“Stories have the power to change the world,” Ralph Singh, chair of the Wisdom Thinkers Network told attendees of the North American Interfaith Network conference held at the University of Toronto from Aug. 11 to 13.
Singh, who is also founding president of the U.S. branch of the Gobind Sadan Sikh community, then went on to share the story of how the attacks of September 11 in the U.S changed how he was perceived and received there. Children curious about the turban he wears as a part of his faith used to point at him and say “There’s Alladin,” he said. “Post 9/11, I went from Aladdin … to Bin Laden overnight.” And the Gobind Sadan centre, north of Syracuse, NY, was the first religious site to be attacked in the backlash, burned by arsonists.
But based on the teachings of Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, who said that not only all people but all of creation are one, the people in the community quickly responded by offering a prayer of forgiveness. Singh co-ordinated the media and community relations, and when the media asked if they would rebuild, his answer was, “This provides us an opportunity to rebuild a community based on love and understanding so that the hatred and ignorance that leads to these senseless acts will be taken away.” This forgiveness had a transformative power, he said. The story got a lot of attention in the local media with headlines such as “Sikhs Welcome the World,” he says. One of the teenaged arsonists was so transformed by Baba Virsa Singh Ji’s message that when the centre held an anniversary service that they called “Gathering Around the Light” one year later, that same woman brought her whole family and newborn son to celebrate with them, said Singh.
“For me, the issue with interfaith work is that the table keeps getting broader, more people come and the circle gets wider, that’s the horizontal expansion, but the vertical impact just isn’t there,” says Singh, explaining that he sees the vertical impact in things such as stories in the media and the actions of governments. “The the fires keep getting fanned,” he said.
Singh helped to found NAIN and has supported it throughout its 25 year history, but he feels it is important to have an impact beyond the interfaith community in the broader society and world. “I felt the key was education, and I wanted to change the story within what I call spirituality and education in public life.”
So, he decided to create a book of stories that would help teach children to see common values in stories from different faiths and traditions. Stories to Light Our Way: Journey to the World of Good includes stories from 11 different traditions, seven sacred and four secular and it comes with a recorded CD.
His timing was good because American educators. were concerned about issues such as bullying and were introducing the Common Core curriculum or character education into the schools. Singh’s book is now being used in many public schools, he says, from rural schools with no diversity in their populations to inner city schools in the Bronx and Montessori schools. It’s a also been recommended as a resource by the National Association of Episcopal Schools, he added. “After four years of taking it around the world, it is finally getting some traction,” he said.
“Prejudice starts young,” Singh said, but he believes that if children learn stories from one another’s traditions, they will understand that they share values.
Singh, who is now a grandfather, said getting out to read to kids “is still my favorite thing.”
Editor’s note: Corrections have been made to the original version of this story.