Reflections on Oak Creek: Solidarity In Struggle

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.

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On the morn­ing of August 5, 2012, mem­bers of the Oak Creek Sikh Tem­ple were prepar­ing for lan­gar, the com­mu­nal meal com­mon to Sikh cul­ture. The tra­di­tion of lan­gar (rough­ly trans­lat­ed as “Guru’s kitchen”) radi­ates inclu­sive­ness: the meal is open to all vis­i­tors, regard­less of back­ground, and often con­sists of veg­e­tar­i­an dish­es in order to accom­mo­date all eat­ing habits.

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Ben­jamin Todd Jeal­ous
Pres­i­dent & CEO,

We can­not know the moti­va­tions of the shoot­er on that fate­ful morn­ing, or the bias­es that shaped his world­view. But as we reflect on the mean­ing of this tragedy one year lat­er, we can choose to focus on what we do know for cer­tain: the beau­ty of the six vic­tims’ final act on Earth.

Lan­gar is a sym­bol of all that is right in the Sikh tra­di­tion, and all that we should aspire to in this coun­try. The lan­gar table is a place where the tra­di­tion­al bound­aries of reli­gion, race and class melt away over good food and con­ver­sa­tion. The wor­shipers at Oak Creek tem­ple sought to offer a safe space for cross-cul­tur­al dis­cus­sion and reflec­tion.

We can work to hon­or their vision. As our coun­try grows ever more diverse, and our pol­i­tics ever more divi­sive, we will face a deep ques­tion about our future. Can we tru­ly become the “One Nation” that we claim to be in the Pledge of Alle­giance? Or will we let our super­fi­cial dif­fer­ences tear us apart? This tragedy seems to give us one answer, but the vic­tims’ actions tell us some­thing else entire­ly.

The Sikh scrip­ture Guru Granth Sahib tells us that “the light of God is in all hearts” – just as Christ’s dis­ci­ples wrote that the Cre­ator “made from one man every nation of mankind” [Acts 17:26–28 ESV], and the Quran urges dif­fer­ent tribes to “know one anoth­er” [Surat Al-Huju­rat 49:13]. Our spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tions remind us that cohe­sion is the nat­ur­al state of mankind – even if the most vio­lent acts of man some­times make us for­get that.

Just three weeks after the shoot­ing, on August 26, 2012, the Oak Creek tem­ple held a lan­gar for the entire com­mu­ni­ty. If this small Wis­con­sin com­mu­ni­ty can open their doors and their hearts after such a breach of secu­ri­ty, the rest of us can learn from their exam­ple. On this anniver­sary, take a moment to ask your­self how you can open doors and embrace diver­si­ty in your own life.

In our search for answers in pol­i­tics and reli­gion, we can look for exam­ples of divi­sive­ness, or we can focus on our shared tra­di­tions and shared beliefs. Vio­lence will always grab our atten­tion, but love and under­stand­ing will sus­tain us.

Benjamin Todd Jealous
Pres­i­dent & CEO
Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple, NAACP