How The Pope Won The Heart Of Sikh Survivor Of 1984 Riots, His Daughter

01/10/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Gunisha Kaur

On Sunday, the much loved and extremely popular Pope Francis left the United States after a six-day tour to return to Italy. The media faithfully covered every minute of his trip up to his last speech which he ended with, "God bless America." Before he boarded the plane at Philadelphia International Airport, he spoke briefly about his visit calling his time here "days of great grace," and recalled the high notes.


The Pope blesses Gunisha Kaur's unborn baby (Photo courtesy: Gunisha Kaur)

One particular moving moment for the Pope, he said in his speech, was the inter-faith prayer meeting at the September 11 Memorial and Museum, which was described as a journey of faith through the heart of New York.

In the small, intimate meeting, there were a dozen leaders -- including Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Greek Orthodox and Protestants -- who offered prayers with the Pope. There were only two hundred people in the room.


The Pope with leaders of various religions (Photo courtesy: Gunisha Kaur)

This was not one of the meetings that was captured in detail by the mainstream media but it caught my attention for several reasons.

The choice of Ground Zero as a venue was significant as it is a place synonymous with death, destruction and pain. It's "that place," the Pope said, "which speaks so powerfully of the mystery of evil. Yet we know with certainty evil never has the last word..." And he said he was "very moved to stand with his brothers and sisters of other religions..."

One of the stories that came out of the meeting, which I found to be particularly heart-warming was a tale of three generations, touched by the Pope. There was a Sikh father, his daughter and her unborn child.

Among the devout attendees of the inter-faith meeting, handpicked by their communities as leaders, was a Sikh, Satpal Singh, who survived the 1984 Sikh riots. He was on a train when he was attacked by a bloodthirsty mob that beat him until he was unconscious. Believing him to be dead, they turned to others and he lay on the tracks, not moving.

He survived and shortly after, he immigrated to the United States, where today, he is a professor at the Buffalo School of Medicine.

In an editorial for The Washington Post, Singh shares that as he sat next to the Pope during this ceremony, he could not help but think to himself: "Never in my life could I have imagined I would be in this position."

And unknown to Singh, community leaders also picked his daughter Gunisha Kaur, an anaesthesiologist at Weill Cornell Medicine to participate in the ceremony and translate the services in English.

Kaur is an established advocate and Sikh leader who has lent her voice to human rights, gender violence and has researched genocide cases in Punjab. She even wrote a book titled Lost In History: 1984 Resconstructed about human rights abuses in Punjab. She has worked closely with non-profit organisations such as Physicians for Human Rights.

Kaur says she has experienced many great moments but being at this prayer meeting "was the most amazing thing ever."

"While waiting for the Pope, time moved very slowly but just before the he was about to walk in," Kaur says, she "felt a powerful force, it was the divinity of his presence. Time stood still after he came in."

As a New Yorker, as a Sikh, as an active community voice, Kaur and her husband Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Trinity College and a Senior Religious Fellow for the Sikh Coalition,have counselled and helped many Sikhs who became victims of racial attacks after 9/11. They also reached out to Muslim victims.

"The Pope's gesture of sharing the service with minority communities sends a powerful and significant message that faith, love and community will always prevail over hatred," Kaur says.

There was another unique aspect to the prayer meeting: Kaur was the only person in the room who had a special request of the Pope. Just over four months pregnant, she asked for her unborn child to be blessed by him.

In a poignant moment, captured by husband Simran, Pope Francis puts his hand on Kaur's and blesses them.

"I cannot wait to share the picture with our child and talk of the memories of the day when we met the Pope, who was so real, so uplifting, so able to connect with us," she says emotionally.

A Pope who has successfully been able to win over members of other faiths is one who is truly destined for greatness.

This is the Pope the world was waiting for. And while Our Holy Father blesses the world and says prayers for them, I say my own prayer of thankfulness and gratitude for all spiritual leaders who can unite all faiths and keep them together. Even for a little while.

A version of this post appeared on DailyO

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