TWINSBURG TOWNSHIP — "Somehow, God helps," Kamal Janda said as he walked through the crowd packed into the newly renovated worship hall that members of his congregation have been seeking for two years.

The parking lot overflowed onto a dirt road on vacant land across the street from the former Sanctuary of Praise church. The cross at the top of the former church steeple has been replaced with a khanda, the triple crossed-sword symbol of the Sikh faith.

More khandas are stenciled on the glass entry and vestibule doors. Hundreds of pairs of shoes left by the faithful fill shelves and the floor as people in both traditional and western attire arrive. An elderly woman in a blue sari stands with her face to the wall and takes one pair of shoes at a time in her right hand. She whispers a blessing over each pair before placing them neatly back among the others.

Prayers and songs being recited in Punjabi are broadcast from an intercom in the hall outside the main sanctuary as children dash between adults — the men in bright turbans and orange scarves. 

Hundreds of the faithful filled the building on April 14, the Sikh holiday Vaisakhi, "spring," which marks the founding of the "Khalsa" by the Guru Gobind Singh and the birth of the Sikh faith in 1699.

Throughout the day, a service continued as rows of congregants sat on cotton sheets spread over the carpeted floor — men in their turbans and boys on one side of the room, women and girls on the other. Occasionally, a toddler makes his way down the aisle between. In front, where an altar or speaker’s lectern would be in a Christian church, a raised wood platform holds the 1,430 page Guru Granth Sahib, written in multiple languages, containing text from multiple religions. It’s the Sikh’s holy book, worshipped as though it has a spirit of its own.

Janda is one of the trustees of the new Cleveland Sikh Gurdwara in Twinsburg Township. The word gurdwara in Punjabi means "Gateway to God" and denotes a Sikh place of worship.

The group of ethnic Indian families formerly based in the gurdwara in Bedford have purchased and renovated the former church, which closed in 2017. Trustees say the Bedford hall — the city’s former Masonic temple purchased in 1992 — had become too crowded for the growing congregation and a second facility became necessary.

About the same time as the Sanctuary of Praise's closure, the Sikhs had sought to purchase the former Epiphany Lutheran Church in Northfield Center. The $1.2 million deal fell through and the Lutheran congregation disbanded in 2018. The Unity Center of North East Ohio, a Shia Islamic organization based in Brecksville, purchased that property for $775,000 in November and plans to move in by June. 

Janda said his organization was lucky to find the building at just blocks from Interstate 280 off Route 82, as it features a much larger hall than the Northfield church for use as a sanctuary, as well as a better overall layout, including a kitchen, classrooms and other facilities.

The 13,500-square-foot church was initially built in 1994 and expanded in 2004 by the congregation of the Rev. Bishop William B. Smith until late 2017, when ownership was transferred to a trust company following foreclosure, according to Summit County Fiscal Office Records.

Smith got his start in 1983 as pastor of the tiny Apostolic Church of Christ on nearby Stanford Street. That building was razed last year. Smith remains pastor of the Sanctuary of Praise’s church in Akron.

Kulwant Singh, another trustee, said about 20 families under the umbrella United Sikh Council of Greater Cleveland got together and paid $490,000 cash for the building last May, then spent another $200,000 on renovations before opening Aug. 7, 2018. He said many of the families are self-employed or own their own businesses in the trucking and transportation industry.

"There is no mortgage. We don't owe anything," he said.

Members live throughout the greater Cleveland-Akron area, from Solon to Richfield, where another gurdwara is located.

Trustee Daljit Singh Dhillon said improvements to the building included repairs to the 29,000-square-foot parking lot, the building's air conditioning system, and extensive interior renovations. Interior work included converting the 7,000-square-foot former church hall into a sanctuary by removing rows of wooden benches and the stage, as well as painting and carpeting work done by volunteers over several months.

Some of the benches were retained and moved to the sides of the room for those who find it difficult to sit on the floor.

The sound of voices reciting prayer and singing continues through the service, which is followed by a communal meal in another large room. Again, seats are taken on the floor on a series of long, narrow rugs are unfurled in rows. 

A meal is served seven days a week around 7:30 p.m., after evening services. Janda said anyone is welcome to drop by to eat, as long as they remove their shoes and cover their head with a scarf while inside.

He said sharing food is just one way Sikhs express their faith.

"In the Sikh community, we try to help," he said. "Even having a turban on my head is a kind of uniform. When I have a turban on in public, it’s like I’m on duty ... if somebody were to ask for help, I should be ready to help."

Balwinder Singh, president of the organization — "in the book only" — says the congregation is looking forward to finding ways to be of service to the community around their new home, explaining the group is considering blood and food drives, is working on upgrading the playground and might ask to volunteer at annual Memorial Day observances, much as the Bedford group has done for years.

He said local government officials and community members have offered a warm welcome.

"It’s a very nice place — it’s a very nice community," he said. "The neighborhood is very nice. We have no complaints."

For more information, see https://gurdwaracleveland.org.

Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or emarotta@recordpub.com.