By Mukhbir Singh (WSO Vice-President-Quebec)
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King
As the World Sikh Organization of Canada’s envoy to the funeral services of the Oak Creek Gurdwara shooting victims, I worked to foster relations with victims' family members and community members from Wisconsin who were affected by the shootings. It was an amazing opportunity to provide support to the sangat (congregation) and help grieve with them in the aftermath of such a terrible tragedy.
I remember where I was when I found out about the shootings and how I felt. A chill went up my spine when I heard about the shooting at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I was stunned because the shooting was taking place just as I was sitting at our own gurdwara in Montreal – in peace and tranquility after the completion of the day’s service. This trip was the perfect opportunity to understand what had happened, and how the community was coping.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
We arrive at Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport. Immediately after leaving the terminal, three strangers (non-Sikh) walk up to me and ask me if I am there for the funerals and share how sorry they feel for the victims and the Sikh community in general.
While at the airport, I also encountered Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, a Punjab politician, who shared how proud he was of the local community in their handling of the situation. In particular, he was very happy with the coverage that was being provided by CNN.
It was a definitely a very interesting introduction to the city, one that would foreshadow the remainder of the trip.
Our first stop of the day was to attend the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Community Forum. A community wide gathering to "promote healing, encourage understanding, share services, advance harmony, and build community capacity.”
Pakhar Singh, a trustee and founding member of the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin (not the gurdwara from the shooting) acted as my “chaperone” helping me find a place to stay and move about the city.
The town hall meeting was to be held at Oak Creek High School and was moderated by Meg Gorecki, Midwest Regional Director, USDOJ, Community Relations Service.
Before the meeting started, I got a chance to meet Harpreet Singh, Regional Direction, U.S. Department of Justice, Community Relations Service.
The key community leaders present were:
James Santelle, US Attorney for the Easter District of Wisconsin
Jeffrey Magee, Assistant SAC - ATF
Kulwant S. Dhaliwal, Sikh Representative
Mayor Steve Scaffidi
Nimmi Arora, LCISW (Social Worker)
John Edwards, Police Chief
Saeed A. Mody - USDOJ Civil Rights Division
Amardeep Kaleka - Sikh Representative of Victims' Families
Joshua Dubois - White House Council and Faith Based Initiatives, Washington, D.C.
Reverend Jesse Jackson was in attendance, and I was invited to give an interview on Fox 6 News together, alongside Reverend Jackson and the granddaughter of Suveg Singh Khattra, who was one of the victims of the shootings.
U.S. based organizations including the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and SALDEF were also present and had prepared a pamphlet to help children understand the Wisconsin Gurdwara Shooting.
Some notes from the speakers:
· John Edwards explained that he welcomed the additional coverage and support but stressed, that even after everyone leaves, “We will STILL be here.” He focused on the need for the community to move on.
“The coward was not from MY community nor YOUR community. The thousands of people that were in attendance in the candlelight vigil is OUR community – the majority.”
Mr. Edwards gave a heartfelt speech about how in the course of living life as a police officer, they lose a sense of reality. They only begin to see the negative in people which leads them to stop working with people. He promised for education in his own police force and stated the need for more in all of Wisconsin.
· Joshua Dubois - White House Council and Faith Based Initiatives, Washington, D.C also gave a very emotional speech:
“This is not just a Sikh tragedy, nor just a Wisconsin tragedy. This is an American tragedy.”
“In this tragedy, we are all Sikhs.”
A moment of silence was held at the end of the meeting to commemorate the victims. During the memorial, Amardeep Kaleka, son of shoorting victim and temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka read out the names of those who had lost their lives.
After the completion of the town hall meeting, we went to another memorial event that was held by Wisconsin’s Hindu community (Hindu Temple of Wisconsin). People from different communities were invited to attend with speakers from various community centres.
Friday, August 10, 2012
Thousands of people streamed into Oak Creek High School to pay their final respects to the six victims and their families.
The atmosphere was somber; there were tearful mourners everywhere. Everyone greeted the victims’ family members with hugs at the Oak Creek High School gymnasium. Six open caskets were arranged inside the gymnasium with family members standing next to them. A large screen displayed photos of those killed and injured.
After we filed past the wooden caskets, everyone took their seats as the raagis (Sikh religious singers) sang hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib.
Along with a host of speakers from the community, Governor Scott Walker addressed the crowd and explained how moved he was with the Sikh community’s response to the tragedy:
“Today we mourn with you, we pray with you, we support you.”
Several members of the media and police officers stood by in the gym, watching the service.
The wake and visitation was scheduled to last two hours, but was then extended by another two hours due to the high number of mourners who continued to come in and to accommodate for all of the speakers present.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the crowd and labeled the attack on the gurdwara "an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime." His words appeared to be the one of strongest denunciation at the service and definitely the strongest by any U.S. government official.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and U.S. Representative and Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan also spoke and expressed their condolences.
After the service, we returned to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin along with the other mourners. An Akhand Path (a continual reading of the Guru Granth Sahib) was started and was to be completed in two days.
Thursday night, the gurdwara was officially opened to the congregation. Dozens of worshippers had milled around the gurdwara, where bloodstained carpet had been replaced and members had freshly painted the walls. After these volunteers’ hard work it was impossible to tell that there had been a shooting there just a week ago. As a memorial to the shooting victims, there was one bullet hole in a doorjamb leading to the main prayer hall that was left to act as a reminder of the tragedy.
We arrive at the Max A. Sass & Sons Funeral and Cremation Service for the cremation service of Suveg Singh Khattra. There hundreds of people present at the service.
Upon completion of the services we head over to the cremation service of the gurdwara’s late president, Satwant Singh Kaleka.
There are almost a thousand people present at Wisconsin Memorial Park, with no room to stand anywhere inside of the funeral home. This service definitely attracted more people and many people are left standing outside due to the high number of attendees.
After fighting traffic, we arrive in time to attend Paramjit Kaur’s cremation services. There are noticeably fewer people at this service. I was told that many had decided not to attend due to the terrible traffic in Milwaukee (the prior funeral was held on the other side of the city in Brookfield). Nonetheless, there are about a hundred people present at the cremation service.
Saturday, August 11
The following day we returned to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin where we met many volunteers. There were met some fellow Canadians from Toronto including Kuldeep Chahal, Harman Singh, Varinder Singh and others who had brought banners and cards that temple members in Canada had signed for families of the victims.
It was so refreshing to see some fellow youth from Canada helping out and supporting the victims in any way that they could. Harman Singh explained that they were involved in many other initiatives including running a non-profit organization called “Aid for hunger”.
In all, the day was definitely emotionally draining but with everyone in it together, I think the grieving process took a major step today. This will obviously affect the families for the remainder of their lives, but I think it was comforting for them to know and see the amount of support they received during these past few days. They thanked everyone repeatedly throughout the services and explained just how much the condolences from strangers helped them.
The media and political presence appeared to be much welcomed by the community and in return, the media seemed to be just as pleased to be there. All of the speakers remarked on how open and positive the community was and appreciated the community for its valor and dignity. In all, today was a roller coaster of emotions and a day that I’ll remember. I think today really helped me understand the importance and magnitude of this is tragedy. This is a landmark event for Sikhs living in North America, one that will be referred to again and again and one that we’ll remember in the future.
A special thank you goes out to the officer who was injured during the shootings, Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy. He was upgraded Thursday to satisfactory condition – on behalf of the WSO I’d like to wish him a speedy recovery and offer him my deepest gratitude for his sacrifice and dedication to protecting the lives of those worshippers.