Turning grief and horror into a movement for peace and social transformation: lessons from the Sikh community

Posted August 12th, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Turning grief and horror into a movement for peace and social transformation: lessons from the Sikh community

Tribute to the six “lost souls” inside the temple building. From left: Bhai Sahib Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Bhai Sahib Sita Singh, Bhai Sahib Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Suveg Singh Khattra

So, a week ago now, I was at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting there in which six members of their community were gunned down by a member of a neo-Nazi hate group, Wade Michael Page. Another victim, renowned priest Punjab Singh, remains in an area hospital, completely paralyzed and unable to speak, but conscious and alert, able to communicate by blinking his eyes. An Oak Creek police officer, Lt. Brian Murphy, was shot 12 times by Page and had to retire because of his wounds. He remains active, and much beloved, in the community.

As always, the damage reaches beyond the physical. Many children lost parents and grandparents. Many witnessed the horror, saw the bodies bleeding out, or hid huddled together in locked rooms waiting for the shooting to stop. Many survivors continue to struggle with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some admit that they still feel fear when they enter their temple on Sunday mornings, but they go – they go anyway. And in going the space becomes cleansed of the violence perpetrated there.

What did the Sikh community do with this violent tragedy? They turned it into a moment of teaching, of social transformation, of witness against violence in the face of violence, adding incredible energy and inspiration to the growing movement in this nation to end gun violence, to getting so many guns out of the hands of those who should not have them, into a movement that realizes at its core that getting rid of the guns won’t happen until we get rid of the hate and fear that inspire so many people to use them against those they hate or fear for no good reason.

Carlee Soto, whose sister Vicki Soto was killed in Newtown CT while protecting her students from another mass shooter

Carlee Soto, whose sister Vicki Soto was killed in Newtown CT while protecting her students from another mass shooter, spoke at the Aug 5 vigil. To the right is Amardeep Kaleka, son of the temple president killed one year ago. Also present that evening were survivors of Columbine and Virginia Tech, and, Elvin Daniel, the brother of Zina Haughton, murdered in another mass shooting at a spa in Brookfield WI in 2012. Gabby Giffords sent a moving letter which was read during the vigil.

People at so many different social levels have been changed not so much by the horror of the shooting itself, but by the response – from Attorney General Eric Holder, to the US district attorney James Santelle (who now visits regularly, prays at the temple, and is even learning some Punjabi) to Oak Creek Mayor Stephen Scaffidi and Police Chief John Edwards, to a host of interfaith leaders, to the Oak Creek community itself and far beyond. Democrats and Republicans, yes. Real partisan divides here on many issues – but beyond those divides a community now determined to show this country what embracing diversity of cultures and religions, embracing an immigrant community seeking to build new lives among us, can really mean in practice.

Not because we all agree on our politics, but because something deeper has united us, brought us together, and caused us to look out of ourselves, out from ourselves into a much bigger world, where we begin to see things differently.

I went to the temple this past Sunday to sit for some of the two-hour meditation and chanting of the Kirtan before a memorial program that followed in the afternoon. For all my participation in events one year ago (and I went to just about everything, was drawn to all of it), I had never entered the temple itself. I felt this mixture of peacefulness and horror, watching and listening, the hundreds sitting on the floor, men on the right side, women on the left, little children milling about, the open doors on each side of the building as per custom, and realized that the vulnerability that rests in this spirit of openness and hospitality was exactly what made it so easy for Page to walk in with a semi-automatic handgun and start shooting.

A teenage boy who lost a parent that day had seen the stranger dressed in dark clothes sitting in his SUV in the parking lot and, in that same spirit, had approached him and asked him if he would like a cup of tea.

You’d think a community might pull in after something like this. But that’s not what happened. They opened. They opened wide to the world outside their doors seeing this moment as an opportunity to make a real difference, to turn their grief and fear into a moment of witness, and then to invite that world to come inside their doors to pray with them or just sit with them, to have a meal, to see who they really are, to meet as human beings – something Page was not able to do.

Could he have walked into that temple and open fired if he had accepted a cup of tea?

Yes, there were a few uniformed security people about, some Oak Creek police officers milling among the community, and there are security cameras at the temple now. But the doors are still open on Sunday. And they will still offer you a cup of tea or invite you to share their meal. As you leave the temple, someone will reach into a bowl and with their hand scoop out a portion of a sweet brown pudding and place it in your hand. It is a gesture meaning that all are equal. It was certainly a kind of eucharist for me that day.EVENTS

Now, what are the lessons of a community like this for those of us focused on the looming ‘end of the world,’ the end of the industrial era and booming consumerism which is beginning to unravel quickly all around us? What can we learn about how to proceed? I have said many times here that we cannot heal the planet in a way that will make it possible for us to live decent, meaningful lives within the ecology of the whole if we do not deal with our racism, the gross injustice that leads to so much poverty and oppression in our world, the attitudes of the heart that lie at the center of what fuels our capitalist economies – greed, hunger for more and more material possessions and wealth, aggressive competition, resentment toward the “other” (including the immigrant), fierce individualism, and on and on.

From the raging wildfires out west, the prolonged drought and desertification of the southwest (New Mexico is turning into desert scrub land now), the torrents of rain that have taken many lives this year and done untold billions of dollars of damage, to the now-liquid North Pole, to the unprecedented heat waves in Alaska, eastern Europe, and China, to the melting of Siberia’s permafrost and massive release of heat-trapping methane – we could go on, as we all know… but from all of this we are beginning to experience the end of a world, the one we’ve known, the one we thought would last forever, the one we counted on to carry us comfortably into our old age, the one we thought we’d be passing on to the next generation.

Sadly, what has become obvious is the inability of humans (at least to this point) to grasp the seriousness of this ecological collapse, which is bound to be followed by economic collapses and the fracturing of the global economy on which we all depend, like it or not… And then the vast human catastrophes that will become more and more our daily fare…

What lessons can we learn from the Sikh community about how to deal with these traumas to come?

EVENTSOne of the things they teach us is – to open, not close. To open out, not pull in. To share the table more widely, not exclude out of fear. To dialogue even more with those who may fear them or not know them, to open the path to meeting one another so that we become familiar, get to know one another, begin to see that we are all in this together, and that the more we share, the more acquainted we become, the more we collaborate and co-conspire in the work of new creation as the old breaks down – the better chance we have of getting through these difficult times, these “end times,” with our bodies and spirits intact.

I remember vividly that day after the shooting going to the first community candlelight vigil at the United Methodist Church in Oak Creek. A couple of hundred people showed up on a warm humid night. During the service, representatives of the Sikh community arrived and stood off to the side of the crowd. When the service was over, many of us went over to greet them. There was still such a look of shock in their eyes, such gut-wrenching grief. I approached one of the younger men and he reached out and embraced me. I could only say how sorry I was. He thanked me for being there.

That turned out to be Amardeep Kaleka, one of the sons of the temple president who was shot and killed while trying to wrest the weapon from Page’s hands. Amardeep and his family have become fixtures in this area now, working tirelessly to create a culture in which this kind of hate no longer exists.

August is usually a difficult month for fundraising. This year, too. Help support this project with a donation. Click on the image to go to our donation page. And thank you!

As I follow stories of resistance to oil tar sands sites, or to the proposed open pit iron ore mine in our Wisconsin Northwoods, or the efforts of local communities to halt the wreckage being brought to our western counties by frac sand mining, or any number of moving displays of deep connections to the living Earth, I feel the significance of love in our movements, of approaching everything we do with loving kindness and compassion. A lot of people are on edge “out there” as their world falls apart for a host of reasons heralding the end of what they once thought familiar and secure (like their white identity), and that fear, resentment, and rage love to find scapegoats, easy targets at which to vent these feelings.

And we are now heavily armed beyond all rationality, beyond any meaningful definition of sanity.

We have to decide how to answer the question I pose at the end of my book, Living Beyond the ‘End of the World:’ A Spirituality of Hope. It is this:

What kind of human beings will we be as we go through the crisis?

How we answer that question will make all the difference in how we live through the great upheavals that will mark our lives for the next few generations. And it will make all the difference in what the world will look like and be like as those future generations emerge from those upheavals.

Many times I feel pretty grim about our prospects. Then I think of how the Sikhs responded to their time of crisis and collapse –  and I see this other possibility.


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