Family members and mourners during the wake for victims of last Sunday’s attack at the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin. (Reuters)
Oak Creek (Wisconsin), Aug. 10: After the sadness and shock, members of Wisconsin’s insular Sikh community found themselves confronting scenes they never would have expected.
There were outpourings of support, including a gathering of hundreds of people of different faiths and skin colours, some holding candles, others wearing white head scarves, in a gesture of solidarity with this predominantly Indian religion.
They have been bombarded with flowers, good wishes and hundreds of thousands of dollars, an assertive response to the killings at a gurdwara here on Sunday of six persons — Sita Singh, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Prakash Singh, 39; Paramjit Kaur, 41; Suveg Singh, 84; and Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, who was the gurdwara’s president.
“No matter what the shooter did, he failed, because instead of pulling us apart, he made us closer,” said Harpreet Singh Kapur, 34, a member of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in this town about 10 miles south of Milwaukee.
“It will get stronger from here. We didn’t realise that we have such support from other members of society until this happened. Now we realise how much they care about us. We feel more close to other faiths and other religions now more than ever before.”
As the town welcomed at least 2,000 people to a group funeral service today, residents, local officials and Sikhs hoped to use this time of grief as a teaching moment. They hoped to increase the involvement of Sikhs in the wider community and increase the community’s awareness of the Sikh people.
Sikhs were allowed to return to the gurdwara yesterday after the FBI finished working at the crime scene. They brought their holy book with them, Guru Granth Sahib, and members started taking turns reading all 1,430 pages non-stop from this afternoon until Sunday morning.
Mayor Stephen Scaffidi said he planned to invite Sikh elders to participate on city commissions and to appoint a city liaison to the gurdwara. He said he and other local officials would visit the gurdwara to speak with its members.
Overall, he said, officials hope to increase outreach to groups that do not traditionally blend in Oak Creek, which is more than 80 per cent white.
“To me, it’s an awareness of each other,” Scaffidi said. “People always talk about tolerance. If you don’t meet people or if you don’t interact with them, you don’t have a chance to make that happen.”
The efforts are not just local. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, federal and local officials and residents of Oak Creek participated in a discussion with Sikh leaders last night about how to bring the community together after the shooting.
Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin visited families of the shooting victims yesterday and announced that a condolence book would be set up in the rotunda of the State Capitol for people to leave messages.
The gurdwara here has between 350 and 400 members, who generally have kept to themselves. But even before the shooting, its leaders had been working to change that.
“We were trying to get involved in the community and help any way we can,” said Kulwant Dhaliwal, a trustee of the gurdwara. “Now it is even more imperative that we go out into the community and tell people who Sikhs are and who Sikhs are not.”
Since 9/11, Sikhs sometimes have been mistaken for Muslims and have been the target of violent acts.
Investigators were still searching yesterday for a motive for Sunday’s shooting. The authorities have said Wade M. Page, an army veteran with ties to white power groups, turned his 9mm handgun on himself after gunning down worshippers in the temple.
People here say Oak Creek is a tolerant and quiet place. Murders are rare, and people said they generally felt safe.
The population has grown 21 per cent over the past decade, to nearly 35,000, but residents say it is still the type of place where everyone knows each other. Businesses have been increasingly attracted to Oak Creek, Scaffidi said, because of its location — between Milwaukee and Chicago, and near major freeways, railways and Lake Michigan — and its large tracts of open land.
Sikhs are among the local business owners. More than 750 people in Oak Creek, or 2.2 per cent of the population, have described themselves as “Asian Indian,” a nearly threefold increase from 10 years ago, according to census data.
Still, several residents said that although they frequently see Indian people in town, they rarely have engaged them. Some residents said they did not even know there was a Sikh temple here.
Dustin Mihm, a 24-year-old schoolteacher, described what he hoped would come of the tragedy. “Just getting to know them,” he said. “Hopefully not being separated from each other.”