There's good in everyone

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Acceptance of others is at the heart of Sikh beliefs and it's an ethos that storyteller Roop Singh conveys in his work and his life, even when times are tough. Gerald Haigh reports

Roop Singh is a familiar figure to thousands of school children through his workshops and story sessions. His white, orange and blue turbans make him stand out from the crowds and are, in turn, symbols of his peacefulness, power, confidence and direction. Since September 11, however, his appearance has made him, like other Sikh men, a target for verbal abuse, and the cries are often "Bin Laden".

"I've had to stop wearing my white turban in the street unless I'm going to a religious gathering," he says.

At Allerton Bywater Primary School in West Yorkshire the children were immediately on his wavelength. But the first time he visited St White's Primary in Gloucester (pictured) two years ago, where there are no Asian pupils, the children were "gobsmacked", says headteacher Paul Woodward.

When he returned last month, though, he was already familiar to the children, who enjoyed his workshop on Sikhism conducted through a "Who Wants to be a Millionnaire" style of game. Such an experience is important for children from an all-white school, says Paul Woodward.

Meanwhile, at Allerton Roop Singh ran a storytelling session. He sent a subtle message about the nature of language when he successfully got his group to understand the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, told in Punjabi with the occasional key word in English.

Roop is in demand at a time when inclusion and tolerance - the values that schools stand for - are beginning to look fragile. As he points out, standing up for your principles even within your own community can be uncomfortable at times. In the Sikh Gurdwara (places of worship), for example, the principle of offering food to all-comers, whoever they are, can try the patience of some members. "You get the drop-outs and you can smell the alcohol and the cigarettes," he says. "In our Gurdwara, one of the lads said to me that we shouldn't let them in."

But to do that would be to run against the very purpose of the open kitchen which, right from when Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak in the late 15th century in protest against inequality, has been a tangible and practical expression of the value and sacredness of all human life. "Do we say that now we've bettered ourselves we can look down on others?" Roop said to the young man. "The door is open. This is God's house."

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