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In Oak Creek, Wis., hearts open to Sikhs after temple shooting

In the aftermath of Sunday's killing spree, which may have been motivated by white supremacy beliefs, some residents of Oak Creek, Wis., feel compelled to draw nearer to their Sikh neighbors.

By Staff writer / August 8, 2012

A candle light vigil is held Tuesday night, Aug. 7, in Oak Creek, Wis., for the victims three days after a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. The vigil was held during the national night out event at the Oak Creek Civic Center.

Tom Lynn/AP

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Oak Creek, Wis.

Three days after a killer’s rampage left six members of a local Sikh temple dead in this Milwaukee suburb, Tim Barger did something Wednesday he had never before considered when crossing paths with bearded men wearing turbans and women wrapped exotically in a sari dress.

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He said hello.

“They’re friendly. It opens your eyes,” Mr. Barger says, repeating a sentiment heard often this week in this city of more than 35,000 people. In the aftermath of a killing spree that may have been motivated by white supremacy beliefs, a silver lining is starting to emerge: The mourning is communal and not bound to ethnic or religious barriers. Some here say the tragedy may actually strengthen Oak Creek because it is forcing people here to see the world through the eyes of a subset of their community they did not necessarily understand or get to know.

“This will help,” says Gayle Kitchen, who says she lives next to an apartment of Sikh neighbors. “People before would stare at them because they’re different. I hope now, they’ll look at them with eyes of compassion because their hearts are broken.”

Sikhs represent a small minority in southeastern Wisconsin – just 3,000 families practicing in temples located in Oak Creek and nearby Brookfield, according to the Oakland, Calif.-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Although Sikhs have been holding services in Oak Creek since 1999 – and in 2007 opened the doors to their current $2.5 million house of worship – they’ve remained relatively isolated from the wider community, which is largely white and devoutly Christian.

What happened Sunday will coax both groups to mix more tightly, says Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

“One finds in such tragedies an amazing blend of shared rituals and expressions of care that cut across communal lines,” Mr. Gopin says. “Such gestures at the right time can say and do far more in terms of human relations than any words could ever accomplish. At the end of the day, grieving is about tears, sorrow, solidarity, comfort of survivors, and this is the universal language that cuts across all religions.”

With the sun setting over Oak Creek Wednesday, an evening festival, National Night Out, transformed from an annual event about public safety into one that gave the community the first opportunity to publicly gather since the tragedy.

As children hugged dogs from the local animal shelter and poked around the inside of a police squad car, and as cheerleading teams danced to routines with music supplied from a local deejay, the real attraction was neighbor-to-neighbor mingling.

The event is “more subdued” this year, with the fireworks canceled and no carnival rides, says US Rep. Paul Ryan (R), who moved through the crowd. The real purpose of this night, he says, is to show the Sikhs “how much we value them as a community.”

“Sometimes you can’t explain a senseless act of violence,” he says. “But we’re not going to let it get our community down.”

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