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.
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.”
People were invited to write personal messages across two public scrolls: one to be given to Sikh temple survivors and a second to Lt. Brian Murphy, the first responder who was critically wounded by Wade Michael Page, the lead suspect in the rampage who was killed by police.
“Sadly, something like [the shooting] opens up the information door. It’s taught us a lot about that gentle community,” says Gail Toerpe, who held a sign that read “Catholics Stand With Sikhs.”
Deb Ross says it took the tragedy for her to realize how many Sikhs lived nearby. For her, signing the scroll was her way of supporting religious tolerance, not just in Oak Creek, but everywhere.
“Part of our fundamental rights is to practice our religion. That is what our country is about,” Ms. Ross says.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 forced religious intolerance on most people’s radar, which has led to increased solidarity among different religious groups whenever a hate crime occurs in their community, says Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress in Washington.
“These kinds of attacks have become part of our life. Now, in the era of the electronic media, people have become more aware of [intolerance] more than ever before,” Ms. Suwaij says.
A mass killing directed toward a particular religious group has the power to change how the [attacked] congregation views the outside world, says David Weaver-Zercher, a professor of American Religious History at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and author of “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy,” a study of the 2006 attacks against an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa.
The Amish school shooting, which left five girls dead and five hospitalized, resulted in an international outpouring of financial and emotional support, which the Amish community did not anticipate, says Mr. Weaver-Zercher.
“It really did reshape that community’s perception of the larger world, which sometimes the Amish see as an unfriendly place,” he says. “It reshaped it in a more positive regard.”
With the sun down, the crowd walked to nearby Miller Park, where, underneath trees, almost 2,000 people gathered in a circle and hold candles and listen to recordings of traditional Indian music while Sikh children roamed through the crowd, handing out bottles of water.
The majority non-Sikhs were given white cloths to fashion into kerchiefs, which eventually creates a sea of headdresses, including those worn by Gov. Scott Walker (R) and other dignitaries including Nirupama Rao, India’s ambassador to the US, who described the shooting as creating “a time of learning and a time of enlightenment.”
Raj Kaur, a Sikh Temple member and MBA student, says she is “very proud” of her Oak Creek neighbors for all the support her community is receiving.
“At the same time, so many people had to lose their lives. Because of them, we’re known,” she says of her faith. “That’s the sad part.”