Central Valley

Respected leader of Northern California Sikhs dies

More than 1,000 Sikhs are expected at Saturday's funeral services for the Rev. Wadahawa Singh Gill, the longtime spiritual leader of Northern California's Sikh community.

Rev. Gill died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia weeks before his 88th birthday. He was deeply beloved by the roughly 100,000 Sikhs in the Sacramento region and beyond as a wise, calming influence in the face of conflict and misunderstanding.

He played a huge role after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States when Sikhs -- who wear beards and turbans in keeping with their faith -- were targeted by bigots who confused them with Muslims. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., was shot to death Sept. 15 by a man yelling "I stand for America."

On Sept. 14, 2001, Rev. Gill spoke at the state Capitol on behalf of Sikhs everywhere. He declared, "This is our country, we are Americans, and we have nothing to do with 9-11," recalled his longtime friend Darshan Singh Mundy.

Rev. Gill and his wife took to the airwaves to explain that Sikhs are peace-loving, tolerant people who respect all faiths. He delivered that message to the end.

Under his leadership, the Sacramento Sikh community partnered with other interfaith organizations to hold a World Peace March in October attended by more than 5,000 people.

As the author of several spiritual books, "he's famous all over the world," Mundy said.

Rev. Gill was a preacher, advisor, peacemaker, "like the head of our family," Mundy said.

"He wasn't an ordinary person, he was a saint," Mundy said. "He was humble, soft-spoken, always happy. He said to treat all humanity equally -- men or women, any culture, any caste. He loved all faiths. ... He saw God resides in everyone."

An immigrant from India, Rev. Gill got his bachelor's degree from Forman Christian College in Lahore. He obtained his master's degree in Punjabi language from the University of Punjab.

Rev. Gill brought his family to Stockton in 1974. After a dozen years as head granthi (reverend) of the Sikh Temple -- or Gurdwara Sahib -- in Stockton, he became head granthi of the West Sacramento Sikh Temple.

"If there were disputes over property, or between husband and wife, son and father, or brother and brother, he'd get involved and say there's no need to go to court," Mundy recalled. "And he always kept a secret. He saved so many families, so many from divorce."

His son, Jaspal Singh Gill, said Rev. Gill told him after 911: "There's always evil in the world, but you have to stand up against it. You have to speak up for the weak. We have to show the public what Sikhs stand for."

Jaspal Singh Gill, 51, said his father was big on forgiveness. "He said, 'Even if they've done something wrong to you in the past, your actions should always be positive.'

"What I will miss the most is his advice," Jaspal Singh Gill said. "No matter what the situation, he always calmed me down. We were rear-ended in Canada, and I got upset. As I was panicking, he said, 'God is control, don't worry.' He'd always say things like that that would comfort me."

Every morning at 2 a.m. Rev. Gill would rise, shower, meditate for an hour, read scripture and pray, his son said. "That's been his routine since I was 5 years old."

Not being able to keep up with his daily routine "was his biggest worry," his son said.

The night before he died, Rev. Gill looked up from his hospital bed "and told us he feels he's at peace and with 'one' (God) at that time."

David Thompson, president of the Interfaith Service Bureau of Sacramento, said Rev. Gill's "wisdom and depth of his mind were legendary. He was always peaceful, gentle and appropriate."

Mohinder Sandhu, general secretary of the West Sacramento Sikh Temple, remembered Rev. Gill "as a very enlightened man, a very noble soul who cared a lot about peace and harmony among human beings."

Sandhu said people are welcome to pay their respects at either the funeral services or the West Sacramento Sikh Temple.

Prayer will last for one week ending March 7 with a service from 3-5 p.m. at the West Sacramento Sikh Temple.