Ten years ago today, on August 5, 2012, 17-year-old Harmeet Kaur Kamboj had just graduated high school and was in a bus full of family and relatives driving to Michigan from Virginia for their cousin’s wedding. There was an air of merriment all around the bus, people dancing, singing, and laughing, while some took a nap in anticipation of the long festive weekend that lay ahead. Kamboj remembers an aunt who was scrolling on her phone and broke the news to the wedding party: there had been a mass shooting at a gurdwara – the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin – where a white supremacist had open fired and killed six people. A seventh victim suffered serious injuries and would die from their wounds in 2020.
“It was hard to process at that moment. We were headed to this festive fun-filled event to celebrate new relationships that were being built, and at the same time we were having to hold all that pain too,” Kamboj says. “I was experiencing a whole new opposing set of emotions, and it took me a few days individually to process exactly what had happened.”
In the days following the shooting, Kamboj recalls the frustration they felt watching the news coverage of the shooting and felt not enough was being done to offer support to the Sikh community. Today, Kamboj is an interfaith leader who works as a program manager for Interfaith America, and they are committed to centering the voice of Sikh Americans in their work.
In commemoration of the 10-year-anniversary of the Oak Creek shooting, Kamboj has been supporting the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, Sikh Coalition, The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, and Sikh American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to host a series of workshops, a vigil, and panel discussions. They will also be leading an interfaith bridgebuilding workshop on Saturday, August 6, at The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.
In conversation with Silma Suba, media manager and staff writer at Interfaith America Magazine, Kamboj reflects on how the Oak Creek shooting impacted their work, and the 10-year-anniversary events. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did the Oak Creek shooting impact the work that you have done in the past decade?
Kamboj: It was a very formative experience, because I remember vividly the news coverage in the days and weeks following the shooting. I was really frustrated by it and upset by that coverage, because so much of it was not to memorialize the victims of the shooting, to understand the reason behind this tragedy, but rather, every new segment or article was kind of like a “Who are Sikhs? 101 Primer,” because a lot of Americans don’t know my community. They don’t know who we are and what we stand for. I was frustrated on a couple of levels. We were trying to mourn this loss of life and loss of community and loss of safety, and the only thing that the public is asking us is “who are you?” rather than asking “what can we do to support you? How can we make you feel like real members of this society, like true members of society?”
When I started in interfaith work, I knew that my commitment personally had to be to fronting my community’s needs and centering those who are most marginalized, who are pushed most to the fringes of the Interfaith movement and of religious spaces in the United States, because we deserved way more than that at that moment. We deserved more support, more empathy, and more resources, and we were asked at that moment, just to give more labor to education and awareness. And so that very much informed me of the work that I began doing in interfaith spaces.
Can you tell us about the interfaith workshop you’ll be leading at the 10-year-anniversary event at The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin?
A huge contingent of interfaith leaders are expected to be in attendance because the weekend’s events are co-sponsored by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.
Thinking about Interfaith America’s work, especially our new work around bridgebuilding, I knew that it was going to be a significant and important way for us to contribute to the event. Because there was so much more that interfaith leaders and Interfaith organizers could have done in the immediate aftermath of Oak Creek, that wasn’t done because of so many reasons, lack of awareness, lack of resources, lack of knowledge or understanding about who this community is and what we need in these kinds of moments.
When I think about interfaith bridge building, which is the workshop I will be leading, it is about creating reciprocal and mutual relationships across lines of difference. At the end of the day, it’s about understanding that the landscape of religious diversity in the United States is not always totally understood. I think the religious landscape in the United States is underscored often, because communities like mine are, in comparison, much smaller than communities of the Abrahamic faiths and others.
So, when we talk about the importance of interfaith bridge building, part of that conversation has to be about how do we support religious minority communities, not only in the face of tragedy but overall? So, the part of that workshop is not only around how to build relationships with the perceived other, but how do we acknowledge the privilege and power that some communities have in relation to others. How do you use that privilege to empower, to really invest in and support communities that do not have access to that kind of privilege and power.
What will interfaith work look like during the 10-year-anniversary commemoration of the Oak Creek shooting?
During the Thursday series of panels at Oak Creek City Hall, there’s at least one interfaith panel on public safety and safety for religious communities that I think is really important, because, particularly in the last five years, mass shootings and houses of worship have become a frequent headline.
This is a way for interfaith leaders and communities dedicated to interfaith to come together and not only support each other but think together about ways to ensure our safety mutually.
The candlelight vigil on Friday (August 5) is going to be a powerful way for folks of many traditions to come together and share practices and theologies of mourning and grief and recovery in light of this event. And Saturday, a series of events at the gurdwara is a really intimate way for folks who are dedicated to interfaith work to really come out in support of this community. I think that oftentimes we overcomplicate how we can show up in interfaith spaces, and oftentimes, it just means showing up and participating and being physically, emotionally, mentally present. And that’s really what the Saturday series of events is all about. These are community events, workshops, tours of the gurdwara, and talks about Sikhism and the Sikh community rooted in Oak Creek. And it really is open to anyone and everyone because that sort of showing up is so important at this time.