This week we commemorate the one year anniversary of the hate violence that gripped the community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, when a gunman stormed into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on the morning of August 5, 2012. Our hearts are with the families and loved ones of Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh who lost their lives in the massacre. As we reflect on this day one year later, it is important to place the Oak Creek tragedy in a broader history and context of racial and religious injustice in our country. To help us understand, reflect and move forward, SAALT is featuring a blog series featuring a range of diverse voices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not reflect the positions or opinions of SAALT. They should be understood solely as the personal opinion of the author.
On August 5, 2012, I woke up and got ready to go to Gurdwara, as I would on any other Sunday. I was attending a local service at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville, MD, when a member of the congregation announced that there was a shooting at a Gurdwara in Milwaukee. Immediately, everyone picked up their phones and started looking for news articles, reading posts on Facebook and twitter, and texting loved ones to make sure they were okay. After that moment, my mind went blank. We all remained silent as the program ended after which everyone quietly ate their langar, a community meal, and spoke in panicked whispers. For the next few weeks, all I could think about was the shooting. I had always thought that the worst attack that could ever happen to our community would be an attack on a Gurdwara, our place of worship, and that had now happened.
I remember that Sunday so vividly. I was glued to the television and stayed close to my friends and family. I could not sleep that night, feeling restless and uneasy. My initial reaction was fear—how this could happen to a Gurdwara, a place of worship—a place I called my second home? When I was younger, I dreaded going to Gurdwara on Sundays because I would have to sit through three hour long programs and attend Punjabi class. As I grew older, I started to like going to Gurdwara because I would be able to meet my friends there and hang out, understand and learn more about my religion, and connect with my community. Nowadays whenever my family and I are traveling, my father will try to find a Gurdwara wherever we are. He always tells me, “Anywhere you go, you should get to know the Sikhs there.” His words inspired the connection I feel with my community and the love I have for Gurdwaras. I have always felt fortunate that I can be a part of the Sikh community no matter where I am. It is because of this bond—this closeness in our community—that the attack on Oak Creek was so painful. By taking the lives of six innocent people—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters—one individual brought hate into a place that I love.
As I traveled to Oak Creek last weekend for the one-year anniversary of the day that hate was brought into the Oak Creek Gurdwara, the theme that surrounded this weekend was “Chardi Kala,” or relentless optimism during times of hardship. I thought to myself, how can I be in Chardi Kala when a place I love was devastated and the families of lost loved ones are in infinite pain? How can I embrace the concept of Chardi Kala, when this was the biggest attack during my lifetime on my community in a place of peace and love? But once I got to Oak Creek, all of my questions were answered with the power of Sangat. In Sikhism, Sangat or communal prayer amongst fellow worshippers is large part of providing strength, community and peace to an individual. The Sangat of Oak Creek showed such immense strength and courage, lifting up their spirits and looking towards the future- within seconds, their Chardi Kala spirit infected me. I came to Oak Creek with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat, but that went away once I joined hands with the Oak Creek Sangat to remember Suveg Singh Khattra, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Ranjit Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Sita Singh, and Prakash Singh.
As difficult as the past year has been, reflecting on the reality that my second home, a beloved Gurdwara, was attacked, I gained more strength from the community of Oak Creek than from anywhere else. I commend the Sangat of Oak Creek for standing tall during this terrible time of hardship. Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka, nephew of one of the victims, Satwant Singh Kaleka, summed it up when he said, “I am proud to be a part of such a Sangat and I mean that in a global sense. Waheguru (God) has blessed us with so much love from all over the world. The whole is only as good as its parts and there are many parts that work as one.” Over the past year, so many our parts have to work as one in renewing our Chardi Kala- from the Oak Creek community to the Sikh community broadly to the global community, the love and support has been tremendous. As the one-year anniversary of the Oak Creek shooting passes, I can confidently say that although the pain is still there and work needs to be done to ensure that such an attack never happens again, the strength and Chardi Kala of the Oak Creek community continues to pay tribute to Suveg Singh Khattra, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Ranjit Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Sita Singh, and Prakash Singh and to elevate the collective spirit of Sikhs in America.
Manpreet Kaur Teji
South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT