Reflections on Oak Creek: The Power of Sangat In My Second Home

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.

Manpreet Teji

Man­preet Kaur Teji
Pro­gram Asso­ciate,
SAALT

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 fearhow this could hap­pen to a Gur­d­wara, a place of wor­shipa 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.
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Manpreet Kaur Teji
Pro­gram Asso­ciate
South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er, SAALT