Photo by Jaspreet Kaleka
In August 2012, Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people and wounded four others in a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It was the worst race-based attack in the U.S. since the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama. In the wake of his father’s murder in the attack, Pardeep Kaleka, has become a powerful voice against hate crime and violence, helping to found the organization Serve 2 Unite which brings together young people from different religious and cultural backgrounds and encourages them to value humanity and to aspire to live life promoting peace.
August 5th, 2012 began like a typical Sunday, with me taking my young son and daughter to the Gurudwara (Sikh Temple), and my wife catching up on some work. Ten minutes into the drive my daughter sheepishly let me know that she’d left her notebook at the house. That kind of forgetfulness was a bad habit of hers and I was a bit annoyed as I turned to return to the house. Asking with a wink if she was absolutely positive she had everything she needed for Sunday School we set off again for the temple. Halfway there I had to pull over to let a stream of squad cars go blazing past. As a former cop, I knew that something very serious had to be happening to warrant such a high response. When I arrived at the temple a squad car was blocking the way. I told the officer I needed to get through to the Gurudwara and he responded that there was an active shooting scene there. Though I heard exactly what he said, I couldn’t take it in.
Then my phone began ringing and a flood of calls from family and friends echoed my shock and confusion. My dad’s number appeared amidst the cascade of alerts tumbling down my phone. Answering frantically, I heard the voice of a temple elder instead of my dad. He relayed in Punjabi that dad had been shot, but didn’t elaborate. Seeing a call from my mom I quickly switched over to her. In a hushed voice she said she was hiding in a closet with a bunch of others, and that they needed help right away. Seeing utter dismay in my children’s faces via the rearview mirror, I realized the phone had been on speaker. Switching it off I followed a growing stream of my fellow Sikhs to the bowling alley across the street from the Gurudwara where people were being evacuated. By now news had spread and I was surrounded by friends and family. My son and daughter went with some close friends and I set about trying to find my parents.
Three hours later I found my Mum at the bowling alley. I was so relieved she was okay. When I asked her about Dad she just cried and I assumed the worst. I couldn’t get any more information from her or the police officers so I rang every hospital in the area trying to find him. Almost 12 hours later they announced that my Dad was one of the victims of the shooting. I remember looking at the policeman who made the announcement with utter hatred, as if he had done something wrong. He was only the messenger but it was so hard to accept my Dad was dead.
Over the following days, I learned that the shooter’s name was Wade Michael Page, a self-proclaimed white power skinhead. One of our immediate responses to the atrocity was to ask how it could have happened. Perhaps because people weren’t familiar with Sikhism. Perhaps we weren’t open enough to the rest of the community of Oak Creek. We knew it was important to educate our youth, but what about the others? We decided we needed to reach out and get to know our neighbors, making contributions to our community and learning together.
Everybody in Oak Creek was affected by the events of that day. Some Sikhs became more closed but I chose to be more open. I decided to respond to this tragedy with compassion. There is a saying in Sikhism, Charhdi Kala which means “we move in relentless optimism”. Regardless of hardships in life I’m optimistic about the future. Charhdi Kala and compassion go hand in hand. Some people think of compassion as offering forgiveness and all is forgiven, but I think of it as a process, in other words I attach a purpose to what’s happening in life and appreciate the good things when they come. On August 5th, there was a purpose to what happened. Someone came to our temple trying to divide us, saying that we didn’t belong and that we weren’t wanted in his country. With Charhdi Kala the purpose of our response is to reach out, to include the other and say this will not happen again.
I’ve learnt more about my journey of forgiveness from my friend and colleague, former white supremacist Arno Michaelis. After the shooting I felt grief and frustration and couldn’t understand why Wade Michael Page had pulled the trigger. I contacted Arno and he agreed to meet me. Arno was able to help me understand the behavior and fears of Page. He spoke about the self-destructive nature of hate, and the painful consequences of identifying with the white supremacist ideology. Since Arno and I met, we’ve become as close as brothers, waging peace together to honor my father and all lives lost in the wake of violence. Through the organization we’ve created together, Serve 2 Unite, children of all ethnicities, from the inner city to the suburbs, are coming together to cherish each other as human beings and to assume the identity of peacemakers in their schools and communities.
Choosing forgiveness is making a decision and embarking on a process. Some days will be good and others more difficult. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I imagine it didn’t happen but it certainly did happen. I haven’t taken anything for granted since August 5th, 2012. The ‘what if’ my daughter hadn’t forgotten her note book haunts me. I try to enjoy the time with my family, friends and community and experience life to the fullest. Sometimes my daughter and my son say that I hug them too long. Perhaps I do. Sometimes I kneel by their beds and sit and reflect while they’re sleeping. I thought I was experiencing post-traumatic stress, but actually what I’m experiencing is post-traumatic growth. I value each day more than someone who hasn’t gone through this, but I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.