Evangelical ministry reaches out to Sikhs

"I just think a lot of times, in evangelical circles, we don't know how to reach out to people of other faiths...

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Aug. 20, 2012: In the days after the deadly shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek on Aug. 5, Faith Builders' pastor, the Rev. Jeff Pruitt, grew angry.

Not just at the senseless loss of life, or the desecration of a house of worship. Pruitt grew angry at the silence on his Twitter feed.

It had been abuzz after the July massacre at a Colorado movie theater that left 12 dead - with pastors decrying the tragedy and offering their condolences.

But on the Monday after the Sikh temple shooting, Pruitt said, there was nothing.

Day 2, zero.

"It's not because they didn't care," said Pruitt, who heads the charismatic, evangelical congregation known for launching one-time "American Idol" contestant Danny Gokey.

"I just think a lot of times, in evangelical circles, we don't know how to reach out to people of other faiths and still save face with our own people."

Pruitt showed how on Monday at a music-infused, multifaith celebration intended as a show of support for the Sikh community, which lost six members in the Aug. 5 rampage by Wade Michael Page.

Monday's event, which drew as many as 1,000 people to the south side church, was an unusually public embrace of non-Christians by an evangelical church. And it was one of what are likely to be numerous venues for local Sikhs to educate others about their faith.

"There's a heightened interest in interfaith relationships and understanding of diverse faiths" since the shooting, said Tom Heinen of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, which is organizing a September event that will focus on or include members of the Sikh community.

"I think there will be an effort to be much more inclusive and to learn about not only the Sikh faith, but others with whom there is much less familiarity," he said.

Likewise, many in the Sikh community are welcoming the chance to tell their story. Members of the temples in Oak Creek and Brookfield are fielding requests for speakers from religious and civic groups.

Sikh speakers requested

Temple trustee Kulwant Singh Dhaliwal said members are working on an educational program that they could offer first to schools. And the Oak Creek temple's youth group is looking at ways it can take the Sikh tenet of service to others in the community at large.

"This has been a wake-up call, the impetus for us to get out into the community," said Kanwardeep Kaleka, who helps lead the youth group.

"Obviously, this person came from a place of hate," he said of Page. "But most hate comes from ignorance."

Pruitt, of Faith Builders, said he expects to draw flak from some fellow evangelicals for reaching out to "nonbelievers."

Earlier this year, the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in southern California drew a deluge of criticism for his efforts to build bridges with the Muslim community there.

"There is one stream of evangelical Christianity that sees such a strong Christian heritage to America that any other faith group - particularly immigrant faith groups - is seen as a foreign influence and not fundamentally legitimate," said David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today and vice chairman of the board for the National Association of Evangelicals.

That's compounded for Muslims and those - such as Sikhs - who are mistaken for Muslims because of the post-9-11 suspicions that they are a "security risk," he said.

Seeing God as love

Monday's event included at least 35 pastors from around the state, many of them evangelicals.

Based on what he knows about Islam and Sikhism, Pruitt believes they and Christians worship the same God - heresy in some Christian circles.

Pruitt said he takes his inspiration for the outreach from the Bible itself, John 3:16:

"God so loved the world that He gave His only son."

"Not just the church, not just Christians, but he loved the world," Pruitt said.

"Some people see God as angry, but I see him as love. . . . And if they're seeking God, to me that's a noble thing."


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