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Historical Sikh Invocation at Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service
Scripted, Except for the Word: Waheguru

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2013 | 10:13 pm

Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, was the first Sikh to deliver an invocation at the presidential inaugural prayer service last month at the Washington National Cathedral.

Photo Source: C-SPAN

A Sikh made history last month when she delivered an invocation at the presidential inaugural prayer service.

“This was the first,” said Sapreet Kaur. She received a call from the White House Office of Public Engagement only a couple of weeks before the event, she told SikhNN.

“The administration and the president wanted to include a Sikh voice, and faith, in the inaugural prayer service,” she said. And they specifically asked if Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, could do it. She had never met the president but the White House is aware of the coalition’s advocacy work.

“It was a delight and a surprise,” she said.

Sapreet Kaur was one of about 23 representatives of various faiths and denominations that spoke at the prayer service to ask for blessings for President Obama’s second term. The event was held at the Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 22, the day after his swearing-in ceremony in front of the Capitol. She had not been inside the cathedral since her visit as a high school student nearly 20 years ago.

“The staff at the cathedral and the participants were wonderful people who embrace diversity in this country,” she said.

President Obama, the first lady, Vice President Biden and the second lady were the guests of honor. The very large, gothic and ornate room was packed with invited guests, which included at least a dozen Sikhs. The event was broadcast live by C-SPAN and by the cathedral, on its Web site. Many dastaars were visible in the section where the Obamas were seated, and in the sections to their left. Most were members and guests of advocacy groups such as the coalition, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, and United Sikhs.

Each speaker met with the president, the vice president and their wives, and had a picture taken with them.

“Before meeting him I had a moment of nervousness,” Sapreet Kaur said. “(I) wanted to represent the community well.

The president told Sapreet Kaur that he was very happy to support the Sikh community, she said. She then thanked him on behalf of the Sikh community for his leadership and inspiration, and asked that he continue his support during his second term.

“It was wonderful to meet him,” she added. The first lady, the vice president and his wife, also expressed the same sentiments. “It’s very rare to (meet) all four at once.”

The service included prayers and invocations, with devotional songs weaved throughout the program. Recitation of prayers came largely from the Bible, but also from Jewish and Islamic scriptures. One of the more memorable prayers was sung in traditional Islamic style by Imam Abdullah Khouj, president of the Islamic Center in Washington D.C.

“The atmosphere was very uplifting,” Sapreet Kaur said. “It felt like a divaan, a soothing and calming place to be.”

Sapreet Kaur’s was the only non-Abrahamic religion represented at the service. Her part, which was under a minute, was not from Gurbani, but more like an Ardaas:

“Waheguru of compassion, be near to all who call upon your name in the course of daily life, work and service. You call and gift us for work that brings us joy and embodies concern for our neighbors. Make us glad and grateful for the strength to serve you and our neighbor. Let us pray for those who, through any form of service, offer themselves in devotion to our nation.”

Her invocation was scripted, she said. “They had us look at it. We could (only) substitute the word for God.”

Sapreet Kaur used “Waheguru.”

The White House forwarded SikhNN inquiries about the script to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, but the committee did not return numerous requests for input.

“The (entire) prayer service was planned and scripted” by the White House, the inaugural committee and the cathedral, said Richard Weinberg, spokesman for the cathedral.

“In most cases, everyone followed the script,” he said. “Some people felt strongly about saying some things in the script and were able to consult the cathedral director, who wrote the service, and the White House, and worked on revising it. (They) worked with the committee and made changes.”

Inaugural prayer services have always been scripted, he said.

“If you look through the program, most prayers were specifically universal,” Sapreet Kaur added. “There were thematic things, not unlike recent prayer services, for elected leaders...”

The invocations began with: “Faithful God, accept the fervent prayers of all your people… let us pray for those charged with the governance of our nation.” They were addressed specifically to the president and vice president to “make them bold… grant them wisdom,” and asked for blessing for members of Congress, members of the Supreme Court, members of the military, members of state and local governments, first responders, the American people, their neighbors and the rest of the world.

“Sikhism is the fifth largest religion but (our) population in the United States is fairly small,” Sapreet Kaur added. “This was a huge moment of recognition and connection for Sikhs to the larger interfaith community.

“It was a humbling experience.”

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