Monday, August 6, 2012

A Wisconsin Tragedy

The man in the pristine white tunic and turban stood outside the Oak Creek Police department, a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced building atop a small hill on Milwaukee County’s south side.  It was little more than twenty-four hours after the horrific assault on his gurdwara, the Oak Creek house of worship of his Sikh faith.

In those twenty-six preceding hours he had lost his beloved uncle, Satwant Singh Kaleka, the President of the Sikh temple and motivating force behind its construction, and five other members of his close knit community, all who were considered family, regardless of blood ties. 
The pain and suffering that this man had endured during and after the attack on his sanctuary is beyond comprehension.  How can anyone who has not suffered a like loss understand the confusion in the aftermath of a shooting, the first moment when one learns of death - and the unexpected mourning of family and friends who moments before where preparing for worship in a sanctuary – a place of safety.  
Instead they found themselves evacuated by police tactical units to a bowling alley across the street.
And then a short night before he was summoned to countless rounds of interviews on the morning news shows, where he explained his faith, bared his emotions, and summoned hope for the end of violence.
Then back to his family and community for a brief respite from the ceaseless media monster that now waited at the Oak Creek police department.  By the time that Kanwardep Singh Kaleka entered the Oak Creek courtroom that served as the multi-jurisdictional law enforcement press room, two-hundred plus media - local, national, and global, awaited him and his fellow Sikh leaders.
Sixty minutes after the press conference that left the assembled media with numerous unanswered questions, this man could be found outside, four reporters around him in a half-moon formation.  He was as tranquil as possible after one hour’s worth of interviews, most likely answering the same questions repeatedly.
He had every reason to express anger and to discuss ways for his community to isolate itself in fear from a society that that had expressed its diseased nature in the most violent way possible – mass murder.
But he did not choose fear. I will not say that he did not struggle with his moral choices. He made the briefest of an ill-tempered remark about the shooter, the man who killed his uncle.  
It was but a word, barely noticeable except that everything he said prior, and after, was said with the spirit of compassion and peace. And he humbled himself for his remark, graciously and magnanimously expressing how the Sikh community would persevere to be a faith community that was open to the entire community, regardless of creed, class, or other distinctions.
At this point in the interview I began to recede from the circus of reporters around him. Perhaps it was his message of family that spurred me to text my brother, to whom I had not spoken since an ill-advised political conversation during the recall election, to ask if he was available for lunch.
As my brother and I bounced messages back and forth, Mr. Kaleka was asked to do evening news shows - CNN for the second or third time today, and one other program.  He said if they could find someone else it would be great, due to the previous nine television interviews that he had done that morning, but if they needed him, he would join them.
The man was obviously tired in ways that I could not fathom.  And then two more reporters stepped in front of him. As they jumped into their questions, he smiled, extended his hand, and said, “Let’s introduce ourselves so that we know each other.”
The reporters smiled and took his hand.  I unashamedly listened while I exchanged text messages with my sibling.
This re-energized man proceeded to talk about his uncle, his family, and his community - not just the Sikh community, but the entire community.  He spoke with a compassion for humanity that I have only heard once before from a person who was in the same room as me, another faith leader, albeit one who was awarded a Nobel Peace prize.
I cannot even begin to capture what this man said today - I am entirely incapable.  
It was a message about reaching out and helping our human family.  It was a message of love and hope, and the divine necessity to do what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do.
This was the message from a man whose uncle and five “family” members had been murdered only the day before.
I could barely look up from my phone, not because I was entranced by its screen, but because I was embarrassed for my tears.  But how could I not look at this man who had the courage to open his heart after the wound that had been so viscously inflicted upon it?
I looked at Kanwardep Singh Kaleka.  He was smiling.  
The two reporters in front of him had tears falling down their cheeks. 

Overhead Light Brigade at Cathedral Square Vigil