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Debunking Religious Stereotypes


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HASBROUCK HEIGHTS - Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa, featured speaker at the 19th annual Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood gathering Sunday, spoke volumes about stereotypes and false assumptions before he even said a word.

No one expected the speaker representing the Sikh community to be a former good ol' boy from Alabama.

"My dad's reaction was: 'I've donated thousands of dollars sending missionaries to India, and they send someone over here to convert my son,'Ÿ" said Khalsa, 58, who has a long white beard and wears a turban.

Khalsa, whose name was Bob McMasters before he converted to the Sikh religion, said he grew up in a Church of Christ home "just to the right of Southern Baptist." As a young man, he had such a reputation for partying that his nickname was "Holiday" - because, he said, "every day was a holiday for me." He went to law school, became involved in civil rights and anti-war activism, began studying yoga from a Sikh teacher and fell in love with the Sikh religion.

Now, Khalsa, 58, speaks Punjabi and Gurmukhi, the sacred language of the Sikh religion, and his children and grandchildren have studied in India. And he really defies expectations when he tells people he's also a New York City tax attorney.

"When I first came to New York and went to interview at law offices wearing a turban, they laughed at me. They flat-out laughed at me," he said. "They said 'No one's ever going to hire you as a lawyer looking like that.'Ÿ"

He worked in a health-food store and as a carpenter before starting his own law practice, and found that judges were a bit more accepting of differences than the lawyers who laughed at him. During his first trial, the judge called Khalsa into chambers and asked if he could show him some yoga relaxation techniques. Khalsa ended up offering yoga classes to a group of judges.

Religious organizations in Bergen County have been hosting an interfaith brunch since 1987. The Rev. Gregory Jackson of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack said he remembered when the first interfaith gatherings were attended by just Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Now, the gathering has grown to include representatives of the Bahai, Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Sikh relgions.

The Sikh center in Glen Rock hosted this year's brunch and invited Khalsa to speak. Khalsa represented the Sikh community at a parliament of world religions in 1994, and he is treasurer of a United Nations committee on spirituality, values and global concerns. Khalsa urged the more than 400 people in the audience at the Hilton hotel to "look at one another and see God there."

"We need to look at each other and not see what's outside, but to see what's inside. We're all created with a soul, with a spark of the divine," he said.

Several religious leaders who spoke at the gathering offered prayers for the late Pope John Paul II, calling him a "man of peace."

"He was the beloved pope of the whole world community," said Harkishan Singh Jassal, who spoke on behalf of the Sikh community of northern New Jersey

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