My Trip to the Sikh Community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin

My Trip to the Sikh Community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin

In the last week, I witnessed the pain and terrible grief of these children and their families who lost their mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts in the massacre. But I also witnessed a multifaith movement for justice help the Sikh community find the courage to rise and rebuild in a time of unprecedented national attention. Groundswell supporters, thank you.

When I presented the six volumes of letters on Sunday morning, your words were concrete proof to the Sikh community in Wisconsin that they were not alone. They represented the thousands of Groundswell supporters who wrote messages, whispered prayers, and attended vigils, calling for an end to hate – not just against Sikhs but all people struggling for civil rights and human dignity in this country.

Please read on for my recap of the week.

Recap of the Week

On Monday, we put out a call to collect messages and prayers of hope, a way for supporters across our country to unite in saying, “Today we are all Sikh.” Within days, we collected more than four thousand letters.

On Tuesday, we created a map where you can zoom in and read the powerful messages from across the country to show the national support for the Sikh community.

On Wednesday, I traveled to Oak Creek, WI with my producing partner Sharat, where we prayed and mourned with the families, and, at their request, filmed and archived the week’s events. You can read my live-tweeting of our time in Wisconsin at @valariekaur.

On Thursday, community members entered their gurdwara for the first time since the massacre. They walked into a crime scene: there was blood on the carpets, bullet holes in the walls, and shattered windows. In an instant, they flew into action, ripping out carpets, painting over bullet holes, and scrubbing floors. Within hours, they served the first langar (open meal) and broke bread beneath portraits of those who died for our faith.  I witnessed a community literally rebuild itself before my eyes.  They embodied the spirit of chardi kala in the Sikh faith: even in darkness, a rising resilience.

On Friday, three thousand people filled the Oak Creek high school gym for the memorial service. We were there as families carried casket after casket from black hearses, chanting mournfully Waheguru, Waheguru (the Name of God). Families stood next to caskets of their mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, revealing the faces of the deceased – all turbaned men and one woman.  Attorney General Eric Holder addressed us with compassion and resolve: “In the recent past, too many Sikhs have been targeted and victimized simply because of who they are, how they look, and what they believe. This is wrong. It is unacceptable. And it will not be tolerated.”  He echoed the President’s words: “It is that fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, [and] I am my sister’s keeper, that makes this country work.”

By Sunday, we had collected more than four thousand messages from Groundswell supporters. By then, media crews had already packed up their trucks to chase the news of Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential pick. But we remained. On Sunday morning, at the first service since the shooting, thousands were in attendance. I had the honor of presenting to the community your four thousand letters in six bound volumes. Children of the six people killed accepted the letters on the community’s behalf, tears in their eyes. Amar Kaleka’s father, the president of the temple, was killed in the shooting. Amar told me, “The shooter attempted to divide us. But you are all heroes.”

At 2:58, when we deliver the notes, you can hear Sikhs shout “Jakara” (an exultation).
“Bole So Nihal” means, Whoever utters shall be fulfilled.
The congregation responds, “Sat Sri Akal!” Eternal and True is the Divine (God).

Later, back in New York, my mentor told me: “For many, organizing is a choice. For some organizing is a matter of life or death.” We have much work ahead. The mass shooting was the single greatest tragedy in Sikh American history, but it is also a profound opportunity to renew our commitment to build a nation where every single one of us can live, work, and worship in safe and caring communities.

Working with the White House, the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, South Asian Americans Leading Together and our faith partners across the U.S., we believe that our response in the 100 days after Oak Creek can help define the next twenty years for the Sikh American community – and in the broader struggle for civil rights and human dignity.

I am so proud to work with my colleagues at Groundswell and Auburn Seminary, and I am proud to stand alongside each of you as we begin the long hard work ahead. If you have ideas or blueprints for action, please write us. In the meantime, please know that your actions with us have made a difference to help a community rebuild from tragedy.