10 Years After Oak Creek Shooting, Interfaith Engagement Helps Sikh Community Heal
August 4, 2022
The morning of August 5, 2012, began like any other Sunday for Satwant Singh Kaleka. It was sunny and quiet in the small city of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where the 65-year-old retiree lived and served as the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin — called a gurdwara —a holy place of worship for Sikhs — which he had founded in 1997 to form a sanctuary for his community. His wife and many of his neighbors were with him that morning inside the gurdwara, preparing langar, a communal meal of chapati, dal, sabzi, and kheer, that would be served to all the visitors who often sat on the floor to eat as a sign of respect and equality. He was waiting for his eldest son, Pardeep Singh Kaleka, and his two grandchildren to join them soon for the children’s classes that usually began at 11:30 a.m.
But Satwant Singh Kaleka wouldn’t get to meet his family again. At around 10 a.m., a white supremacist would walk into the gurdwara with his 9-mm semiautomatic handgun and open fire, killing six people, including Satwant Kaleka, who attempted to fight off the shooter with a butter knife. The bloodied knife was found next to his body. Page also shot Oak Creek police officer Lt. Brian Murphy, one of the first responders, 15 times, and wounded Baba Punjab Singh, a Sikhi educator and former soldier, who was left paralyzed for seven years before succumbing to his wounds in 2020 at the age of 72.
The younger Kaleka had been with his father just two nights before at his 36th birthday party. “It was the last time that I would see — I didn’t know it at the time, but the last time I would see my father alive,” he told NPR.
This Friday, 10 years after the shooting, Kaleka will join hundreds of people from across the country at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin for a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims: Sita Singh, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Prakash Singh, 39; Paramjit Kaur, 41; Suveg Singh, 84; Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65; and Baba Punjab Singh, 72.
The gurdwara will also be hosting a series of interfaith workshops, a 48-hour prayer service, and educational events for the community, partnered by Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), Sikh Coalition, and The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, and sponsored by diverse faith-based institutions like the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, Wisconsin Council of Churches, among others.
In the years since Oak Creek, mass shootings by white supremacists have been on the rise, and faith communities are often the target. From the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the rising hate crimes have added to the growing frustrations of minority faith groups who feel unsafe and unheard.
“That day, it may seem like all hope died,” says Pardeep Kaleka, recalling the night of the shooting. “But looking back, I think a lot about how a broader community would not let hope die … how people from diverse faith backgrounds showed up outside the Sikh Temple, not speaking the same language, or believing in the same faith, but speaking the universal language of embrace and sharing each other’s pain. It’s beautiful, when people make that choice of being present for one another.”
For Kaleka, the anniversary and the growing hates crimes are a reminder of the anger, grief, frustration and despair that he felt after his father’s death. But it’s also a reminder of how in times of tragedy, people from diverse faith communities show up for one another.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, Kaleka says, especially around how immigrants and faith groups are perceived in the country.
“Marginalized communities in this country often feel like their existence here needs to be qualified,” says Pardeep Kaleka, now the executive director of The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. He also works at Parents4Peace, where he supports former extremists and their families to exit a life of hate through a mental health approach. He is known there as a de-radicalization clinician. “There’s this frustration that …we did everything right, followed the rules, didn’t take anything from anyone that we didn’t earn. And yet, we are attacked.”
He feels it’s important to acknowledge that frustration, and that it’s natural to feel a sense of guilt and question whether we have done enough to make a difference. But he reminds people that they need to channel the anger they feel towards constructive action. “Pain without purpose is pointless, purpose derived from pain is powerful. Use that power.”
Pardeep Kaleka’s own pain led him to take on roles as a psychotherapist, a sexual assault counselor, and therapist, where he worked with families and individuals to offer trauma-focused care. His quest to help communities find healing after hate led him to Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist and former member of a white power group. Together, they founded Serve2Unite, a nonprofit that aims to promote peace, especially among youth, in Milwaukee. They also co-authored a book “The Gift of Our Wounds,” about their friendship and how they came together to fight against hate.
“Pain without purpose is pointless, purpose derived from pain is powerful. Use that power.”
He believes that peacebuilding through interfaith dialogue is a way to ensure communities continue to find hope even in the face of violence.
Tonight (August 4, 2022) at the Oak Creek City Hall, Pardeep Kaleka will lead an interfaith panel discussion, moderated by former U.S. Attorney James Santelle, to talk about the importance of protecting places of worship.
For some members of the community, the 10-year-anniversary of the shooting is also a reminder of the work they have done to build a safer community, and the changes that still need to happen.
A month after the 2012 shooting, over 400 people including Sikhs and members of diverse faith communities attended a Senate subcommittee hearing urging the Justice Department to track hate crimes against Sikhs, as they did with Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestant Christians. The hearing happened in response to a request led by the Sikh Coalition and 150 other organizations. Prior to the hearing, Sikhs were counted as “others” in the Hate Crime Incident Report collected by the FBI, which meant there was no record of specific hate crimes committed against the Sikh community.
“Where are Sikhs? Where do we count our mother? What are they going to say – 7,000 ‘others’ died? That was a wakeup call for us all that we needed to do something,” Kamaljit Singh Saini said in a 2014 documentary about the shooting. Saini’s mother, Paramjit Kaur Saini, was one of the victims of the shooting.
At the hearing, his younger brother, Harpreet Singh Saini, moved the hearing room to tears with his testimony, saying, “I want to tell the gunman who took her from me: You may have been full of hate, but my mother was full of love.” Saini was 18 years old at the time of the testimony. In 2015, the FBI began including anti-Sikh hate crimes in their reports.
But advocates say it’s not enough to track hate crimes after the fact.
“The man who attacked Oak Creek was openly affiliated with white supremacist groups, and a lot of community members wonder why he wasn’t stopped before he acted,” says Anisha Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition. “In the past decade, I think the recognition of this threat has definitely grown – though at the cost of continued acts of mass violence, and more flagrant white supremacy in our political conversations.”
Rucha Kaur, community development director at the Coalition, believes the Sikh community’s experiences with hate and targeted violence have in some ways opened the door to more participation, recognition, and inclusion in interfaith spaces. She quotes Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, who leads the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue, who describes being a survivor of hate violence as being a member of a very exclusive club that you don’t want to be a member of, one that keeps growing even when it should be closed.
“Once we’re in those spaces, that in turn allows us to become known for things other than experiencing tragedy,” says Kaur. “The positive, normal aspects of our faith tradition, our history, and our culture.”
To foster interfaith dialogue and understanding, and in honor of the victims of the 10 year anniversary of the Oak Creek shooting, the Coalition, in partnership with the Revolutionary Love Project, and SALDEF, have launched RememberOakCreek.org – a learning hub designed to help Americans from all communities understand what happened 10 years ago and how they can take action to prevent further tragedies.
They are also asking Congress to pass three laws to build safer communities, one of which is the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which hopes to create better federal standards for appropriate investigation of white nationalist and supremacist groups.
“Raising awareness, whether that’s raising awareness through education, trainings, or getting young Sikh Americans involved in the government where they can influence policy decisions, are ways to make sure that we’re building the infrastructure for our community’s voices to be heard,” says Kiran Kaur Gill, executive director of SALDEF.
Earlier this year, SALDEF led an interfaith exchange initiative with interns from Becket Law, who visited a Gurdwara in Washington, D.C., and SALDEF members visited the National Cathedral. “It was a space for open dialogue, they learned about Sikh Americans, and I learned more about Catholicism than I thought I knew,” says Gill.
For Gill, proactively learning and engaging in other’s faith is an important step to bridgebuilding, and she’s inspired by the Sikh belief of chardi kala — eternal optimism — to build a better world together.
“Despite the hate directed towards our community, we believe there’s a light inside everyone,” Gill says. “If they choose to recognize it, and honor it, they will really understand the connection that we have with one another.”
American Civic Life