationship to camp. When I “graduated” from camp as a 14-year-old, I was tasked with giving a graduation speech on the final day of camp. While I was deeply honored, it was difficult to deliver because my family was soon going to move away to Michigan, and I feared the move would prevent us from returning. I barely got through the first few lines of my speech before bursting into tears, worried that my camp family, which felt like my true family, would become distant strangers.

But, thankfully, my fear was unfounded and I continued to be involved in the community, returning as a counselor and teacher. A few years later, when my childhood gurdwara was attacked by a neo-Nazi gunman who killed 6 members of the congregation, it was my camp family that taught me how to grieve and move forward after the tragedy and trauma. They did so by helping me recall our shared, long legacy of fighting against tyranny and social injustice, by reminding me of the strength that flows from the core virtues of love and selflessness, and by showing me the courage that lies within the hearts of our community members. My camp family demonstrated of all the ways in which Sikhi could guide me, even when it felt like there was no path left to follow.

As I progressed through college, I experienced conflicts in the Sikhi I had been taught and the one I was seeing on a day-to-day basis. Raised in a family that both preached and practiced the equality that we learned from Gurbaani, I struggled with comments I received from community members when I started wearing a dastaar, as they told me I would be unsuccessful in finding a spouse and that I looked “too masculine” now. My faith and identity were now being called into question and I did not yet have the tools or experience to deal with it. I started to disengage from the larger community and create my own safe haven. I worked heavily with the Sikh Student Association at my undergraduate institution to build ties with other marginalized students on campus. By understanding our privilege and struggles within the larger context of the US and the globe, I wanted to build a network of active, conscious Sikhs—all while building a higher level of consciousness in myself.

By the time I finished my undergraduate education, I was burnt out, primarily from my extracurricular involvements. Despite a strong desire to pursue further education, I needed a break, and was fortunate to receive one through a fellowship that essentially funded me to travel solo throughout the world. I spent the following year in 15 different countries and, while my faith had been tested over the previous years, I still found myself seeking out community as I traveled. I looked for gurdwaras and Sikh events, engaging in the same conversations I thought I had tired of: how do we create a more global, unified diaspora community? What does active Sikh engagement look like? Where and how do we build the bridges between our faith and faith practice? I found myself, in different contexts and communities, questioning and recreating my faith through the questions and narratives of my Sikh peers around the world.

After a year out of the country, it was ironic and appropriate that one of my first “public” appearances should be at camp. For the first time in my life, I found myself nervous to return. I knew I had become more confident in the way I felt and practiced my Sikhi, but after so much physical and mental separation, I worried there would be a disjunction between me and my Sikh community. Deep down, I knew what fueled my anxiety: if things didn’t feel right here—if I still couldn’t find solace in my Sikhi at camp—I wouldn’t find it anywhere.

But like so many times in the past, camp became a rich and nurturing context for conversation about change and progress. This included discussing LGBTQ equality within the Sikh community with the junior counselors, gender equity and better female representation with the parents, and the creation of better learning spaces for differently abled Sikhs at camp with the teachers. I found that camp had grown, just like me. Despite my less-than-pleasant experiences of resistance and judgement in other Sikh spaces, camp provided a mirror and looking glass into my own personal development, and I saw how faith spaces can evolve along with their members.

This year, my camp journey is longer and more complicated than in the past, as I pack up my belongings and fly from California to Illinois. But in the final days before camp, I stopped to pause and reflect on why I was flying halfway across the country to get no sleep and return a few days later to finish my quarter as a doctoral student. As I celebrate Thanksgiving in the sub-zero temperatures with my Sikh camp family, I hope to continue to move us forward as a community, fighting for the rights of Indigenous Americans and Black Lives Matter, for the safety of our queer siblings and undocumented community members, for better public policy for our loved ones and for complete strangers. As I continue to challenge myself, I hope to keep challenging my camp family to question and grow; this Thanksgiving, like every other year, I’m grateful to return to this special place that provides so many of us with a context for personal and communal transformation.

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