DECATUR – The Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the book Sikhs consider God's representative on Earth, rests on an ornate platform at the front of the Gurdwara, Punjabi for “house of God.”
Worshippers, each shoeless and with heads covered, approach one by one, sink to their knees and bow down to the carpet. Then they rise, walk around the holy book and take a seat in a sanctuary, where the only pews are for people who cannot sit on the floor.
It's a place where all are welcome, people come and go according to the meal under preparation nearby for after the service, and no one ever asks a guest to convert.
It's also right here in Decatur.
Establishing the Sikh Religious Society of Central Illinois two years ago, the 13 founders and other Decatur-area Sikhs are ready to open the doors of what was once Rock Springs Church of God and help people understand who they are.
Lakhwinder Singh of Decatur, a founder who owns Famous Wine & Spirits stores in the city, said he recently overheard some customers talking about the “Muslim church” that had just opened up in their neighborhood.
“The way we look, a lot of people think we are Muslim, which we're not,” he said. “That is our responsibility to tell whoever is out there looking at us who we are, but you can't do it all the time.”
The most visually distinctive Sikh customs are that orthodox practitioners do not cut their hair and men do not shave their beards as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God's creation. Traditional head coverings are a turban for males and a long scarf called a chuni for females.
Islam also enjoins its followers to cover their heads, but as a sign of modesty, with men sometimes wearing a skullcap or brimless hat called a fez and women a hijab or nihab, the latter covering the face except for the eyes.
Going beyond the surface, Islam originated in Saudi Arabia more than 850 years before Sikhism was born in 1469 in the Punjab region of southern Asia, today the countries of India and Pakistan. It is the fifth-largest religion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddism.
Like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that believes in one God but unlike them reveres no part of the Bible, at least not directly.
But the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of devotional hymns and poems created by six gurus starting with Guru Nanak Dev Ji, born in 1469, and ending with Sri Guru Gogind Singh Ji, who died in 1708, contains writings from other faiths including those of Muslim Sufis and Hindu Bhaktas and Bhatts.
Before his death, Sri Guru Gogind Singh instructed Sikhs to follow the Sri Guru Granth Sahib as their ever-present Guru.
“Christians say that Jesus is God,” explained founder Shamsher Singh Amar of Taylorville. “In our religion, anything that is born and dies cannot be God, because God never dies.”
Guru Gogind Singh also mandated that all men use “Singh” as their names and all women use “Kaur” to reinforce that all humans are equal and to help eliminate discrimination based on family names, each of which denotes a specific caste.
Many Sikhs use no other surname but these, and that includes Dr. Ranjodh Singh, a general and colorectal surgeon who with his wife, Manpreet Kaur Randhawa, purchased a house in Forsyth in recent months.
The naming convention, like the practice of sitting together on the floor to worship and to eat, is intended to level the playing field.
“Whether you are a businessman or just a guy who is working on the street, all are treated equally in the house of God,” the surgeon said.
He added that the foundational beliefs of Sikhism are that believers should work hard and honestly, always share their bounty with the less fortunate and to remember God in everything they do.
The congregation meets from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays and 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, and all people, regardless of religion, are welcome to attend. Head scarves are available, as is a place to store shoes.
Dietary practices are vegan with the inclusion of milk and other dairy products.
Prior to the opening of Decatur's Gurdwara, the two dozen Sikh families living in the Decatur area had to go to Chicago, St. Louis or Indianapolis to worship in one.
“I have been living in this town since 2005,” said Lakhwinder Singh, another founder, a Forsyth resident and owner of gas stations in Decatur and Macon. “We would like people from these other Gurdwaras (who helped us) to join us so we can thank them.
“We also want the neighborhood and everyone else to come so we can show them who we are.”