After the Bloodbath: Oak Creek Comes Together to Mourn

The Milwaukee suburb is still trying to comprehend the horrific incident. In the meantime, its disparate religious communities are finding common ground

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Mark Welsh / Daily Herald / AP

Simmi Dhami, far right, 13, Harsajan Dhami, center, 6, and their mother Jeewan Dhami, near right, participate during a prayer vigil at the Sikh Religious Society temple in Palatine, Il., on Aug. 6, 2012

The emerging details of the assault are terrifying. Several children — from 4-year-olds to teens — were playing in and around the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin when they first noticed Wade Michael Page approach. He was brandishing a weapon and began firing at people on the sprawling 1,600-sq-m complex just west of Lake Michigan. They ran into the sanctuary to tell the adults. The assailant followed.

The image hits close to home for Oak Creek resident Scott Holler, who lives less than 3 km from the Sikh temple. The father of three, including a set of 1-year-old twins, Holler teaches fifth grade at nearby Edgewood Elementary. “I also have a 4-year-old. I can’t even process what a 4-year-old could have even been thinking. No human being should have to see that, let alone children.”

(PHOTOS: Wisconsin Community Reacts to Terrible Sikh-Temple Attack)

Holler has had Sikh students in his classroom, but admits his knowledge of their faith is limited. “Everyone I talk to,” he says, “they’re using this as a learning experience to teach people tolerance and understanding and educate people. I’m more educated about the Sikh community today than I was yesterday. It’s just horrible that I had to learn more about it through something like this.”

Less than 36 hours after Page, an Army veteran with alleged white supremacist ties, shattered the peace of Oak Creek, songs of peace emerged from a multicultural crowd of 200 people who held candles on a beautiful, clear Monday night. They had joined together on the front lawn of the Oak Creek Community United Methodist Church, 4 km away from the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where the assault occurred. The attack left seven dead — including Page — and several more wounded. Among them was a police officer who was shot several times while trying to rescue those besieged by the lone gunman.

The emotions were raw. Vikramjit Singh, vice president of the temple, was still grieving the loss of his leader, the temple’s president, who had slowed the gunman, saving lives only to lose his own. Singh was also grappling with the reality of the violation of his sanctuary. “It’s a very bad tragedy. Our community is feeling very bad. People are afraid and don’t want to go home. We lost six people. That’s very hard to say. We lost them all.”

The area’s Indian diaspora joined in the memorial service. Members of the local Hindu community also attended the candlelight vigil. Traveling from up to 48 km away, they came to show support. “I have Sikh friends at work and outside of work,” says Suresh Kumar. “It’s an unfortunate event, but it has let people bond across race and community, and try to understand who they are and what their place is in the community. You can choose to be ignorant or you can choose to learn about Sikhs and mingle with them. I would choose the latter.” Kumar’s friend and fellow Hindu Amrita Rajamani agrees. “They are one of the most peace-loving legions back home [in India] and here as well. It’s sad that they’re targeted. I felt the need to come here and express my sorrow,” she says.

The Rev. Paul Armstrong, pastor at the Oak Creek Community United Methodist Church for five years, organized the candlelight vigil. He says he first reached out a year ago to the Sikh community and took a group of youth and their parents to the Sikh temple. “We were totally impressed by their hospitality and stories of their faith,” he says. “In Oak Creek, you’ll find a strong sense of ‘we’re in this together.’ The community is saying we hold the Sikh community in high regard. They are the most peaceable neighbors.”

Armstrong’s voice grows softer as he ponders how his community is feeling. “There’s a fear that very few places are safe. When sanctuaries are violated, that becomes threatening. And how do you tell our children that they’re in a safe place after something like this? We need to work on restoring the name of sanctuary to our worship centers. They are meant to be sacred places.”

If any good is to come from tragedy, Armstrong hopes Sunday’s shooting will encourage people to build meaningful relationships with their neighbors. “I think the people who came here tonight will try to make a difference. These are people who wanted to be here and express their solidarity, and will pursue unity with the Sikh people.”

To the existential question of why such a tragedy was allowed to happen and what caused Page to attack the Sikhs, Armstrong responds, “There’s some woundedness in that person’s soul. It’s not rational. It’s a sign of brokenness, an inability to see their brother or sister in the other.” Defying that reality, the crowd sang out a hymn into the night, “Here I am, Lord. I will break their hearts of stone. Fill their hearts with love alone.”

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