Twelve months ago, a white supremacist walked into a Milwaukee-area Sikh temple and opened fire on worshippers he didn’t know, killing six people, injuring five others and devastating a community whose religion is based on peace and forgiveness.
With the tragedy’s anniversary coming up Monday, temple members say they’re drawing strength from their religion’s tenets. They’re planning to honour the dead with quiet events that include solemn religious observances and a candlelight vigil, hoping to show the world that the best way to stand against violence is to come together in kindness and love.
The events are being planned in the spirit of “chardhi kala,” a Punjabi term that refers to a state of constant optimism, temple trustee Harcharan Gill said. Sikhs believe that a positive attitude, even during times of hardship, reflects an acceptance of the will of God.
“In Sikhism, it’s tough to lose somebody but God probably needed him earlier and called him back,” he said of the deceased. “We accept whatever decision he makes.”
Memorial events begin Friday at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Milwaukee, where U.S. Attorney James Santelle will hold a special remembrance. Santelle’s office and the FBI investigated the shooter’s background for months before concluding that his motive for attacking the Oak Creek temple died along with him that day.
Wade Michael Page walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin a year ago Monday and opened fire. He killed several priests and worshippers, and then fatally shot himself after he was wounded in the parking lot by a police sniper.
The 40-year-old Army veteran, who also shot and severely wounded an Oak Creek police officer, had ties to white supremacist groups. But after interviewing 300 people and generating 200 investigative leads, the FBI found no evidence to suggest he had help or was acting in the name of any such groups.
Several relatives of the wounded and dead say they forgave Page long ago. Raghuvinder Singh, whose 65-year-old father has been nearly comatose since Page shot him in the head, said he relies on Sikhism’s lessons of compassion and understanding.
“I was talking about forgiveness from the first day this happened,” said Singh, a Sikh priest along with his father and brother. “Sikhism is a peaceful religion. What Sikhism is teaching to us we are teaching to others. We practice it our whole lives.”
While memorial events are underway at the courthouse, priests at the temple will begin an “akhand path,” a ceremony in which they read the Sikh holy book aloud from cover to cover. The rite can take about 48 hours, and worshippers generally stop by to listen for short periods.
The next day, the temple and the city of Oak Creek will stage a 6-kilometre (3.7-mile) run to honour the six victims. The run is free but donations will be collected for scholarships in the victims’ names. Any leftover funds will go toward the construction of a memorial, Gill said.
“The run is part of the healing process,” Gill said. “It shows that we faced this situation and we are strong enough to get over this kind of tragedy, but we are not forgetting whatever happened.”
On Monday, temple officials will join the Oak Creek community for a candlelight vigil at a nearby park.
In the past year, temple members have done their best to resume a normal life. On a recent weekend, several dozen women gathered in the kitchen to prepare free meals for the hundreds of worshippers who visit each Saturday and Sunday. Children played in the lobby underneath photographs of the six victims, and devotees meditated inside the large prayer room.
Sikh temples generally have four doors, one on each side of the building, to symbolize a welcome haven for travellers coming from any direction. The temple is still open to anyone, although officials have taken a few precautions.
A guard works three days a week in the lobby, opening the door for visitors and keeping watching for strange behaviour such as drivers circling the parking lot rather than parking and coming inside. Security cameras and lighting have been added in the parking lot and around the building. Doors and windows are now bulletproof and the locks have been upgraded.
But the security measures haven’t dampened the welcoming spirit, temple member Harpreet Singh said.
“Still, the place is open for everyone,” he said. “We will always welcome people.”
The building is expected to get one final upgrade in anticipation of anniversary celebrations. The family of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple president who was shot and killed as he tried to stab Page in self-defence with a butter knife, has spent about $70,000 to import five golden domes from India.