Balbir Singh Sodhi’s spirit continues to live on 20 years after his senseless, hate-motivated murder outside his East Mesa gas station four days after 9/11.
It was the ultimate irony that a peaceful, generous man who immigrated to the U.S because of his love for the Bill of Rights and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion would become a scapegoat for a gunman consumed by hate and revenge.
But Singh Sodhi has emerged as a universal symbol of love and tolerance, a message that seems all the more relevant today in polarized nation.
More than 200 people representing the spectrum of religions and races gathered last Wednesday night outside the gas station where Singh Sodhi, then 49, was planting flowers on Sept. 15, 2001, when he was shot to death by Frank Rogue, who is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Roque, 62, was initially sentenced to death in 2003 by jurors who did not buy defense attorney Dan Patterson’s argument that Roque is mentally ill, was consumed with anger after watching the World Trade Center’s towers collapse over and over again, and heard voices telling him to “kill the devils.’’
But the mental health defense eventually succeeded when the Arizona Supreme Court commuted Roque’s death sentence to natural life instead.
The nearly three-hour service was broadcast around the world on YouTube by Dija TV, a free South Asian news service.
Balbir Singh Sodhi’s death was the first hate-related murder after 9/11, when the turban he wore in deference to the Sikh faith turned him into a target.
Sikhs are from India and have no link to the Middle East or acts of terrorism. Their religion preaches love for mankind and tolerance of all religions.
The event resembled a memorial service in some ways, but with a more optimistic tone, serving as a rallying cry for continuing to fight bigotry, to educate Americans about Sikhs and to spread Singh Sodhi’s message of love overcoming hate throughout the nation and world.
U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, Mesa Mayor John Giles, and representatives of President Biden and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, all spoke or read statements praising Singh Sodhi and condemning hate.
Former Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker and council members David Luna, Julie Spilsbury, Mark Freeman and Jen Duff all attended the service.
“This is a call for action for the community to work together for love and understanding,’’ Giles said, noting that the Mesa City Council has recently passed a long-debated anti-discrimination ordinance. “When we come from a place of love and focus on the things we share, we create space for love and understanding.’’
Perhaps the ultimate compliment was bestowed by Sister Simone Campbell, a Roman Catholic nun and social activist.
“In my prospective, Balbir Singh Sodhi is a saint and a holy man,’’ Campbell said. “In our tradition, we want to call him a saint. Saints are to be emulated.’’
But no has worked harder to spread Balbir Singh Sodhi’s message of love and overcoming hate than his younger brother, Rana Singh Sodhi, a Mesa businessman who has dedicated his life to the message his late brother espoused only two days before the slaying rocked Arizona and the nation.
During a meeting at the Sikh temple, the brothers talked about holding a press conference on Sept. 16, 2001 to educate Americans about Sikhs and to discourage backlash, such as taunts and threats, Rana Singh Sodhi said.
On the day he was murdered, Balber Singh Sodhi bought the flowers at a Costco and donated the $70 he had in cash to a fund aiding 9/11 victims, not realizing he would turn into one himself later that day.
Rana Singh Sodhi said his brother gave him a job during that meeting and he has never shirked from it. Rana Singh Sodhi’s efforts have included serving as the focal point of “A Dream in Doubt,’’ a 2009 PBS documentary that was shown again on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
“I believe his death has become a beacon of light for awareness,’’ Rana Singh Sodhi said. “He gave me the job to educate more people and to save more innocent people’s lives.
“There’s a lot of ignorance in our country. We can educate through love and understanding.’’
The four Singh Sodhi brothers immigrated to the US in 1985 after religious persecution of Sikhs during religious unrest in India a year earlier. Harjit Singh Sodhi of Mesa, a Phoenix restauranteur, was the first to arrive and he encouraged the others to join him.
“We came here for religious freedom,’’ Harjit Singh Sodhi said, adding that his initial impression of the U.S was that it seemed like heaven.
He said he does not regret moving to the U.S, despite losing Balbir and a second brother, Sukhpal, a cab driver who was shot to death in San Francisco a year after Balbir’s murder, a crime that was never solved.
“When I see the U.S flag, I think it’s protection for me, under that umbrella,’’ he said. “I think there is one bad apple. There are hundreds of people here supporting us.’’
Valarie Kaur, a Sikh civil rights leader, described how Balbir Singh Sodhi remains an inspiration for love conquering hate.
“Balbir lived a life of love. Balbir is our North Star,’’ she said. “His death was a beginning because of the way he lived his life. We are not victims; we are survivors and teachers.’’