Turning tragedy into hope
One year after the Sikh Temple shooting
By Joni Moths Mueller
Pardeep Kaleka, Arts ’95, was driving to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin that beautiful, sunny morning one year ago when four police squad cars sped past. As a former police officer himself, Pardeep remembers thinking their speed could endanger public safety. Then the Oak Creek, Wis., police stopped his car at a roadblock.
“They told me there was a shooting at the temple,” Pardeep says.
“My heart just sank.”
Six members of the Sikh community preparing the temple for Sunday services were killed by Wade Michael Page, a man whose motivation was later tied to white supremacy. Pardeep’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, founder and president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, died. Also killed that day were Paramjit Kaur, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra and Priest Prakash Singh. The first responding police officer, Lt. Brian Murphy, was shot 15 times by Page but survived.
Six months after the mass shooting, during a student assembly at Milwaukee’s Cudahy High School, Pardeep stood beside former white supremacist Arno Michaelis. Their appearance together was meant to shock the students. Their conversation quickly hushed the chatter echoing through the auditorium.
“Before I became a skinhead, I had convinced myself that violence was what I should be about,” Michaelis said.
“Why did you get in to it?” Pardeep asked.
“Honestly,” Michaelis said, “it was something I was good at, and I hadn’t been good at anything before.”
Turning to the students, Pardeep admitted: “I was nervous to meet Arno the first time. You’re going to be nervous sometimes. You have to fight that nervousness.”
Sikhs build a Milwaukee home
Satwant and Satpal Kaleka emigrated to the United States in 1981 with their two young sons, Pardeep and Amardeep. Their sons straddled the two cultures easily. Pardeep studied criminal justice andfocused on a lifelong goal of being a police officer and detective. After a few years on the force, he felt a new calling and now teaches broad field science at Milwaukee’s NOVA High School for at-risk students.
It’s hard to find a photograph of the temple construction site that doesn’t include Satwant’s beat-up pickup truck parked in the foreground. He was always there watching the progress, Pardeep says of his father, and when the temple opened, he was always visible making sure things ran properly. The Sunday morning of the attack, Satwant was in the temple’s kitchen directing people.
“Eventually he made his way into one of the other rooms. He could’ve exited easily,” Pardeep says and demonstrates that an exit was literally 3 to 4 feet from where his father stood and died, “but he stayed on the phone calling 911.
“When I saw the body, the first thing I did was look at his hands and that’s when I started to break down and cry. I think the soul of a man is told through his hands. And with him, you could see the grease stains, you could see the cuts, you could see the calluses.”
Pardeep and Amardeep decided to turn their grief into something more powerful.
“We realized this was probably one of the worst race-based crimes in the last 40 years,” Pardeep says. “But, at the same time, we realized we could either use this for inspiration or, as Wade Page wanted, we could suffer. I remember having a conversation with my brother the night after. We said that whatever we do, whoever we talk to, we have to turn this tragedy into triumph and use the people that we lost as inspiration for a better world.”
Victim and “former” united
Grief led Pardeep to reach out to a global agency that connects victims with people called “formers” who once perpetrated hate crimes. Pardeep hoped someone could help him understand why the shooting happened.
“I was having trouble finding out why things like this happen,” Pardeep remembers. “I reached out to Arno, and we sat down.”
The conversation, Pardeep remembers, started slowly. Both men were nervous at first, but what brought them to that moment was important.
“I was so affected by the shooting,” Michaelis says. “Wade was the man I used to be, a white-power skinhead. In many ways, I felt I had set the stage for him, created the environment he came from.”
Michaelis began explaining to Pardeep why people belong to hate groups and why he was a member of hate groups for seven years.
“He told me they can’t contain their suffering and have to take it out on the world,” Pardeep says. “That night, he told me a lot about his history, why he got in to and out of white supremacy. Now, I don’t concentrate as much on why. I focus on let’s do something about it.”
Standing together for something better
Pardeep, Amardeep and Michaelis want to build a better world. They founded Serve 2 Unite, an interfaith nonprofit organization committed to changing the narrative of violence perpetuated by hate groups.
Serve 2 Unite sponsors events and opportunities for non-Sikhs to learn about Sikhism. It also sponsors a speaking tour, which is what brought Pardeep and Michaelis to the Cudahy High School auditorium to talk with students about the destructive force of hatred.
“Arno is a very compassionate person,” Pardeep says. “All the damage that he’s done, he wants to erase through good deeds. We go out to schools to tell our stories.”
Through a collaboration with Arts @ Large, a Milwaukee organization that works with public school administrators to blend art with academics, they are establishing Serve 2 Unite chapters at local schools.
They hope that through the chapters, school communities of administrators and students can respond to topics that excite or disturb them, ranging from racism to bullying to care for the environment through writing or music or art or any creative activity. Pardeep and Michaelis are convinced it will be young people who turn this tide.
The Serve 2 Unite chapter at Westside Academy II recently participated in a rock-climbing class funded with a grant from Arts @ Large at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall. Teacher Jennifer Koss brought her 7th- and 8th-graders to participate in a fun — and, maybe — scary team-building experience taught by Michaelis and Pardeep. The class, Pardeep explains, helps students learn to work together to reach a common goal.
The lesson struck home. Student Akyia, age 14, says she got over her fear of rapelling with help from classmates. “I had to take a leap of faith,” she says. Classmate Desmond, age 14, nods in agreement.
Serve 2 Unite also launched an online magazine to provide a forum where students publish original poems, narratives, music and artistic commentary alongside commentary from local and global activists.
Providing a forum for publication resonates with Michaelis, who says the act of writing his book, Life After Hate, helped him find inner peace.
“Writing my book was an act of self-preservation,” Michaelis says. “It helped me get to the place to feel and transform the hurt I caused into something that could help people. The transforming power of writing will help students work through their own struggles, which will help others.”
Although initially planned to be a quarterly publication, Pardeep says early activity convinces him Serve 2 Unite the Magazine will become a monthly publication. Currently, according to Pardeep, seven Milwaukee schools are connected to the magazine with students posting work in each online issue. Stories and interviews written by several Westside Academy students are posted in the mix.
Today, as the Sikh community approaches the first anniversary of Aug. 5, 2012, Pardeep says, the work of Serve 2 Unite helps ease the pain. He wants people to also remember the good brought about through the tragedy.
“Moms and dads, sons and daughters miss their loved ones, so we’ll mark the one-year anniversary with the respect due to the sobriety of the situation,” he says. “But we’ll also celebrate what we’re doing with it today.”