Last week, the Governor of Wisconsin visited the Oak Creek sangat at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin to deliver the first-ever statewide proclamation declaring April Sikh Awareness & Appreciation Month. Gov. Tony Evers chose the Oak Creek gurdwara to honor and remember the victims, including my father-in-law, when six of our own were killed by a gunman with neo-Nazi ties on August 5, 2012.
This year, Wisconsin joined Colorado, Utah, Washington and Connecticut in passing first-time resolutions. These states joined others that have previously issued proclamations like California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Additionally, 33 local proclamations and resolutions were passed, including first-time recognitions in Salt Lake City, UT; Lexington, KY; Olathe, KS; and more. Many of these successful initiatives were supported by the Sikh Coalition, putting Sikh community leaders in direct touch with their elected officials on both sides of the political aisle.
Nearly four million Americans were wished a “Happy Vaisakhi” by their own elected officials through social media posts that the Sikh Coalition worked to facilitate in time for April 14th.
A Milwaukee-area Sikh temple where a white supremacist fatally shot six parishioners in 2012 hosted Wisconsin’s governor Tuesday to make April Sikh Awareness and Appreciation month in the state.
The celebration had been months in the making but came at a time when houses of worship have been targets of violence recently. On Saturday, a gunman opened fire in a California synagogue where about 100 people were celebrating the last day of Passover, killing one and injuring three others. Last month, 50 people were killed during attacks at mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch .
Saturday’s attack is on the minds of parishioners in Oak Creek, but they say they’re not deterred. “There’s always a bit of fear when something like this happens,” said Pardeep Kaleka, 42, one of the parishioners at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. “But at the same time … that’s what faith really is. It’s to have courage in times when you do feel fear. I think we’re more excited than anything else.”
The national Sikh Coalition in New York has gotten 33 Sikh Awareness and Appreciation proclamations so far, including some from states, counties, cities, and school districts. The latest in Oak Creek has special significance because of its tragic past.
On Aug. 5, 2012, a gunman killed six parishioners and injured four others at the Oak Creek gurdwara — what Sikhs call their temples of worship. Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, the founder of the Oak Creek temple, was among those killed.
“I don’t think shootings have a deterrent effect on faith communities. I think it actually strengthens faith communities,” Pardeep Kaleka said, noting that their congregation has doubled since 2012, going from about 1,000 members to somewhere between 1,700 and 2,000.
At the temple where parishioners were attacked, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers presented Sikh congregants with a plaque making the proclamation official, telling them “the state of Wisconsin is committed to better understand, recognize, and appreciate the rich history and shared experiences of Sikh Americans.”
After the Wisconsin shootings, the Sikh Coalition reached out to about 300 gurdwara’s across the country to encourage them to have safety plans in place, said Satjeet Kaur, the coalition’s executive director. Those plans were updated after the church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 and the attack at Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, Kaur said. That has meant assembling security task forces, adding cameras and asking local police for increased vigilance at temples, she said.
At the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, security staff has been added, windows with bullet-proof film have been installed, and an emergency plan for dealing with active shooters has been created, Pardeep Kaleka said.
Jaspreet Kaur Kaleka, 37, Pardeep Kaleka’s wife, was on hand to receive the proclamation from Evers. She said her congregation has made it a goal to raise awareness and understanding about their religion. Every year, temple parishioners participate in a 6K run in Oak Creek to remember the shooting victims and raise money for six scholarships — one in the name of each of the people killed.
“We need to tell people what we’re about, what we do, because at the end of the day we pretty much all believe the same thing,” Jaspreet Kaleka said. “We just want to be good people, we believe that there’s a greater being and just treating everybody basically how we want to be treated — and that goes across all religions.”
This grassroots effort was directly supported by the Sikh Coalition. They worked with local Sikh community leaders to help secure the proclamation and then facilitate the visit by the governor to the Oak Creek gurdwara. Everything, including media outreach and support, was handled by their team and helped further raise educational awareness so that we could focus on what truly matters: the community.