After a tragic shooting, Sikh community reaches out
By: Alison Dirr
Arrive at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek late on Sunday morning and a security guard will likely be stationed in the parking lot, hands in his pockets to protect from the Wisconsin chill. Parishioners ease cars into the few remaining spots. Men, many with beards and bright turbans, and women bringing airy scarves over their hair, head straight toward what has become both a place of worship and a community center for former residents of Punjab, a state in northern India, and their descendants.
They enter through a double set of glass doors. This is one entrance of four, as every Sikh temple–gurdwara, in Punjabi–has four doors to welcome those from east, west, north and south to a place where all are equal.
From outside the light brick building, the security guard is the sole reminder of Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, when Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, opened fire on the congregation without warning, killing six, including the temple president, and wounding three others before ending his own life. Inside, a bullet hole lingers in the salmon-pink metal doorframe that leads into the room of prayer. Photos of the six who lost their lives look on from high on the left wall as congregants greet each other just inside the doors.
In the Aftermath
Harpreet Singh has been part of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin since 1997. Though he lives in Chicago, he drives back to Oak Creek each weekend to visit his family and attend the gurdwara. On a Sunday morning in early October, he sits cross-legged on one of 10 rows of intricately woven carpets laid across the floor in the room where worshipers sit mid-day to chat over the meal prepared by members of the gurdwara for all who attend. Reaching down occasionally to a paper plate and Styrofoam cup of steaming hot tea on the tile floor in front of him, he says that after the shooting many stopped attending out of fear.
Some members of the community—particularly those directly involved in the shooting—showed clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, says Jaswinder Singh. The clinical neuropsychologist began driving from Indiana on the weekends to help the congregation recover from the shooting. He is one of a number of mental health specialists who offered their services.
Just two months after the attack, small children bolt around corners, giggling as if in a never-ending game of tag. Light from windows arching toward the ceiling bounces off the stone floor just inside the front doors as groups of two or four or five adults gather to chat in the spacious entry hall. Punjabi and English flow easily together, and hymns broadcasting over the loudspeaker throughout the main floor fill any momentary lapses in conversation. Despite the tragedy, the community is imbued with chardi kala—a sense of optimism.
“If you know this community, they can put this behind them,” Jaswinder Singh says. “They are not going to hold this thing forever. It is not the acceptable thing to do. Move on, that’s what the scripture says. Whatever happened, happened. Accept and move on.”
Many have returned to the basic tenets of the faith for guidance, primarily the principle of seva—or service to the community. There is a sense of reconnecting with those within the gurdwara. But equally strong is the desire to act as a catalyst for positive change throughout Milwaukee and the U.S., so they and other minority groups are no longer targets of discrimination and violence but rather accepted and recognized as part of the intricate series of crossing paths in America.
“Life has to go forward, and that’s the sense of chardi kala, that you have to press forward,” says Pardeep Kaleka, the son of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the former president of the gurdwara who was killed in the attack.
“I’m never going to forget my father, but you almost feel like those people—those people that died—don’t let them die in vain without doing anything. And that’s the sense of chardi kala, the sense of urgency. Let’s make this…into something positive, make it into something that people will remember for a long time.”