'I see God through his creation' — a fantastic story about an unlikely topic: Sikh truck drivers

I’m a longtime fan of stories by Jaweed Kaleem.

Five years ago, when he served as senior religion writer for the Huffington Post, I interviewed him about reporting inside Pakistan.

More recently, I praised his coverage of post-Trump Muslims for the Los Angeles Times, where he’s the national race and justice correspondent.

Now, I want to call attention to Kaleem’s fantastic feature on a topic you might never have thought of — I know I hadn’t until reading his piece.

That topic: Sikh truck drivers. (Important note: He’s not the first to tackle this timely topic.)

Personally, I had a fine time last year tagging along with a disaster relief truck driver on a trip from Nashville, Tenn., to Panama City, Fla., after Hurricane Michael.

On my trip, the menu included Beanie Weenies and Vienna sausages.

It certainly sounds like the food on Kaleem’s cross-country journey for the Times was more exotic:

MILAN, N.M. — It’s 7:20 p.m. when he rolls into Spicy Bite, one of the newest restaurants here in rural northwest New Mexico.

Locals in Milan, a town of 3,321, have barely heard of it.

The building is small, single-story, built of corrugated metal sheets. There are seats for 20. The only advertising is spray-painted on concrete roadblocks in English and Punjabi. Next door is a diner and gas station; the county jail is across the road.

Palwinder Singh orders creamy black lentils, chicken curry and roti, finishing it off with chai and cardamom rice pudding. After 13 hours on and off the road in his semi truck, he leans back in a booth as a Bollywood music video plays on TV.

“This is like home,” says Pal, the name he uses on the road (said like “Paul”).

There are 3.5 million truckers in the United States. California has 138,000, the second-most after Texas. Nearly half of those in California are immigrants, most from Mexico or Central America. But as drivers age toward retirement — the average American trucker is 55 — and a shortage grows, Sikh immigrants and their kids are increasingly taking up the job.

Keep reading, and Kaleem serves up a remarkable feast of detail and insight on the business, culture and, yes, religion of Sikh truck drivers.

Some crucial context up high:

Estimates of the number of Sikh truckers vary. In California alone, tens of thousands of truckers trace their heritage to India. The state is home to half of the Sikhs in the U.S. — members of a monotheistic faith with origins in 15th century India whose followers are best recognized by the uncut hair and turbans many men wear. At Sikh temples in Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield and Riverside, the majority of worshipers are truck drivers and their families.

Later, there’s this:

Pal makes a point to stop by the restaurant — even just for a “hello” — when he sleeps next door. The Sikh greeting is “Sat sri akaal.” It means “God is truth.” In trucking, where turnover is high, business uncertain and risk of accidents ever present, each day can feel like a leap of faith and an opportunity to give thanks.

Punjabi Americans first appeared on the U.S. trucking scene in the 1980s after an anti-Sikh massacre in India left thousands dead around New Delhi, prompting many Sikhs to flee. More recently, Sikhs have migrated to Central America and applied for asylum at the Mexico border, citing persecution for their religion in India; some have also become truckers. Estimates of the overall U.S. Sikh population vary, placing the community’s size between 200,000 and 500,000.

Even though Kaleem no longer covers religion full-time, he still knows the importance of delving into what his main subject actually believes.

Such as here:

Pal’s not strict on dogma or doctrine, and he’s more spiritual than religious. Trucking has shown him that people are more similar than different no matter where you go. The best of all religions, he says, tend to teach the same thing — kindness to others, accepting whatever comes your way and appreciation for what’s in front of you on the road.

“When I’m driving,” Pal says, “I see God through his creation.”

And here:

Trucking has helped Pal find his faith. When he moved to the U.S., he used to shave, drink beer and not care much about religion. But as he got bored on the road, he started listening to religious sermons. Twelve years ago, he began to again grow his hair and quit alcohol; drinking it is against the faith’s traditions. Today, he schedules shipments around the temple calendar so he can attend Sikh celebrations with his family.

“I don’t mind questions about my religion. But when people say to me, ‘Why do you not cut your hair?’ they are asking the wrong question,” Pal says. “The real question is, why do they cut their hair? God made us this way.”

At this point, I could keep copying and pasting impressive chunks of the story. But I’ll resist the urge. Instead, I’ll just compliment Kaleem on a tremendous piece of religion journalism and urge you to read it.

Go ahead and read it all.

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