ROCKVILLE, Maryland — A group of girls wearing richly colored headcoverings sit on the floor of a Sikh temple near Washington, DC, preparing posters for a vigil in front of the White House.
"Something with 'American' in it," one of them says, "like, 'Not a Sikh Tragedy, An American Tragedy."
Across the U.S., Sikhs are mourning the victims of the massacre Sunday that killed six of their co-religionists and wounded three others at a temple in Wisconsin.
The Guru Gobind Singh Foundation
in Rockville, Maryland, is the largest gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in the Washington area. The shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, has left many people here in shock.
"It's heartbreaking. We never thought this can happen, believe me," said Meeta Kaur Broca, a mother and IT specialist at a local firm. She said a gurdwara is supposed to be a sanctuary. "It's more secure than our own home. Our kids come here, they're walking, they're playing," she said.
As the younger generation draws up the posters for the vigil, the head cleric, or granthi, comes down from the prayer room. "We need your help with Punjabi," one of the girls says in English. The cleric sits on the floor, takes a magic marker and writes out a slogan in the Punjabi script.
Bhai Gurdarshan Singh has led services at the Rockville gurdwara for the past 25 years.
In his sermon, he told the story of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, who encountered a tribal leader "who wore a necklace of human fingers" and showed off his murderous strength by hacking a branch off a tree.
The guru then challenged him: "Can you put it back?"
"Powerful are not those who know how to destroy. Powerful are those who know how to unite," Gurdarshan Singh told worshippers seated crosslegged on the floor of the temple, quoting the founder of his faith.
In an interview before the service, Gurdarshan Singh said he heard about the shooting while chanting prayers.
"And somebody whispered in my ears and told me this has happened. And it was difficult to digest how can something in a gurdwara, in a place of worship, happen. It's a senseless act," he said.
Dr. Rajwant Singh is president of the suburban Washington gurdwara and chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education
. He followed the news at home as details emerged of the gunman's white supremacist views.
He says Sikhs are often misidentified as Muslims because of their turbans, and that their worries grew after the September 11, 2001 attacks. "So there has always been in the back of our minds a fear, anticipating a tragedy like this to happen," he said.
There are about a half-million Sikhs in America and they are rarely in the spotlight. But Sikhs have played a part in the country's civil rights struggle - claiming the first Asian American elected to Congress in 1957. A World War I veteran who was a Sikh fought a battle for citizenship rights in the 1920s that went all the way to the Supreme Court - although the ruling denied him and other Indian Americans citizenship because they were not Caucasian.
The Wisconsin tragedy comes as many Sikhs are celebrating the centennial of the first American gurdwara built in 1912 in Stockton, California.