September 1, 2022
Simran Jeet Singh’s number still begins with 210. It was comforting though surprising given the New York-based scholar, philosopher and writer has kept it years after moving to New York City.
It’s a way the San Antonio-born self-described “turban-wearing, brown-skinned, beard-loving Sikh” remains grounded.
It’s where his India-born parents landed, raised a family and built a successful business; where Singh played soccer at O’Connor High, and where he first experienced the racism Sikhs face in the United States.
It was 9/11, when Singh says his life changed. His family, locked inside their home, got death threats.
Anger and ignorance took hold after the attacks, and Sikhs, like Muslims, were wrongly linked by their appearance and faiths to an extremist terrorist organization.
Leaders of both groups turned it into a teaching moment. His parents chose to see the goodness in people.
This month San Antonio will bring Singh home for “The Healing Power of Stories,” the first event of the Story Portal San Antonio, a project of Compassionate San Antonio. Singh will speak, as will other authors, at 2 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Whitley Theological Center at the Oblate School of Theology.
But it’s his parents who most draw him home, and it’s to them Singh dedicates his new book, “The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.” Published by Riverhead Books, it’s probably a singular work, or one of only a few, written about Sikhism in the context of U.S. life.
“Light” is part memoir, part history, part self-help meditations based on Sikh teachings of oneness, love, justice and selflessness.
It has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and made the Los Angeles Times bestselling list. It has become a national bestseller, but he seems most excited that “Light” scored blurbs of praise from novelist Anne Lamott and R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs.
Singh’s primary role is as executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program, which is focused on helping advance religious pluralism.
He remains affiliated with Union Theological Seminary, where he teaches Buddhist history. He taught Islamic Studies at Trinity University.
His parents are the well-known philanthropists G.P. Singh and Parvinder Kaur.
“I look back at their journey and just marvel at what they were able to create and endure,” he says. “I appreciate the purposeful commitment they had to preserving their values.”
They’re part of a small Sikh community in San Antonio. Singh says 750 to 1,000 Sikh families live here.
“When we were growing up, there were not enough Sikhs to have a gurdwara,” a house of worship. Today, there are two.
In “Light,” Singh acknowledges “our world is on fire,” and that teaching love and mutual respect looks impossible when the voices of hate are being championed and the nation seems intent on severing itself in two.
“It’s easy to feel that there’s no way out, or that there’s no hope to hang onto.”
But there is, he says, lots of it.
Even on Sept. 11 when his family was under threat. “It was intense and scary. Yet I remember my parents saying how lucky we were.”
Neighbors and teammates stopped by to check on them, offered support and brought food.
It became a turning point for the future writer.
“I realized, in that moment, what they (his parents) were trying to convey to us. That there is light if you choose to look for it.
“Even now after the Uvalde shootings and the tragic deaths of migrants,” he said, referring to the 53 people who died after being trapped in a tractor-trailer in June. “It’s the paradox of life, sometimes it’s hard to remember that.”
As a child, Singh yearned for books about Sikhs but never found them. It’s what led to “Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon,” a children’s book.
“The Light We Give” is Singh’s second book. It contains stories you’ve never heard from a storyteller and philosopher you’ve yet to know, even though he’s ours.
“Light” is an engaging, approachable on ramp to a topic and faith tradition that remains largely misunderstood. It’s about people who feel unseen.
It’s the kind of book high school and college students should be assigned.
As Singh ties his turban around his head each morning, he’s purposeful in thinking about his faith’s values.
It sounded so much like the meditation that comes from praying a rosary, how each bead can slow a familiar prayer and make it more meaningful.
Singh thinks about why he has chosen not to abandon his turban and what he experiences by wearing one.
The daily ritual is an act of faith and resistance, one in which the perceptions of others can never define him.