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Monday, September 18, 2006

Understanding builds a better community

Friday afternoon, 16 of Balbir Singh Sodhi’s friends and relatives gathered out front of the family’s convenience store on the corner of University Drive and 80th St. in Mesa to honor Sodhi’s memory. A two-officer color guard from the Mesa Police Department raised a new American flag as the small gathering watched quietly.

Perceptions, I thought.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Frank Roque did not see a softspoken, kind man behind the counter at that convenience store. Instead, Roque saw a man “in a turban’’ who he identified as a supporter of the extremist Muslim terrorists who had rained down death in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania four days earlier.

So Roque shot him dead.

Balbir, as we all learned, was not even Muslim. He was a Sikh, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more peaceloving group than the Sikhs. It was a bitter irony, one that you would suspect has left deep scars on a family and a community.

But that is a perception, too. Without question, Balbir’s family feels his loss keenly, but if you thought Friday’s ceremony was about grief, your perception is flawed.

“It is not what happened here five years ago,’’ said GuruRoop Kaur Khalsa, a spokeswoman for the Valley’s Sikh community. “It’s more about what has come of it. This was an event that brought the community together. It began with the acts of kindness shown by the people in the community in the days that followed and has continued.’’

Perceptions.

There is one thought that Sodhi’s son, Sukhwinder Singh Sodhi, can’t shake.

“I just wish the man that killed him would have been a regular customer,’’ he said. “If he had known my father, how kind he was, how gentle, I know he would never have done what he did.’’

As I watched the ceremony, my attention was drawn to three small children — grandchildren Balbir would never know — fidgeting out front of the memorial.

And I thought of what perception Balbir might have had at this moment.

His dream was to have his sons take over the business. Shortly after Balbir’s death, Sukhwinder moved to Mesa from San Francisco to do just that. Balbir’s dream is being fulfilled.

“He would have loved the grandchildren,’’ Sukhwinder said. “He loved kids. He was always giving children who came into the store candy. He was a very caring person.’’’

Perceptions.

Khalsa shared with me a saying from the Sikh faith, one that applies to my faith, too: If you can’t see God in all, you can’t see God at all.

I wish Frank Roque had seen God in that gentle man behind the counter five years ago. It is too late to help Balbir Singh Sodhi, too late to help Frank Roque. It is not too late for the rest of us. [Link]

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