By Annya Johnson
OAK CREEK: One by one, the families of those slain last summer at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin walked to the front of a federal courtroom in Milwaukee on Friday and lighted a candle to honor a life lost. And one by one, temple member Harcharan Gill called out the names of the dead.
They were fathers and a mother, husbands and a wife, he said. They were breadwinners, farmers, priests, faithful Sikhs and so much more.
“We are here to remember those heroes who laid down their lives on the 5th of August, 2012,” Gill told the standing room only crowd of Sikhs and supporters during a memorial hosted by U.S. Attorney James Santelle at the federal courthouse downtown.
“We will always keep them in our mind,” Gill said. “And as time goes by, we will heal.”
Friday’s memorial, in the very room where many in the Sikh community became U.S. citizens, was one of a number of events planned this weekend to commemorate the first anniversary of the deadly shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek.
Earlier in the day, worshipers gathered at the temple, or gurudwara, for a communal langar meal and the start of the Akhand Path, the 48-hour recitation of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, that will conclude on Sunday.
As many as 2,000 people from around the country, and some from as far away as India, are expected to take part in activities over the weekend,
including a 6K race on Saturday to raise money for scholarships, a tribute to the dead and wounded on Sunday and a candlelight vigil Monday.
Children from the Oak Creek Gurdwara opened Friday’s memorial with a kirtan, the chanting of traditional Sikh hymns to the rhythmic beat of the tablas and the harmonium. Two orange Sikh flags flanked the podium. And Santelle welcomed the crowd — many in colorful turbans and veils — with a traditional greeting in Punjabi.
He spoke of the Sikh philosophy of Chardhi Kala, a relentless optimism that compels Sikhs to find hope even in the direst of times, and he said it was fitting that those killed and wounded in last year’s rampage would be honored in what he called “a different kind of temple, a temple of justice.”
“It is most fitting that we say to Wisconsin, to these united states, and to the world that by gathering in this temple, this gurudwara of justice, that our Sikh sisters and brothers are one with us, are of us and always among us,” Santelle said.
Monday marks the first anniversary of the deadliest attack against Sikhs on American soil. On Aug. 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page went on a deadly rampage at the Oak Creek gurdwara as the community prepared for the Sunday service, leaving six worshipers dead; six injuried — three critically — and dozens of women and children huddled in terror before he fatally shot himself.
Killed were Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka and Suveg Singh Khattra. Speakers Friday also acknowledged the wounded — Santhokh Singh, Punjab Singh and Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy; and three women who were preparing the Sunday langar meal: Jasbir Kaur Dulai, Paramdit Kaur and Amarjeet Kaur.
Friday’s memorial featured local Sikh officials, Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson and representatives of the local interfaith community.
Santelle used the gathering to announce two developments of interest: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement Friday that the FBI and Department of Justice would begin tracking hate crimes against Sikhs and several other minorities; and the awarding of a $512,000 federal grant to help pay for victim services and Oak Creek government costs related to the shooting.
Scaffidi spoke of his deep respect for the Sikh community, whose members he’s come to know well over the last year. And he spoke of the impact on Oak Creek and his resolve not to allow one man’s hate-filled rampage to define his city.
“I refuse to allow one individual so full of hate … to target a group of people because of how they prayed,” he said. “And I absolutely refuse to allow that person to define how we’re perceived as a community.”
(Courtesy Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel)