Fitting In

“But it doesn’t fit in!”  I heard that many times from those opposing the building of a Sikh Temple in the southern part of the City of Guelph. “A temple wasn’t in the plans when we bought our homes in a planned subdivision.”  I was at the City Council meeting on March 1st speaking because I was fearful that the Sikh community would find themselves on the defensive and feeling unsupported. Fortunately they were far from alone and the tenor of the meeting was respectful.  I was also very heartened at the way the members of Guelph City Council listened attentively and asked probing questions of the various presenters as various arguments for and against were presented for the rezoning of the land in question.

I made a number of points in my brief presentation, but the primary one was that all religious organizations are faced with the issue of rezoning — since land is not specifically set aside in planning for the building of religious institutions. And further, any land in the southern part of the city is both expensive and hard to come by.  This needed to be taken into account as the application by the Sikh community to find a place of worship in Guelph.

But as is often the case for me, my best thoughts happened as I was lying in bed after the Council Meeting.

I thought about the planning requirement, cited often as a major argument by those who opposed the Temple — that whatever is built needs to “fit in” architecturally with Westminster Woods and the surrounding residential area.

That got me thinking about religious institutions in general. They are not meant to “fit in”. By its very nature the Sikh Temple is to stand as a symbol of the Sikh religion that contains familiar forms of architecture that connect it to its birthplace in the Indian subcontinent. When you see churches built in India during colonial times — they look like they were simply transplanted from England and planted on Indian soil. And they were also planted there to make a statement — a cultural and religious statement.

The Church of our Lady, that now iconic landmark of the city of Guelph, was also not meant to “fit in”. It was built to make a statement. No doubt many of my Protestant ancestors would not be pleased by the statement it was making. While they might admire it architecturally — it would be seen as a religious challenge in what was otherwise a Protestant town.

Indeed much of the church architecture of 19th and 20th century Canada was built in a way that reflected the style and ethnic roots of those who built it as recent immigrants. And it just so happened that most of these immigrants were Christian. Many of the Anglican churches in Canada are copies of English parish churches. And likewise other traditions — for example Greek Orthodox, with their distinctive Byzantine domes. If they “fit in” now into our Canadian landscape is because they have been part of the landscape for decades and in some cases centuries.

To ask a Sikh Temple “fit in” is quite impossible. And it seems to me that those who wish it to do so, do not fundamentally understand the tradition and customs of those who have come to Canada as Sikh immigrants and wish to express themselves in their new Canadian context.  It’s like being told that you “don’t fit in”. Many opponents would see the only place where it could possibly “fit in” somewhere where it is basically unseen and sidelined — hidden away in an industrial area, off a major arterial road or built in a decaying commercial area.

All this speaks to me about how we embrace the diversity that our city is — and celebrate that diversity.

What are your thoughts and feelings as you watch this debate unfold?

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