Hundreds turn out for event honouring victims of the gurdwara shooting as many learn about the faith for the first time

Some came in sorrow, some in solidarity. Many carried a niggling sense of shame.

It was not that the people of Oak Creek bore responsibility for the tragedy of a white supremacist shooting dead six worshippers in a Sikh temple on Sunday. But some residents turning out at Tuesday evening’s candlelit vigil for the victims recognised that they knew too little about the Sikhs living, and dying, in their midst.

“We didn’t know about them,” said Loren Bauer, a retired machinist. “We see them but we don’t pay much attention. A lot of them drive cabs and have gas stations and convenience stores. The only thing I ever heard about them was that a lot of people thought they were Muslims after 9/11.” Teri Pelzek, too, had barely heard of Sikhs. “I knew nothing about them at all. I don’t think a lot of people did. When we don’t know about somebody’s religion we assume the worst,” she said.

Yet the rapid learning curve since the massacre delivered up the unexpected. Some at the vigil were struck by the Sikh community’s willingness to forgive the man who committed murder in their temple, who was himself shot dead by the police, and to emphasise peace over vengeance. The town’s police chief, John Edwards, was among them.

“In 28 years of law enforcement, I have seen a lot of hate. I have seen a lot of revenge. I’ve seen a lot of anger. What I saw, particularly from the Sikh community this week was compassion, concern, support,” he told the vigil standing in front a row of people holding signs that spelled out: practice peace. “What I didn’t see was hate. I did not see revenge. I didn’t see any of that. And in law enforcement that’s unusual to not see that reaction to something like this. I want you all to understand how unique that is.” Ms Pelzek said that in a country so often unforgiving and vengeful it was startling to see the Sikh response to the tragedy. “It surprised everyone when they were victims of someone so full of hatred. Because of their reaction, saying they’d like to forgive and move on, I think that’s quite the attitude to hear after what just happened,” she said.

The lesson, spelled out by Oak Creek’s Mayor, Steve Saffidi, was that it shouldn’t have taken a tragedy for Sikhs, or anyone else, to find acceptance. “Our healing process begins tonight when we come together, joining hands, sharing customs, meeting each other, some for the first time — many people that we have probably not met before. That is a good thing for our community,” he said.

The theme resonated through the evening. Wisconsin’s Governor, Scott Walker, said the legacy of the killings should be for people to pay a little bit more attention to their fellow citizens, their neighbours and their friends.

The vigil was arranged to follow National Night Out where people in towns across the U.S. gather one evening a year to combat crime and promote community spirit. In time, hundreds of people drifted across to don symbolic white turbans and hold candles.

The murdered victims were honoured individually with short accounts of how each came to be in the U.S. and their lives in Oak Creek.

Satwant Kaleka, 65, is the victim most often talked about in the wider community because, the vigil was told, he “died defending the temple he built attempting to fend off a gunman who attacked worshippers on Sunday”. Kaleka came to the U.S. in 1980 with only $100 but he built a successful business.

Paramjit Kaur, 41, was the only woman killed. The audience heard her described as “selfless” in putting her 18- and 20-year-old sons first, and a great value on education. She arrived with her husband, Inder, from the Punjab region eight years ago and worked at a medical instruments company.

Suveg Singh was, at 84, the oldest victim. He was a farmer who moved to the U.S. with his wife only eight years ago in order to live with his sons. Sita Singh, 41, was a priest at the temple born in India who moved to New York and then arrived in Oak Creek earlier this year. The vigil heard that he was a “top and dedicated man who was very easy to talk to”. He is survived by his wife and four children.

Ranjit Singh, 49, was Sita’s Singh’s brother and a former priest at the temple. He left India 15 years ago and has not seen his son, who was just seven months old back then, in that time. Singh and the boy were to be reunited during a visit to Delhi in November.

Prakash Singh, brought his wife and two children, ages 11 and 12, family to the U.S. from India only six weeks ago after seven years apart. Singh was a priest and received his permanent resident card at the beginning of the year after living in the U.S. for nine years.

Amardeep Singh, of the Sikh Coalition, thanked Oak Creek’s citizens for turning out in solidarity. It was a view echoed by many of the Sikhs present who, until the temple tragedy, felt less than fully accepted not least because they were often mistaken for Muslims with the consequences that carries since 9/11.

But Singh’s repeated emphasis on Sikhs as Americans — “I would like to thank every single person who is here for being here on this night out and wrapping your arms around your fellow Americans upon our time of grief” — suggested he believes there is still work to be done. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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