Sikhs Find Faith in Oak Creek, One Year Later

Published on Washington Post.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a lone gunman killed six people in a Sikh house of worship. It was the largest hate-based act of violence on a faith community since the 1963 church bombings of the civil rights era.

“I miss my mother every day,” said Harpreet Saini, who lost his mother in the shooting at age 18. “But I want to make her proud, so I’m honoring her memory through seva [service].”

Harpreet Saini and the other young people of Oak Creek who lost loved ones – parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles – planned this weekend’s anniversary events themselves. Remarkably, just one year after the bloodshed, they created anniversary events that contained something that most Americans would not expect – joy and high spirits. In speeches, prayers, and songs runs the Sikh spirit of Chardi Kala, everlasting optimism and high spirits, even in suffering. Today, Americans of all faiths and backgrounds have an opportunity to learn the story of Oak Creek – not as a site of bloodshed, but as a testament to the power of healing through service.

The Sikh faith teaches that the divine permeates the world, and therefore, we must aim to accept what comes to pass with grace. At the same time, we can play an active role in shaping our own destinies through humility and service. In this spirit, we are called to embody relentless optimism, Chardi Kala. 

When his mother was murdered, Harpreet Saini felt like his world ended. “I lost my best friend,” he said. But just 45 days after his mother was killed, he and his brother decided that the best way to honor their mother’s memory is through service. On Sept. 19, 2012, Harpreet became the first Sikh in U.S. history to testify before Congress at a senate hearing on hate crimes and domestic terrorism.

“I want to protect other people from what happened to my mother,” said Harpreet in his testimony. “I want to combat hate – not just against Sikhs but against all people. Senators, I know what happened at Oak Creek was not an isolated incident. I fear it may happen again if we don’t stand up and do something.”

The Senate hearing amplified the call of Sikh advocates, asking the government to give his mother the dignity of being counted as part of hate crimes statistics. One year later, Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the Department of Justice will track hate crimes against Sikhs and other at-risk communities.

Today, Harpreet and his older brother Kamal both want to become police officers, just like Lt. Brian Murphy, the officer who was struck by twelve bullets protecting worshipers at the gurdwara.

“I couldn’t protect my mother that morning,” said Kamal Saini, “but we want to become police officers like Lt. Murphy so that we can serve others.”

They are not alone. Many more young Sikh Americans of Oak Creek have decided to respond to the tragedy through seva, including through founding an organization called Serve2Unite. Amardeep Kaleka, whose father was killed fighting the gunman, has emerged as a powerful voice against gun violence. His brother Pardeep Kaleka has joined forces with former white supremacist Arno Michaelis, speaking to young people about how to end hate and violence in their lives.

These acts of service do not take away the pain and grief, especially for those who don’t have the opportunity to heal from the shooting. One year later, Punjab Singh, a renowned Sikh teacher, remains hospitalized due to his injuries.

“August fifth is a day that never ends for us,” said son Raghuvinder Singh. “The pain in my heart and mind is just as it was the day we arrived.”

Raghuvinder and his younger brother Jaspreet rushed from India when they discovered their father was in critical condition after the shooting. Since then, they have taken turns to remain by their father’s side, day and night. Jaspreet has yet to meet his baby girl, born in India last October.

“One year later, my father remains in the same condition, but he’s still teaching me how to stay in Chardi Kala,” said Raghuvinder in his father’s hospital room on the eve of the anniversary weekend. Punjab Singh cannot move or speak, save for blinking his eyes.

Raghuvinder asked him, “Papa Ji, are you in Chardi Kala?”

His father blinked twice – “Yes.”

This weekend, Raghuvinder was among the first sprinting from the starting line of the Chardi Kala 6K Memorial Run/Walk in Oak Creek to raise donations for scholarship funds. He was joined by close to one thousand people of all backgrounds from the community in an event organized by Sikh youth. In cities across the nation, thousands participated in Sikh-led service projects, prayers, runs, and vigils.

On Sunday morning, when the community gathered in the Oak Creek gurdwara for the Ardas, a prayer that opens every major moment and ceremony, Raghuvinder recited the last line with the congregation:

Nanak nam chardi kala, tere bhaanai sarbat da bhala.”

“In the name of God, we find everlasting optimism.

Within your will, may there be grace for all of humanity.”

On the one year anniversary of Oak Creek, in the midst of news of increasing violence in our country, may we share in the spirit of everlasting optimism – and hear the call to serve.

Remember Oak Creek. Watch the Film. Spread the Word.