When you enter the home of Rai Kaur Khalsa in Knoxville, you are immediately greeted with several sacred symbols of Sikhism. One of the first items encountered is a large picture of the religion's holiest shrine.
"That is a photograph of the Golden Temple, the main holy place in Punjab, India," said Khalsa. "It is a place very dear to the hearts of all Sikhs and many make pilgrimages to the temple."
At the top of the stairwell you will find a painting of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.
"He was the first Guru, a very kind and a very gentle soul," said Khalsa. "A lot of Sikhs have his image in their home because he was the first."
Sikhism ranks as the fifth largest religion in the world. Despite the large overall size, Sikhs are minorities practically everywhere in the world. Their minority status leads to a lack of exposure for non-Sikhs who often confuse the religion as a branch of Islam or Hinduism.
"Sikhism is a religion totally separate from Hinduism and totally separate from Islam," said Khalsa. "Some of the basic tenets of Sikhism include a belief in one God along with a respect for other religions. We respect others' ability to worship our same God in the manner they choose. We believe in working very hard and sharing the benefits with others."
Khalsa and other members of the small community of Sikhs in East Tennessee say they were frightened and heartbroken by the news of Sunday's deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
"We do feel this is our extended family," said Khalsa. "These were our brothers and sisters. The sadness I feel that this madman has done this kind of atrocious act to Sikhs is the same way I mourned for my brothers and sisters at the Unitarian Universalist Church. This is terrible no matter who it happens to."
"There is a shock not only that this could have happened to Sikhs, but there seems to be a trend of this at a theater, a school, and different
places being violated where people are supposed to feel safe," said University of Tennessee professor Rupy Sawhney.
Sawhney said the shootings were a dominant topic of discussion as he sat among a group of other Sikh men at the Knoxville temple, also known as a gurdwara.
While they do not know the particular motives in the Wisconsin shooting, the tragedy elicits a frequent fear since September 11, 2001, of being targeted due to mistaken identity. That misunderstanding often stems from Sikhs wearing turbines and long beards.
"Sikhs do not cut their hair in part as a sign of humility and appreciation for the way God created them," said Khalsa. "The tradition of wearing a turbine started several centuries ago as an act of defiance against Islamic extremists who said only Muslims could wear turbines. The irony now of our being mistaken for the very people we led the fight against is remarkable. Sikhs have a long history of fighting for equality of all people."
"Along with the long beards and long hair, the turbine was to distinguish a Sikh from everyone else during that period of time," said Sawhney. "We are a religion of peace that treats every religion equally. We
believe we are just one way to address God like any other religion."
Both Khalsa and Sawhney said they are thankful to live in East Tennessee. They said East Tennesseans have overwhelmingly made this area a happy home for Sikhs.
"I think it is really important for people to understand who we are. We are people of compassion and we love our country," said Khalsa. "I cannot begin to express how grateful my family is to be a member of his community and to be embraced for who we are and not how we appear."
"We have been accepted and we want to keep it that way," said Sawhney.