One Year After Oak Creek: August 2013


Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

Thank you Attorney General Hoffman. I am honored to join you today as we reflect and remember the events that took place just a year ago in Oak Creek. As Sikhs, we look to our history,  gurbani or scriptures and the Sikh code of conduct or rahat maryada for guidance, particularly during times of difficulty.  I will speak briefly today about these three perspectives.

The last year has been filled with reminders from Oak Creek to Newton CT and Trayvon Martin that oppression is not far and in fact knocks on all of our doors. Whether in the form of racism and white supremacy to class or gender based violence, all oppression has one root: to destroy our humanity and connection to one another.  No matter what form, oppression attempts to break the very connection we have to one another.

The teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, showed us how deeply connected we are to one another. Not only do we exist in a shared humanity, but according to Nanak we are also all equal.  These ideas extend back to the 1400s but are still revolutionary today.  In this light, it is somewhat ironic that a white supremacist chose a gurdwara to act out his violence and hate. Or perhaps it is not ironic at all.

In 1986, James Farrands the then leader of the ku klux klan was interviewed by a ny times reporter.   When confronted with the allegation that the Klan spreads hate, he replied,

Hate? We’re trying to spread love. Love for Christians. Love for white people. Love for the Holy Bible. Oh heck, I love the colored people. I love the ones in the South more than the North. Why? Because they’re farther away.

I remember the morning of the Oak Creek massacre as if it were yesterday but the weeks that followed are a blur.  Within those weeks, I had organized and attended several memorial services and community gatherings.  Grief stricken, this was all I knew how to do.  At a service I attended in Boston, a Sikh led an ardaas or supplication prayer.  During this prayer, he asked for peace to fall upon the souls of the 6 deceased and their surviving families as well as the soul of Wade Michael Page.  His words shook me to my core and I wept. I was reminded that love and hate are a matter of choice and perspective, but compassion is a responsibility.  Compassion means that we must be willing to be tender not only to victims and survivors but perpetrators too.

Guru Arjan Dev Ji, the 5th guru of the Sikhs and the 1st among them to be martyred, uttered “ tera kiya meetha lage, naam padarath nanak mange”  while being tortured. This translates in English as follows: Oh, Lord, your actions seem so sweet to me.  He knew at the time that he was making a sacrifice for something much greater than himself.  It was not out of ego but out of love and compassion for himself, his oppressors and his people that he knew this.  He also was able to hold a perspective about the world and society around him that transcended his suffering and personal experience. Sikh history is replete with countless shaheeds or warriors who fought and died in the name of justice knowing that their death was for a greater cause  and to defend their right to practice their faith.  There have been many great leaders throughout history and all over the world who have accomplished this. Nelson Mandela, for instance, was able to hold a vast perspective throughout the 27 years he spent in jail. Our progress as a society then is dependent upon our ability as people and leaders to make rational decisions that hold the widest sense of perspective and compassion.

After Oak Creek, we are faced with the reality that we are never exempt from the indecency of hate/violence nor can we avoid our responsibility to rise for justice.  We are part of the fabric of American society and we are linked with brothers and sisters of all faiths, races, nationalities and ethnicities. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people joined together with us to remind us or our shared humanity.  We have been deeply touched by this kindness and motivated beyond our imaginations to push for better policies, more education, more unity and to fight for our minds and hearts to remain in chardi kala or eternal optimism.

We learned that until we fight the battle for equality on all fronts, not just our own, that we will not be successful. We learned to acknowledge every inch of progress and gesture of hope and kindness whether in the form of sympathy cards or challenging stop and frisk practices in NYC or commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington that is taking place this weekend.

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