Virginia Commonwealth University

Richmond Italian Street Festival brings people out for food and fun

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Mike Federali: Independent comic book writer

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Richmond’s Sikh community works to fight discrimination and educate others

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By Doug Callahan

The Richmond Gurdwara is the center of the local Sikh community.

RICHMOND, Va. -­ “Anyone can be a Sikh,” said Dr. Baljit Sidhu.

An orthopedic surgeon from Chester, Dr. Sidhu recently spoke about Sikhism to a religious studies class at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We believe in love for all mankind,” Dr. Sidhu said. “No difference in gender. No difference in race.”

Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world, but it might be the most misunderstood. The problem for Sikhs mostly stems from their appearance. With turbans on their heads and untrimmed beards, they are often mistaken for Muslims, and they have been wrongly associated with terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Dr. Sidhu explained that Sikhism is the world’s youngest organized religion, as it is only about 500 years old. The U.S. Census Bureau does not provide an accurate count of American Sikhs, but unofficial estimates suggest the number is around 500,000.

Dr. Sidhu also took time to emphasize the open-minded nature of Sikhism.

“We don’t ask people to convert to Sikhism,” he said. “That is something we have never done and something we will never do. We believe in respect for all religions.”

Kunjit Singh, the local granthi, or priest, said he is regularly affected by discrimination and hateful language, but he explained that he does not hold it against the people trying to hurt him.

“So many times, when I pass, they shout ‘Laden! Laden!’” he said. “I never mind because it is just ignorance. They don’t know about us.”

Click here to hear more from Granthi Kunjit Singh.
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“It’s definitely a religion a lot of people don’t know about,” said Jasmine Khokhar, Dr. Sidhu’s niece.

Khokhar, 24, is an active member of the VCU Sikh Student Association. She said she doesn’t feel very different from other students, but she was quick to point out that she has one advantage that helps her blend in. Most Sikh women do not wear head coverings.

“I guess it’s harder for a guy because of the turban,” she said. “And their appearance is very different from the average American.”

Raj Goomer, 29, who co-founded the Sikh Student Association when he was attending VCU, echoed Khokhar’s sentiment.

“The guys do tend to bond a little more because they deal with identity issues, because they stand out a little bit more,” he said. “Especially after Sept. 11.”

Goomer was attending VCU and in his Richmond apartment at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and things changed instantly for him. He recalled trying to reach his parents in New Jersey to make sure their New York friends were safe.

“I finally got hold of them,” Goomer said. “And my dad told me, ‘Don’t go outside, and if you do go out, wear a bandana. Don’t wear a turban.’ I was like, ‘Why? You’re being silly.’ And after I hung up with him, one of my friends came over and said to stay inside because there’s guys walking around, and this is at VCU, a very diverse campus, and people were walking around campus with baseball bats threatening to beat up anyone they thought was a terrorist.”

“So for a few days I had to walk around with an entourage of three or four guys and didn’t really go out at night,” he said.

Goomer is now living in East Brunswick, N.J., working as a paralegal and attending law school in the evening. Every year, he gives a presentation about Sikhism and discrimination that is broadcast live to all the middle schools in his area.

Goomer said such incidents have become less frequent in recent years. But Balraj Singh Bajaj, 20, a rising VCU senior and Student Sikh Association secretary, said he has also dealt with many.

“It might have died down a little bit, but it’s still a prominent issue,” he said.

Bajaj said clearing up the misunderstanding surrounding Sikhism is one of the club’s driving motivations.

“We have become much more active this year,” Bajaj said. “And increasingly every semester, we’re doing more things. We’re definitely more active now than we ever have been.”

An important part of a Sikh service is Langar, a meal at which anyone can come and eat for free. Bajaj said the Student Sikh Association applies the same idea once every semester on VCU’s campus.

“We cater food from a restaurant and offer it to anyone who is walking to or from class,” Bajaj said. “We have a table set up and we’re just handing out food and teaching kids about the Sikh religion. There’s a lot of misconceptions around campus.”

Click on the image to see a slideshow about the Sikh tradition of Langar

The Sikh Student Association is most active on campus, but away from VCU’s urban setting, the real center of Sikhism in Richmond seems like another world.

The Richmond Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, is a large, white building off of Chippenham Parkway. Once inside, visitors must remove their shoes and cover their heads before walking into the high-ceilinged, blue-carpeted room where the Guru Grainth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, sits. Sikhs regard the book as a living guru and bow to it when they enter.

Granthi Kunjit Singh is a 53-year-old Indian man with a long, white beard and a warm smile. He said the Richmond Gurdwara was built in 2003, and there are about 250 Sikh families who attend.

“When we started this, there was only about 50 or 60 families, but we are growing,” Singh said.

“Every Sunday, we start our service,” he said. “We read from the holy book for about two hours, then we sing praises, then we have community kitchen called Langar. Everyone is welcome. Any religion, any race. The only rules are: no shoes, cover your head, and no intoxicants.”

“Intoxication is our first sin,” he said.

That strong disapproval of intoxicants introduces another difficulty for Sikh college students.

Goomer, the co-founder of the Sikh Student Association, said that it’s really a matter of choice.

“Of course every religion has different levels of orthodoxy,” Goomer said.

“It’s been hard,” Bajaj, the VCU student, said. “You always see people drinking and even Sikh kids get pressured into it, whether they want to or not. But if it’s something that’s important to you, like it has been to me and my brothers and even my roommates, none of us drink. It’s been tough, but I never want to do it.”

Richmond church and other organizations offer support for HIV/AIDS community

Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Portfolio | No Comments »

By Doug Callahan


Click on the image for a visualization of HIV/AIDS rates in Virginia.

For those dealing with an HIV or AIDS diagnosis, emotional support can be as important as medical care.

Jay Irvine, the office manager at the Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond, said the church offers that exact thing locally, with its HIV/AIDS ministry.

“Most of the people who come to MCC are those that don’t feel comfortable worshipping in other churches,” Irvine said. “Those that have been turned away because of sexual orientation or things they’ve done in the past. But we accept anyone who walks in the front door.”

Irvine first became involved with the church shortly after his own diagnosis.

“After my diagnosis of AIDS in 2004, I went through a period in my life where I need to get back in touch with God,” Irvine said. “And so in July of 2005, I wanted to get back involved with the church. I didn’t know much about MCC at the time, so I just walked in the front door and they accepted me for who I was, no matter where I’d been or what I’d done.”

The HIV/AIDS ministry meets on the first Thursday of every month and is open to anyone who needs the support.

“We plan from month to month, whether it consists of just getting together and having a meal and sitting around talking about different issues, to going out to baseball games and going out to eat,” Irvine said.

“We try to do things that meet the needs of the people that join the group because some of us aren’t as healthy as others so we have to keep that in consideration. “

“My passion is to help those who are newly diagnosed deal with their diagnosis,” Irvine said. “And let them know that being diagnosed with HIV or AIDS is not the end. It’s just a new beginning for them.”
Irvine strongly suggests reaching out, soon after the diagnosis.

“I would say they need to find a support group right away,” Irvine said. “I don’t think anyone should have to deal with this diagnosis alone.”

It’s no surprise that there is a need for support in the community, since Richmond and neighboring Petersburg each have an HIV/AIDS rate of around 50 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“Any time where you have pockets of poverty and unequal access to health care, you’re going to see these inequities,” said Elaine Martin, the director of HIV prevention at the Virginia Department of Health.

In addition to overseeing state and federal funding for HIV prevention, Martin’s department also organizes outreach events, aimed at educating and testing members of at-risk communities.

“That’s a really great way to get people tested because people don’t always go to their doctor and ask for an HIV test,” Martin said. “By offering testing in the community, whether it’s at a neighborhood bar, or through a mobile van, or just being set up in a neighborhood, it gives an opportunity for people to test where they live, without having to make an appointment at a clinic or something like that. We tend to find a higher percentage of people who are testing positive when we do outreach-based testing.”

For those who have been diagnosed, Martin said her first bit of advice is to begin receiving care right away.

“Even if they feel fine,” Martin said. “They need to have the health of their immune system monitored on a regular basis. That’s the most important thing.”

In addition to medical care, Martin also stresses the importance of support networks to help cope with the diagnosis. To help provide that, her department contacted the “HIV Stops With Me” campaign to come to Richmond.

“The whole mission of the campaign is to empower people who are HIV positive,” said Melanie Manghinang, a senior project manager.

The campaign puts up billboards featuring HIV-positive spokesmodels with messages of protection and disclosure, but the heart of “HIV Stops With Me” is its website, which serves as a medium for dialogue.

“It really is a community of support, a community of empowerment,” Manghinang said. “And we’re really trying to reduce the stigma of this HIV positive status.”

The data for this story came from the Virginia Department of Health’s quarterly surveillance report, HIV Diagnoses by Health Region and City/County for 2nd Quarter 2010.

Greetings, Internet!

Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Hello everyone. My name is Doug. This is my website.


Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Doug Callahan

Richmond, Va.

Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.
Master of Science, Mass Communications, expected August 2011
Concentration: Multimedia Journalism

James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.
Bachelor of Science, May 2006
Major: Media Arts and Design Concentration: Print Journalism

a free daily publication from The Virginian-Pilot
Norfolk, Va. | March 2007 – December 2008
Copy Editor
• Edited wire and Virginian-Pilot stories into quick-read, visually approachable presentations while checking for accuracy and AP style
• Budgeted the Fun section, which required planning and selecting stories involving music, movies, television, games, and live entertainment
• Managed the Today page, which required choosing and editing a story for the Something to Talk About feature, and writing a daily feature called Five Things Worth Knowing Today
• Mentored two college interns
• Contributed to the blog, a local news website that aggregates community news sites
Richmond, Va. | January 2011 – May 2011
Community News Intern
• Report for, one of the community news sites that needed a boost in content
• Write features for the main site,
• Shoot photos and video of events for both sites, an independently run lifestyle website and social network
Virginia Beach, Va. | December 2009 – present
Contributing Writer
• Write a weekly e-mail to members about events and deals of that weekend

References available upon request


Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

My name is Doug Callahan.

I am a copy-editor, aspiring rock star, and a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

According to family lore, I am the direct descendant of the inventor of the elevator. The same family lore continues to say my great uncle sold the idea for booze money.

I can play the “William Tell Overture” on my teeth.

I love you. No, really. You.

Produce Poll

Posted: October 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Related Links: Lesson in Loyalty | Market Slideshow | Vendor Profile

Richmond Italian Street Festival

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Farmers’ Market Slideshow

Posted: October 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Related Links: Lesson in Loyalty | Vendor Profile | Poll

Click on the image to view a slideshow about the 17th Street Farmers' Market.