The enduring spirit of Chardi Kala: How Oak Creek’s Sikh community continues to share “eternal optimism”
August 5, 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of the deadliest mass casualty attack on a house of worship in Wisconsin history, when a White Nationalist opened fire on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek.
Ten years ago, the Sikh community suffered the most devastating attack against Sikhs in American nation’s history. To memorialize the tragic event, a public memorial vigil was held on August 5 outside the Sikh Temple, attended by hundreds of people from across Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the nation.
“As ever, our hearts remain with the families of Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Baba Punjab Singh – as well as those who were injured during the shooting, and those who carry the burdens of trauma and loss forward to this day. This anniversary means many things to many people. Some still feel painful loss and absence in their households and families ten years later. Others have come of age in the past decade, learning how to lead and finding their voice in the shadow of tragedy. And still others have joined our growing community and become a part of our continuing story. There is room for this commemoration to hold the unique truth that each of us feels.” – Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Governor Tony Evers joined with survivors and family members to honor and reflect on the past decade since the massacre. He had previously signed Executive Order #173, ordering the flags of the United States and the state of Wisconsin to be flown at half-staff on August 5 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Oak Creek Sikh Temple Shooting.
“Ten years ago this Friday, the Sikh sangat and our entire state witnessed one of the most violent and horrific acts of hate we’d seen when a white supremacist murdered six and injured several others at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek,” said Governor Evers. “This anniversary represents a painful day for our state and so many Wisconsinites — especially for the now seven people whose friends and families mourn their passing, the many others still grappling with their injuries and trauma every day, and the many worshippers, loved ones, and neighbors who either witnessed the violence themselves or who’ve helped provide support, comfort, and healing to those who did.”
When the White Nationalist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and opened fire on August 5, 2012, he wounded several people and ultimately killing seven. The attack occurred as members of the congregation were preparing for Sunday school classes and services and cooking food for langar, a free community meal served at gurdwaras to any and all visitors.
The heroic efforts and actions of first responders, including Lieutenant Brian Murphy – who was the first officer at the scene and shot 15 times by the gunman, and Officer Savan “Sam” Lenda, as well as worshipers at the gurdwara, were critical to helping prevent additional loss of life.
“As we reflect on this anniversary, we know that we must continue the shared work of making our society free from bigotry. In the Sikh tradition, we choose to strive for this better world without fear and without hate – and we do so in the spirit of “Chardi Kala,” or eternal optimism. This evening, we invite the Oak Creek community to once again stand with us in solidarity and remembrance. But more broadly, we invite everyone across this nation to join us in action as we fight for a country where all of us are safe from hate and hate violence.” – Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz and Lt. Brian Murphy, also spoke to the crowd who gathered and offered their own thanks for the resilience of the Sikh community. Prayers, speeches, poetry, and traditional cultural music was also offered by interfaith leaders and elected officials. Afterwards a candlelight vigil was held for the community to honor the courage and spirit of the seven victims.
The Oak Creek shooting remains a reminder of the work that still must be done to protect all communities in the United States against the rising threat of targeted, hate-fueled violence. A decade later, the extraordinary efforts by many who prevented more loss of life have remained forever changed and affected by the tragedy.
“To many people, Chardi Kala may sound unrealistic. But in the spirit of how it is quoted, the meaning focuses on having a defying courage,” said Pardeep Singh Kaleka, executive director for the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. “We shall be relentlessly optimistic and continuing to build a world where all people are loved and nurtured.”
Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was one of the people killed on August 5. The 65-year-old was the president of Temple’s congregation, and he made it well known how important his adopted country was to him.
“He was so proud to be a Sikh and so proud to be an American,” added Kaleka. “My father flew an American flag in front of his house until the day he passed.”
Official Statement from President Joe Biden
“When generations of Sikh-Americans in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, constructed their own place of worship after years of renting local halls, it was a sacred place of their own and a connection shared with the broader community. That sense of peace and belonging was shattered on the morning of August 5, 2012, when a white supremacist wielding a semiautomatic handgun arrived at the Gurdwara and began shooting.
The gunman murdered six people and wounded four that day, as well as another victim who survived his wounds only to succumb to them years later. Jill and I know that days like today bring back the pain like it happened yesterday, and we mourn with the victims’ families, the survivors, and the community devastated by this heinous act.
The Oak Creek shooting was the deadliest attack on Sikh Americans in our nation’s history. Tragically, attacks on our nation’s houses of worship have only become more common over the past decade. It is up to all of us to deny this hate safe harbor. No one should fear for their life when they bow their head in prayer or go about their lives in America.
Oak Creek has shown us the way. After the attack, the Sikh community returned to their Gurdwara and insisted on cleaning it themselves. The son of one of the victims became the first Sikh in American history to testify before Congress, successfully calling for the federal government to track hate crimes against Sikhs and other minority groups. Every year, the congregation now hosts an annual memorial run to honor the victims. The event bears the words Charhdi Kala, meaning “eternal optimism.”
Fueled by that spirit of eternal optimism, we must continue to take steps now to reduce gun violence and keep our fellow Americans safe. We must do more to protect places of worship, and defeat domestic terrorism and hate in all its forms, including the poison of white supremacy. We must ban assault weapons—used in many mass shootings at houses of worship and other sites across the country—as well as high-capacity magazines. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill to do just that. As a matter of conscience and common sense, the Senate must act as well. To stand in defense of religious freedom, we must all stand together to ban the weapons that terrorize congregations around our country.”
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