“Interfaith dialogue is not about similarities or differences, it’s about humanity. It’s about letting people be who they are.” Gagandeep Kaur’s involvement within the interfaith movement in San Diego is guided by this intentional inclusivity and desire to cultivate mutual respect amidst theological and cultural difference. Kaur, a well-known and respected leader in San Diego’s interfaith movement, holds positions in numerous organizations while simultaneously working on her own to foster positive interfaith relations. In addition to articulating well the needs and desires of minority groups, especially her own Sikh community, Kaur insists that, in all endeavors, “its about equality, egalitarianism—everyone’s voice is important.”
Kaur came of age in New York during the 1970s. “My brother was the only Sikh boy in the whole school, the only one, and I remember what he went through. I remember my dad being the only Sikh man for days that I would ever see…” As a child, she remembers being “very conscious of walking down the street,” cognizant of the “weird comments that people would make…” But, she adds, “I didn’t have it hard. I looked like an Indian girl. [The men] had it hard because of the beards and all.” Her ex-husband co-founded the first and oldest Sikh civil liberties organization in the mid-1990’s then called the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force in Washington D.C. which is now known as Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF). Although Kaur ultimately chose a career in financial advising, she was so steeped in this environment that as world events unfolded, she found herself drawn into discussions about religion.
For many people, the events of 9/11 spurred a renewed interest in interfaith relations; Kaur was no exception. She credits those tragic events as the decisive moment that pushed her onto the interfaith scene in San Diego. “When 9/11 happened, it was my first introduction into the interfaith community…actually the first hate crime was a Sikh gentleman in Arizona and in San Diego we had a lady who was stabbed with a pen or pencil on Miramar Road…I was so active in civil liberties that [I] got involved.” Kaur, like so many Americans, felt the immediate impact of discrimination being directed toward minority religious communities, especially immigrants. Then, as now, her mission in a post-9/11 context became “representing the Sikh voice in the interfaith diaspora here in San Diego.”
A decade later, Kaur is a board member and past president of the Interreligious Council of San Diego (IRC), a diverse organization committed to working across religious lines on labor and immigration issues, among others; a lead developer of the San Diego Regional Interfaith Collaborative (SDRIC), an umbrella network dedicated working on social issues; and, an organizer for the long-running All-Faiths Dialogue, a group that seeks to mutually exchange ideas to work for the common good. Additionally, Kaur serves on the San Diego District Attorney’s Interfaith Advisory Board, a group that counsels victims and victimizers in non-violent cases, attempting to mediate tensions and provide healing from a spiritual perspective.
Reflecting upon her thirteen years of experience in the interfaith organizing, Kaur identifies the reliance upon Abrahamic, particularly Christian, language that is applied by many to all world religions as the biggest stumbling block to effective engagement. She explains, “language [is] a very big part of the challenge in interreligious dialogue; language is charged and powerful. An understanding of difference must happen in order for interreligious dialogue to happen.” Even the word “interfaith,” can be uncomfortable for her to use; it carries with it Christian connotations which Kaur fears might alienate non-Christian participants. She prefers instead what she considers a more neutral term: “interreligious.” Her focus on language bespeaks of her desire for true inclusivity, a challenge she believes San Diego can rise to meet. True inclusivity, according to Kaur, is “not just religious sensitivity, it is cultural sensitivity too, and that’s what the missing link is. I think we’re not going to see [dialogue] evolve until these issues are understood.”
Theologically, Kaur explains that “when two or more people get together and talk about God, that’s called ‘holy congregation,’” a concept and practice many in the Sikh community consider find to be enlightening and deeply moving. Before her work in interfaith organizing, she believed this kind of congregation could only take place among Sikhs. Now, her perspective has shifted; she is most proud of the fact that she understands that groups of people coming together, from any religious or ethnic group, as something profound and deeply meaningful. She stresses the ongoing need for “the interfaith plane” to become “equal as possible in order for it to be effective.” Kaur’s life experiences, especially since she began organizing interfaith initiatives, give her hope that such equality is possible.