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Chardhi Kala, Relentless Optimism

The Sikh community five years after Oak Creek shooting

Jul. 25, 2017
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“Because we love all people, we shall be relentlessly optimistic in the face of tragedy.”

Pardeep Kaleka shares this translation of a traditional Sikh prayer to emphasize his point that it is engrained in the very fabric of Sikh belief that suffering and sacrifice should be met with forgiveness, love and relentless optimism, chardhi kala.

Kaleka is a trauma therapist, co-founder of the peacemaking and service organization Serve 2 Unite, public speaker and activist for social justice. He is also the son of Satwant Singh Kaleka, who served as president of the Sikh temple, or gurdwara, in Oak Creek until his death at the hands of white supremacist Wade Michael Page on Aug. 5, 2012. The massacre also claimed the lives of temple members Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh and Paramjit Kaur. Four others, including first responding police officer Brian Murphy, were hospitalized for injuries sustained.

As the fifth anniversary of the shooting approaches, we take stock of the Sikh community locally and nationally; hate crimes in America; religious and governmental responses; the ways in which media messaging has shaped our understanding of the ongoing struggle with xenophobia; and peacemaking efforts going forward, including the Oak Creek temple’s annual 6K run-walk.

 

Who are the Sikhs?

Sikhism, founded more than 500 years ago by Guru Nanak in what is now the Punjab state of India, has 25 million adherents worldwide, making it the fifth largest world religion. In the United States, the Sikh population is conservatively estimated to be 500,000, with immigration beginning in the late 1800s, and yet a January 2015 report from the National Sikh Campaign revealed that 60% of Americans admit to knowing nothing about Sikh Americans. Mandeep Kaur, a lead organizer and spokesperson in Oak Creek for the Sikh Coalition for the last five years, shares that most American Sikhs have historically chosen to reside on one of the coasts, but that living expenses have increasingly driven them to the Midwest, especially in the past 15 years. In 2013, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel estimated that about 3,000 Sikh families live southeastern Wisconsin.

In the greater Milwaukee area, the majority of Sikhs reside in the Oak Creek and Brookfield area—also the locations of the area’s two gurdwaras—with many first-generation Sikhs working as gas station or liquor store owners and taxi drivers. Although most Sikhs reside in the suburbs, many of their businesses are in the inner city. Kaur observes that, as the second generation comes into adulthood, more and more are entering professional fields such as medicine.

To understand the Sikh response to the 2012 shooting, it is important to gain a basic grasp of Sikhism’s tenets and worldview. Kaur summarizes the religion’s core principals, thus: “One is living an honest life, making an honest living and being hardworking. And one is caring for the people that aren’t able to care for themselves—so volunteering, going out and providing food to anyone who can’t get it for themselves, living in high spirits, in other words, chardhi kala, taking events or incidents in life as God’s will and always seeing the positive side to it. And spirituality, making sure that, not just by appearance, you’re showing that you’re a Sikh by actually living by the teachings of Sikhism—cleansing yourself internally and always trying to live by the teachings of Sikhi.”

The religion is monotheistic, stresses the equality of all people in the eyes of God, has no designated priests, espouses gender equality, encourages teaching and learning, and places a premium on selfless giving. Kaleka notes, “For Sikhs, it’s really a falling in love with the process of growth and learning.” Sikhism is likewise not a religion of conversion. “To a point, a Sikh will always tell you, ‘I want you to be the best Christian possible, the best Hindu possible, the best Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh’, meaning that they want you to be the best person possible,” says Kaleka.

Speaking of the founding of Sikhism, Kaleka continues, “Nanak was a reformer. He was born Hindu. As he attained enlightenment, the journey says that he went into the river and didn’t appear for a couple days and once he did, his first words were, ‘There is no Hindu and there is no Muslim.’ Those were the two main religions of the time in India. He went from there to talk about reforming the way that we look at God and really emphasized that there is one God and that no matter who you are, everyone should be treated equally. There was this sense of what now we would call social justice. But he came up with this thing before the word was ever around and formed a faith based on it that said that if someone says that someone else is unequal, you go out of your way to deny that and even to the point that you sacrifice your life.”

 

Responding to August 5

The immediate response of the Sikh community to the 2012 shooting was fully in keeping with these principles. Many individuals, both from other religious groups and the general populace, took this fine example and began working assiduously for social change. According to Tom Heinen, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, “Sikhs who were interviewed on television and quoted in print publications after the shooting called for broad interfaith understanding, urged community unity and forgave the shooter. There were no angry outbursts or calls for vengeance. Amid the grieving, their community graciously served food to law enforcement officers and others who had come to help them.”

Heinen recalls that Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards, at an outdoor candlelight vigil after the shootings, said that he had seen a lot of crime and vengeance in his career, “but that he’d never seen reactions like the Sikhs’, adding that these people have something to teach us. At the observance of the first anniversary of the shooting, speaking to a crowd in the Oak Creek temple as one of several dignitaries, he also noted that Sikhs came up to him during the aftermath of the shooting and asked how he was doing. People never ask the cops how they are doing, he added as he described the hospitality and demeanor of the Sikhs he encountered.”

Looking to the longer-term response of the community, Kaur shares the story of Panjab Singh, the Sikh temple member so grievously injured in the shooting that he remains in long-term care to this day. “We tend to focus a lot on the Sikhs that we lost, but we tend to forget the one that’s still with us. He can’t talk or function on his own, but he’s very well aware of what’s going on around him. Before this incident he was a very spiritual individual, literally someone who lived by the Sikh key principles. Now, when you visit him and ask him questions, he acknowledges that he understands by blinking his eyes. When you ask him if he’s still in chardhi kala, he’ll blink his eyes. It’s just that—he’s an example of what we’re trying to teach the people in the community, in the country and around the world.”

On an institutional level, the events of Aug. 5, 2012, were the direct impetus for Kaleka forming Serve 2 Unite, which travels the country working in schools to engage youth in positive identity development through service, artistic response and global engagement; and also visiting communities undergoing demographic change (including the recent influxes of refugees). Kaleka shares his recent personal story and also provides insight on what it is like to be an immigrant to America in the modern era.

Describing the psychology Serve 2 Unite encounters, he notes, “A lot of times it comes back to fear—fear of immigrants, fear of change, fear of not being inclusive. Typically, the solution is not just talking it out; it’s action steps. The action steps are definitely service. These community members have to actually work together—to actually build something together, to build their community together, because part of the narrative comes back to ‘You don’t belong here. You’re a new incoming immigrant and you haven’t invested enough into the American dream to really have a part in it.’ So that’s part of the narrative. Trying to counter that looks like service.”

In the broader community, many efforts have been made to counter hate crimes and build empathy and understanding. Heinen notes the Interfaith Conference’s participation in numerous events ranging from prayer services and interfaith dialogues to talk-backs after relevant theatrical productions and a panel discussion of the documentary The Sikh Temple Shootings: Waking in Oak Creek…a community rocked by hate is awakened and transformed, which was created in 2013 and which Kaleka uses to present alternatives to vengeance for communities across the nation.

The Interfaith Conference’s most prominent legacy is its Amazing Faiths Dinner Dialogue program. Heinen says that more than 500 people have participated since the pilot events in 2012; the program entails small gatherings of 8-12 people of different faiths, philosophies, races and cultures for a simple vegetarian meal and moderated dialogue to share stories of their lived experiences. To learn more about these events, visit interfaithconference.org or call 414-276-9050.

Governmental response has also included notable gains. The FBI began tracking hate crimes against Sikhs as a direct response to the 2012 shooting, with the policy going into effect in 2015. Kaur also praises efforts made by the Obama administration to foster unity with the country’s Sikh community, including the (pre-2012) institution of a White House celebration of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. She states, “During the Obama administration, we had individuals that were turban Sikhs that were helping with the administration, so they held positions in the White House, which was a big plus for us.”

Of changes to legislation, Kaleka says, “Right here in Wisconsin we’ve been able to institute hate crimes legislation. Sikhs weren’t part of hate crimes legislation until August 5, and so that led directly to that. Next month, I’ll be in Indiana. Indiana is one of five state that hasn’t adopted hate crime legislation and so, with that said, there’s still work to be done.”

 

Rephrasing the Conversation About Hate Crimes

Kaur notes that some of the progress made over the past five years has been undermined under the current administration and that, while reported hate crimes committed against Sikhs seem to be on the decline, much religious and racially based violence and bigotry persist in the U.S. Moreover, reported hate crimes do not tell the whole story. As Kaleka notes, many hate crimes against Sikhs likely go unreported precisely because, he says, “we are a culture of resilience.”

A recent survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed that, in 2016, the number of hate groups in the country rose for a second consecutive year, with the most significant growth in the near-tripling of anti-Muslim groups from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. FBI statistics cited in the survey show that hate crimes against Muslims likewise grew by 67% in 2015.

The first reported revenge killing after 9/11 was not committed against a Muslim, but against Sikh gas station manager Balbir Singh Sodhi in a rash of violence that many media outlets describe as cases of “mistaken identity.” By religious prescription, many Sikh men wear turbans and long beards, which, due largely to the Osama bin Laden videos made viral in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, led many Americans to erroneously believe Sikhs are Muslims.

Beyond the obvious horror of the atrocities committed over the past 16 years against innocent members of minority faiths in America is the danger of implication. To call a murder such as Singh Sodhi’s a case of “mistaken identity” allows for the implication that hate groups should simply target Muslims instead of Sikhs. This is in no way an appropriate response.

Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition states, “An important point that those that endorse the ‘mistaken identity’ concept forget, is that people that endorse bigotry and racism seldom target one group, because it encompasses anyone and everyone that do not look and think as they do. When the white supremacist entered the Sikh temple and killed innocent people, he most probably did not know if he was killing Sikhs, Muslims or people from another galaxy; he most likely had no clue or understanding of their beliefs, and it really did not matter because he wanted to destroy anyone that did not look like him. That’s the racism that fuels violence.”

Kaleka offers further insight on the psychology of hate crimes from his work as a trauma therapist: “One of the things about trauma is it makes you look at the world in black and white—us and them, good and bad—and all of a sudden there becomes no gray complication; when the reality is that this world is full of the gray, and there’s really rarely a good or bad, a black and a white.”

His work thus involves helping people understand that racism, xenophobia and “othering” of all kinds can be seen as a trauma response, even a misplaced survival mechanism (he cites the necessity for black-and-white thinking in the context of the battlefield, for example). He strives to help people understand that, “what they’re doing and how they’re believing is not all about racism or Islamophobia or xenophobia, it’s about trauma and hurt and pain. It might just be pain that they’ve suffered in this lifetime, but it might also be a generational pain that is passed. Then, the goal becomes addressing it and admitting that this world is complicated.”

 

Looking Forward

Although there is still much work to be done in educating Americans about Sikhism and working to counter hatred with love, the Sikh community remains committed. To mark the fifth anniversary of the shooting, the Oak Creek gurdwara will host the Chardhi Kala 6K run-walk, named for the principle of relentless optimism and high spirits. Meanwhile, across the nation, cities have organized National Day of Seva events (named for the Sikh word for service) in solidarity with the Oak Creek event. Community members are encouraged to remember the sacrifice of Oak Creek’s Sikh community by engaging in any kind of service they feel is appropriate.

Kaur, who organizes the annual Oak Creek event, says there will be activities for children, a free meal and a speech by Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa, a prominent Indian entertainer, on the message of chardhi kala and love. All components of the event are free, and donations will primarily go to support a scholarship fund that honors the 2012 victims by aiding students who dedicate themselves to community service.

Describing the ideological thrust of the event, Kaur says, “We always try to remember Orlando or any of the shootings that happened in the last four years. This year, the focus is more on looking forward and how the incident itself has taught us to not only live in high spirits but show by example and actually go out into the community and make that difference and teach people that the more we know about each other and the more we work together, the better. I know it sounds weird coming out of my mouth, but we are taking the good that came out of the incident and trying to make that a ripple effect across the country.”

To learn more about and register for the Chardhi Kala 6K and its related events, call 414-690-6435 or visit chardhikala6kwi.org.

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