The short drive from the Milwaukee airport to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is fairly unremarkable. The topography is similar to that of other Midwestern towns, with an open expanse of land followed by a small shopping complex featuring a Taco Bell, a mattress store and a Panera. So when I spot this place of worship, it surprises me. You would never expect to see a gurdwara here, in the heartland of America.
Oak Creek is a small town in the Milwaukee suburbs with a population of 34,000. It’s 87 percent white, with a growing minority population: Latinos make up nearly seven percent, Asians are around five percent and African-Americans are at nearly three percent. But sometimes the town feels like a mini-Punjab one community member tells me at the gurdwara, referring to the rising South Asian population here.
In the late 1990s, Sikh families came together to rent halls for prayer services and social gatherings and went on to build a gurdwara. The community soon outgrew that space so members pooled their funds to buy 13 acres of land on South Howell Avenue near the airport. In April 2007 the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin opened its doors to the sangat (congregation) and visitors.
The gurdwara is a striking brick building with a long, inviting driveway. Today visitors are greeted with six wreaths just steps away from the temple’s sign. Each marks one of the six lives lost on August 5, 2012, when 40-year old white supremacist Wade Michael Page stormed into the gurdwara with a semiautomatic pistol and terrorized the congregants inside, and by extension, a whole community.
I feel the impact of last August’s events everywhere inside the gurdwara. A memorial wall holds up framed pictures of the six who were killed with descriptions of their migration histories, connections to the gurdwara, hopes for the future and family ties: Sita Singh had moved to Oak Creek from New York City just six months before the shooting. Suveg Singh Khattra, 84 when he was killed, joined his son in the United States in 2004. Satwant Singh Kaleka helped build the gurdwara and served as its
president. Ranjit Singh was planning to visit India to see his son, Gurvinder, who was only seven months old when Singh moved here. Paramjit Kaur had two young sons, Kamal and Harpreet. And a few months before his death, Prakash Singh had received his green card and brought his immediate family to the U.S.
Their names and memories live on in the gurdwara, as do the stories often not told, of the many who were injured, like Baba Punjab Singh who remains in a coma one year since the attack, and of the children who witnessed Page’s rampage and are dealing with their trauma with help from the Sikh Healing Collective.
One of the bullets that invaded the main prayer hall and pierced the door frame is not patched up yet. Around it, as if to counteract its impact, are messages of support and love. Words from other places of worship like the Unitarian Universalist Church in Portsmouth, N.H., cover the walls of the gurdwara, bringing solace and comfort.
The langar hall is by far the largest open space, where food is made every day and served to anyone who chooses to enter. Dozens of women and children hid inside the
kitchen space on that Sunday last August. “There are few places to hide,” observes a friend as we walk through the langar hall. “Everything is open.”
Each part of this gurdwara—from parking lot to langar hall—holds a part of the events that transpired on August 5, 2012. Now a year since, they have taken on even greater significance.
The Spirit of Chardi Kala
Throughout the commemorative events this past weekend a common theme—that of chardi kala—emerges. Chardi kala means optimism in the face of adversity, a philosophy that Sikhs hold dear. It is present during the Friday commemoration in the federal courthouse in Milwaukee, the 6K run/walk on Saturday at the Oak Creek High School, the gurdwara on Sunday featuring first responders, interfaith leaders and Governor Scott Walker, and the Monday vigil that draws more than 1,000 people.
The entire Oak Creek community has had to summon chardi kala to overcome the impact of what has been characterized as both an act of domestic terrorism and a hate crime by law enforcement authorities. Despite the remarkable efforts of first responders, government officials, victim specialists and groups like the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, it is clear that the events of August 5, 2012, have taken a significant toll on Oak Creek.
Like many towns around the country, particularly in America’s heartland, Oak Creek didn’t have the infrastructure in place to bring people of different faiths and backgrounds together prior to the tragedy. The Sikh community lacked resources, from mental health providers to translators to lawyers to spokespersons to respond to a crisis of this scale. Even the federal government, which dispatched staff from the Department of Justice, FBI and FEMA to the scene, did not have deep preexisting relationships with local community members or outreach plans in place. National organizations had to rely on the lessons learned from the post-9/11 backlash and activate rapid response plans. All of us were operating in crisis mode in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced this past weekend that the federal government would be providing Oak Creek with $500,000 to assist with services for the local community, highlighting the scope of the tragedy’s impact.
Hate on the Rise
Perhaps one lesson we’ve learned from Oak Creek is that we need to be better prepared to deal with hate violence in all parts of the nation, especially in light of the fact that the number of hate groups is on the rise.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this number has grown by almost 70 percent since 2000, rising to over 1,000 currently. In 2010, the FBI reported more than 6,600 hate crimes in the U.S. We are dealing with an epidemic that needs to be monitored, addressed and stopped.
What happened in Oak Creek is not however an isolated incident at the hands of a lone gunman. It is part of a broader climate of racism and xenophobia that people of color
often experience as a result of negative political discourse, anti-immigrant laws, encounters with law enforcement, and everyday occurences of bullying, harassment and “othering.”
At the Oak Creek gurdwara I have a conversation with a Sikh man that brings the consequences of this “othering” home for me. I ask him if the armed security guards I see stationed in front of the building are there all the time. He tells me they’re not there around the clock so community members have volunteered to serve as security. The idea that people feel that they have to protect themselves in a house of worship saddens me to the core. Is this the America we want to create?
The Lasting Significance of Oak Creek
Oak Creek has taken on meaning well beyond its immediate impact on the Sikh community. We now include it on the growing list of towns that have been ravaged by gun violence in recent years around the nation. It serves as an alarm bell about what can happen in American towns that are facing sweeping demographic changes. It’s also another symbol of the post-9/11 backlash that has led to unprecedented levels of hate crimes, bullying, profiling and discrimination against South Asians, Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs and people perceived to be from those communities.
To those of us who identify with these communities, the Oak Creek gurdwara is a physical site that holds the pain and memory of what occurred last August 5th, but also the deep wounds that have been endured by our communities around the country since 9/11. Yet the sangat of the gurdwara and the broader Oak Creek community show us through their examples how we can move forward from tragedy. At the memorial services this past weekend, I heard about how African-American community members are now working closely with Sikh leaders. I listened to the heart-wrenching remarks of Robbie Parker who connected with the grief of the Oak Creek community as he reflected on the loss of his six-year old daughter in the Newtown shooting. I saw first-hand the commitment of local elected officials and law enforcement to ensure that family members left behind have the resources they need to rebuild their lives.
We can all follow their examples. Around the country, each of us can hold elected leaders and public officials accountable for engaging in xenophobic and racist rhetoric. We can demand that mainstream media tell the stories of the Oak Creek massacre, and not give them short shrift. We can support strong laws that prohibit racial and religious profiling such as the End Racial Profiling Act pending in Congress. We can call upon President Obama to address the epidemic of hate violence by following the example of the National Church Arson Taskforce of the 1990s. Each of us can build relationships, engage in interfaith and cross-racial dialogue, and address more effectively the complexities of America’s changing racial landscape in our towns and cities.
To honor the victims and survivors of the Oak Creek tragedy is to acknowledge it not only as an act of domestic terrorism and as a hate crime, but as part of the deep civil rights history of our nation. Let us make Oak Creek part of the American narrative that includes the 16th Street Baptist Church. Both symbolize the impact of white supremacist violence on places of refuge and sanctuary—and the will to overcome and create positive change.
Perhaps one of the lasting legacies of this tragedy is that it will spark a whole new generation of activists and organizers, truth tellers and disrupters. Let us support them by making a physical pilgrimage to the Oak Creek gurdwara each August 5 to understand, grieve and remember. And every other day, let us reaffirm our collective pledge to not let another Oak Creek happen, in the spirit of chardi kala.
Deepa Iyer is the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), the chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) and a board member of The Applied Research Center, Colorlines.com’s publisher.