Updated: Oct 2
Every year I volunteer at Khalsa Youth Camp, a spiritually based summer camp for children, located in the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico. One year our spirituality was deeply tested. The hot and dry summer threatened our land with wild fires that were rapidly spreading with the desert brush. Daily we looked out over the cloudless sky and monitored the smoky journey of the fire.
We kept up with our routine. Typically, the children rise early in the morning, take cold showers and practice yoga and meditation. They march after breakfast, following the instructions of Yogi Bhajan, to help the children gain discipline, balance the brain and learn group consciousness. The children take part in various classes during the day - learning how to find water in the desert in outdoor skills, creating a piñata in art, kicking and punching in martial arts with a loud "kiyaa!", or singing in Sikh Dharma. During the year of the fire, the children kept their spirit up with much laughter and frolicking. As Sikh Dharma teacher, I would take refuge in this laughter. I remember one afternoon closing my eyes during one of our breaks as the children played around me. I was worried and so were the other adult staff, as we looked out to see the approaching smoke.
That afternoon in a lunch meeting, the staff talked about the fire and the possibility of evacuation if it came too close. The usual turquoise blue sky turned grey as it was now filling up with smoke. The smoke became so intense that we had to bring all of the children inside one of the classrooms. The camp director, a jovial man full of spirit and compassion, gathered the children around him and his guitar and explained that we have the power of prayer to change any situation. He explained with a twinkle in his eyes, punctuated with a few guitar strums, that "we could pray to clear the smoke!" The children nodded. He then began leading them in chanting to Guru Raam Daas, with the powerful mantra, "Guru Guru Waahe Guru Guru Raam Daas Guru."
"Sing children! Sing! Guru Raam Daas will hear you!" Siri Nam encouraged. Pretty soon, each and every child closed their eyes and began singing without any inhibition. We had all been inhaling enough smoke and coughing to desperately want the fires to stop. At first I joined in enthusiastically, but then I began to worry. "What if the fire doesn't stop? What if our chanting doesn't change anything?"
Yet I couldn't hang on to these thoughts because the sound of the children's voices pulled me back to the mantra. I remember to this day the look of a small boy seated in front of me, eyes closed, head raised up to the sky, swaying back and forth to the rhythm and singing at the top of his lungs. I closed my eyes too and began chanting and was taken deep within. At one point, I remember not really even caring what we were chanting for. I was filled with a golden and pure light that imparted nothing but joy and love. After some time, Siri Nam Singh asked us to inhale. We sat in silence for just a few moments and with all of the curiosity in the world the children opened their eyes and looked out the window. Indeed, miraculously the sky had opened up and the blue sky and sun were peaking through! With jubilation, the children jumped up and ran outside. Guru Raam Daas had heard us and his love poured forth in a perfect blue circular clearing in the sky just above us. The children were jumping up and down and laughing. (Below are actual photos from this time).
The fires still raged on and although they never came to our land, they got close enough that we decided to evacuate the next night. Siri Nam would joke later that we should have been more specific with our prayer and asked not only for the sky to clear, but for the fires to stop as well. We set up camp on the Gurdwara grounds of the Sikh community in the Espanola Valley. Gurdwara is a Sikh place of worship, meaning "gate of the Guru." From hundreds of acres of open land, we now found ourselves on just a few acres. We all camped out on the floor in a couple of donated offices next to the Gurdwara. Many of the classes were in the Gurdwara and for outdoor time the children played on the lawn or in a nearby playground. Although there could have been many opportunities for complaints, the children's laughter only increased. I witnessed in the children an immense capacity to care for each other, to find ways to have fun, and be flexible in our new environments. Their capacity to go through this change with ease and joy was phenomenal. It took me about five years to really understand how the children were able to do this and it was just this summer that I realized what gave the children and all of us the strength to go through this experience. It was the chanting. Although the sky did clear over us in those moments of prayer, we were given an eternal miracle. We experienced pure light and love that would allow us to rise above the challenge ahead of us.
If you would like your child to come and experience this incredible camp with me, I still happily serve as a teacher and have now moved into a new role as Program Director. You can find out more about it at the following link.