Video courtesy USA Today
(RNS) People gathered early Sunday (Aug. 5) at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin to meditate on God and to serve others — key requirements of their religion.
Six of them died as they lived, shot down amid acts of prayer and kindness.
Suveg Singh Khattra, 84, once a dairy farmer in the Punjab region of India, was there well before the 11 a.m. service, because he was a man of habit.
He got up every morning at 4:30 to watch the news and a live broadcast from India of readings from the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Then he would catch a ride to the nearby temple in the Oak Creek suburb of Milwaukee, where he would pray and help prepare meals.
“Whoever needs to eat can just walk in,” said Khattra's granddaughter, Sandeep Kaur Khattra, 24. “Nobody ever suspects (strangers) because we have a lot of visitors who watch and observe, and they join us for our meals.”
This Sunday, Wade Michael Page, tattooed with hate symbols, walked in.
Page shot Khattra, police said. Khattra's daughter-in-law saw his body in the temple sanctuary as police led her and 15 others out of the kitchen pantry, where they hid from the gunfire.
Satwant Singh Kaleka, 62, ran to confront Page — living up to the Singh name given to most Sikh men. It means “lion.” Gurus have taught for 500 years that the faithful stand for justice.
Kaleka — president of the congregation he helped to found in 1997 and who helped to build the temple in 2007 — was armed only with a small knife. Police said they found it near his body.
It may have been the small, dull knife carried by faithful Sikh men, a symbol of their willingness to defend all without concern for caste or class. Or it may have been a butter knife from the kitchen, which is built next to the prayer hall in many Sikh temples.
Every house of worship has people like Khattra and Kaleka — the people who come early, who set up the chairs or stack the programs or prepare food in the kitchen for all who are hungry for both God and lunch.
Paramjit Kaur, 41, drove over to Oak Creek from Milwaukee every Sunday, to pray and pitch in. She was living up to the Kaur name given most Sikh women. It means “princess.” Her friend, Manpreet Kaur, called Paramjit sweet, outspoken and devoted to her two sons and her faith.
Her sons, Harpeet Saini, 18, and Kamal Saini, 20, told CNN that the shooter took their world away.
Kamal Saini described what he learned of his mother's last moments: “My aunt told her that there was a shooting going on outside — we need to get up and leave. Rather than just getting up and leaving, she wanted to just bow down and pray for the last time and then get up and leave. She was just getting up. She was shot in the back.”
Sita Singh, 41, and his brother Ranjit Singh, 49, who was killed Sunday, were at the temple every day. Kulwant Singh Dhaliwal, a temple member, recalled Tuesday that they were “very nice people. They served the food sometimes and were very helpful.”
Before he was shot by police, Page took six lives at the temple, a touchstone place for new arrivals, most from India. The Washington-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund estimates more than 500,000 Sikhs live in the U.S.
When Prakash Singh, 39, first came from India, he lived at the temple, where he helped lead prayers. “He just got his green card and rented an apartment for his family,” Dhaliwal says. Singh's wife and two young daughters joined him in Wisconsin eight weeks ago.
The temple was the place where Khattra, an old man who didn't speak much English, could hear his native Punjabi, the language of home and of scripture.
Until Sunday, the family's experience in the United States had been almost an American dream.
Khattra's son, Baljinder, immigrated in the 1990s and drives a cab, Baljinder's daughter, Sandeep Kaur Khattra, says. She, her mother and brother joined Baljinder in 1998. Now she and her brother, Mandeep Singh Khattra, 26, are pursuing degrees in business and biotechnology.
On Tuesday, strangers and friends brought wreaths to the temple to honor the dead. Funerals are being planned from Wisconsin to India. Vigils are being organized coast to coast.
Oak Creek's Sikh community is asking all who want to express sympathy and solidarity to donate food to their local food pantry and flowers to their own places of worship. Their message on the city's website says, “If you are moved to volunteer, please donate your time and talent in your own community.”
(Cathy Lynn Grossman, Judy Keen and Oren Dorell write for USA Today.)