Reflections – One Year After Oak Creek !


August 16, 2013

By Geeta Goindi

Rockville, MD – Exactly a year after the devastating hate crime at the Gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, devotees of various faiths gathered at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation (GGSF) to remember, to heal, to reflect, to stand united and speak in unison.

August 16, 2013

By Geeta Goindi

Rockville, MD – Exactly a year after the devastating hate crime at the Gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, devotees of various faiths gathered at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation (GGSF) to remember, to heal, to reflect, to stand united and speak in unison.

Photos of the six victims who were gunned down at the Oak Creek Gurudwara were strategically placed with candles and flowers at the entrance of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, at a memorial service marking the one year anniversary of one of the deadliest hate crimes in America.  Photo credit: Harminder Kaur

On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist, Wade Michael Page, went on a shooting spree at the Gurudwara in Wisconsin killing six worshippers –  Satwant Singh Kaleka, Paramjit Kaur, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh and Suveg Singh – and wounding others, including Lieutenant Brian Murphy, the police officer who responded to the attack, and Punjab Singh, a member of the Sangat (Sikh congregation) who is paralyzed.

Outside the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, there was a neon sign which alternated in flashing, “Prayers for Oak Creek Victims”, “We salute first responders of Oak Creek – WI” and “Choose Love which unites us”.  Inside the Gurudwara, photos of the six victims were strategically placed at the entrance with candles and flowers in a very moving sight!

It was a heartfelt remembrance, a timely memorial service impeccably coordinated by Dr. Rajwant Singh, founder and chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE) and Secretary of GGSF, together with Ravi Singh, board member of GGSF and Sartaj Singh Dhami, an active member of the GGSF Sangat.  The event drew: elected officials – Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Maryland State Delegate Aruna Miller (Democrat – District 15); Loretta Garcia, Montgomery County Office of Human Rights; Adam Marker, Montgomery County Committee on Hate/Violence; interfaith leaders of the Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Baha’i faiths standing in solidarity with Sikhs – Dr. Carol Flett, Reverend Lynn Strauss, Dr. Siva Subramanian, Rizwan Jaka and Michael Turner; law enforcement officers including Commander James Fenner; school children; and a sizeable Sangat on a Monday evening.

Inderpal Singh Gadh, Chairman of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, is at the podium thanking guests and the community for participating in the remembrance service.  Seen in the photo from left to right are board members of the GGSF: Inderjit Singh, Sarabjit Singh Sidhu, Ravi Singh, Kamal Kaur Sawhney, Ranjit Singh Kaler, Mr. Gadh, Dr. Harvinder Singh, Dr. Rajwant Singh and Harminder Singh Jassal.  Photo credit: Harminder Kaur

Recalling the attack on the Oak Creek Gurudwara, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett told the gathering that it was a case of mistaken identity – Sikhs were mistaken for Muslims – stemming from hate.  “The gunman may have selected the wrong target, but within his heart and soul were hatred, ignorance, images of stereotypes that should not exist anywhere in any society”, he emphasized.

Noting that Montgomery County has over one million residents, Leggett underlined it is his challenge to make certain that the county “is the most inclusive place in all of America”! He told the Sangat, “It is our challenge to make Montgomery County a model for tolerance, love and respect.  We cannot do that if members of our community are not respected and their religion is looked at in bias”, he said.

Referring to the attack on the Gurudwara in Oak Creek, the County Executive assured the gathering that his office is “maximizing efforts to make sure that something like this does not happen in Montgomery County”.  He said, “We have partners, commissions, staff, working with a desire to prevent such acts” and, in this regard, he mentioned the police department, commission on human rights, office of community partnerships, solidarity committees, intervention and prevention committees.

To the Sikhs who packed the prayer hall, Leggett expressed much admiration for their “long-term reputation of tolerance, advocacy of basic human rights and commitment to respect other faiths while, at the same time, working to advance the common good”.

Dr. Rajwant Singh noted that Leggett “has been a great friend of the Sikh community throughout his political career in Montgomery County and has always come out to show his support and his backing on many issues affecting our community”.

The gathering at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation praying for the victims of the Oak Creek tragedy. Photo credit: Harminder Kaur

During the course of the remembrance service, messages were read from Congressman John Delaney (Democrat – Maryland) and Maryland State Delegate Sam Arora (Democrat – District 19).  Congressman Delaney conveyed: “The shooting in Wisconsin was especially troubling because all Americans, of all faiths, should be safe inside their place of worship”.  The lawmaker, who represents a large Sikh population in District 6, assured, “I am committed to making sure that my Sikh friends, neighbors, co-workers are welcome, respected and safe”.  He lauded the Sikh community for showing “incredible strength and perseverance in responding to the shootings.  Your dedication to principles of peace and non-violence in the face of suffering is truly admirable”, he stated.  “Tolerance, humility, love and peace are values that unite us all”!

In brief, but powerful, remarks, Delegate Aruna Miller spoke about issues of utmost importance to the Sikh community.  She is blessed with a natural ability to reach out to everyone and is aware and sensitive to concerns which profoundly impact faith-based communities.

Greeting the Sangat in the customary Sikh manner with ‘Sat Sri Akal’, Delegate Miller said: “Today, as we mark the one year anniversary of the largest hate-based act of violence on a faith community since the 1963 church bombings of the civil rights era, let us be reminded of the gentle words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: ‘Darkness cannot take out darkness, only light can.  Hate cannot take out hate, only love can’.  It is with this philosophy that ordinary people whose hearts are filled with pain did extraordinary things this past year, including Harpreet Singh Saini, the teenager who lost his mother at the Oak Creek Gurudwara”.  Harpreet became the first Sikh to testify in the US Senate.  He implored the Department of Justice to track hate crimes against Sikhs which the FBI will now begin to do for certain vulnerable faith-based groups – Sikhs, Hindus and Arab Americans.

Children of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation conveying their sentiments at a remembrance service for the victims of the Oak Creek Gurudwara tragedy.  Photo credit: Harminder Kaur

Delegate Miller pointed out that “Sikh advocates have already launched the next civil rights campaign calling for the US military to end its discriminatory policy that bans Sikhs from service”.

She told the gathering, “In this session, the Maryland General Assembly heard the cries from your heart and we passed some of the most aggressive gun control legislation in the nation”, which was much appreciated by the Sangat.  “On behalf of all of us in the Maryland General Assembly, please know that your government is here for you, to work together with you to ensure that all people are free to live, work, worship and serve as fellow Americans”, she said.

At the end of each address, there were chants of ‘Bole So Nihal’ (whoever utters, shall be fulfilled), the Sikh slogan, followed by ‘Sat Sri Akal’ (eternal is the great Lord).  The service began with kirtan by Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, Head Granthi (priest) of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, accompanied by Bhai Sucha Singh on the tabla.  Dr. Rajwant Singh explained that the Granthis “sang hymns from Sikh scriptures which are all in poetry form and convey a very important message of equality and brotherhood and sisterhood”.

A highlight of the event were heartfelt messages by children of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation who conveyed their sentiments in a candid, personal manner, characteristic of the very young!  They spoke of remaining positive, being in a state of Chardi Kala (eternal optimism), creating awareness and educating all Americans about Sikhism.

One young member admitted, “Learning about the ignorance in our world really made me want to be proactive in our community”.  Opportunity came when she was asked to speak at a candlelight vigil outside the White House, held soon after the shootings.  This school-going student was so encouraged by the response that she was motivated to make a movie explaining Sikhism to America.  Much to her delight, the movie was a success and managed to get the attention of the Montgomery County school system.  “I have become an ambassador of Sikhi everywhere I go and I encourage you all to do the same”, she told the Sangat at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation.

Another child said: “We can stay positive by focusing on how much awareness it has brought the Sikh community.  To make sure that nothing like this ever happens again, it is crucial to keep spreading the word of Sikhism.  As a student, I am going to do my part by writing a letter to my school principal requesting that Sikhism, being the fifth largest religion in the world, should be added to the school curriculum, so that students can learn about our religion”.  She implored the gathering to educate friends, neighbors and peers about Sikhism.  “It will eventually contribute to less hate crimes”, she said.

The tragedy has taken a toll on the very young.  One kid admitted, “I was very sad so my Dad took me and my sister to the Oak Creek Gurudwara” where they saw so many messages of support.  “Each message was heartfelt, of peace and harmony and of brotherhood”, said the youngster.  “The six victims brought together people from different communities”.

Another child said: “I only know how to think positive!  While America is sometimes ugly, for the most part there is a lot of beauty”.  She thanked the first responders who worked under the leadership of Lieutenant Brian Murphy.  “We should continue to spread the knowledge of Sikhi throughout the world”, she said, adding “Someone can’t do everything, but everyone can do something”!

Her peer declared, “We must turn the Oak Creek tragedy into triumph because the fight for humanity does not end here.  It is only the beginning of a movement that Sikhs need to continue for many generations to come”.

Listening to the children with rapt attention, County Executive Leggett said, “You see the essence of our future before us – young people who are talking so eloquently about the challenges in life, and the joys”!

Community Special by MYDOSTI.COM