Mourning With the Sikh Community

By Phil Haslanger 8-07-2012
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Guests attend an interdenominational candlelight vigil at the Illinois Sikh Community Center on Monday. Scott Olson/Getty Images

First, there were the cryptic news bulletins on TV. There had been a shooting at a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb called Oak Creek. Then the details began to emerge. Six people were dead, others critically wounded, including a police officer. The shooter, who had a long history with the white power movement, was shot dead by another police officer, bringing the toll to seven.

And all around Wisconsin, people watched in horror as we learned of yet another mass murder, this one in our backyard, this one shattering the tranquility of a Sunday morning worship service.

There are not a lot of Sikhs in Wisconsin – about 3,000 in the southeastern part of the state, perhaps 250 or so in the Madison area where I live. Yet people everywhere shared the horror and the sadness of that moment.

In the Milwaukee area, a group called the Light Brigade — which had held up illuminated letters with political slogans during the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year — stood in Cathedral Square with a simple, powerful message in lights: “Wisconsin Weeps.”

On the Capitol Square in Madison on Sunday evening, 50 people gathered in a vigil assembled through Facebook to mourn the deaths, first with five minutes of silence, then with poignant statements from local Sikhs who had heard about the gathering. All the images on TV became so much more personal as a woman talked about being with the group in Oak Park on Saturday, about helping teach their children the previous Sunday. 

And then the statements from religious leaders began to pour out joining in solidarity with people of a faith tradition that few of us in Wisconsin know much about. In the Madison area, we may encounter a turbaned Sikh at a convenience store or on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. But suddenly, they were very much in our consciousness.

Once more, those of us in the Christian tradition have a chance to stretch our embrace of people from other traditions. In Oak Creek the United Methodist Church held a vigil with about 200 people on Monday evening. At the other Sikh temple in the Milwaukee area, this one in Brookfield, hundreds more of many faiths — including Gov. Walker — gathered to share support and prayer with their neighbors. 

On Friday, people from across the religious spectrum will gather yet again at the Oak Creek High School gymnasium at a memorial service for all the victims of the shootings. Rita Sharma, adopted daughter of the Oak Creek temple president, Satwant Kaleka, one of those killed, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “It’s important that we mourn in solidarity and support with each other.”

That may be as important as anything that happens this week for faith community. We mourn together across the lines that usually separate. We share one another’s grief, no matter how we define divinity. We look for ways to learn from the graciousness, courage, and equanimity of the Sikhs’ touched by this act of hatred. 

One of my colleagues, Rev. David Moyer, who leads the United Church of Christ in Wisconsin, wrote about being part of a church service Sunday morning elsewhere in the state at just about the same time as the massacre in Oak Creek. The people there were singing “America the Beautiful” with an extra verse written by Miriam Therese Winter that seems particularly appropriate at this moment:

“How beautiful, sincere lament, the wisdom born of tears
The courage called for to repent the bloodshed through the years
America!  America!  God grant that we may be
A nation blessed with none oppressed, true land of liberty.”

Today there are still tears after another hate-fueled incident of bloodshed. People who look different than the majority are still oppressed. Yet we hold out the hope not only of America, but of our faith that in God’s realm — in a realm that we seek to help nurture on earth — that all will be seen as reflecting their creation in God’s image.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., a suburb of Madison.

Read more on this topic from Eboo Patel HERE.

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