'Kindness Changed My Life': Son of Sikh Temple Shooting Victim and Former White Supremacist Join Together to Promote Tolerance

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MTT News's picture
By: 
Matt Geiger

Pardeep Singh Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, came to the United States with $35 in his pocket. 

He clawed and scraped his way toward that pinnacle of goals, the American Dream. On his 65th birthday, he took joy in the fact that he was eligible for Social Security, seeing it as his adopted homeland’s recognition of his contributions and hard work over the years. He liked to spend time at the gurudwara (Sikh temple) he managed and had helped build.

Then, on August 5, 2012 a 40-year-old white supremacist and U.S. Army veteran named Wade Michael Page walked into the gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and gunned him down along with five other worshipers, in cold blood. 

“It was kind of like my father was being told he didn’t qualify for the American Dream,” says the victim’s son.

After the death of his father, Singh Kaleka felt all the usual emotions of someone whose parent had just been murdered. They were intense, but ultimately fleeting in nature. It was natural, even good and healthy to feel anger, he says, but only for a time.

What remained was a message of optimism, and a hope that in optimism lay the key to preventing future tragedies.

“I definitely felt angry at first when I looked at people and society, and saw them as bad, but I then I realized that’s doing the same thing as the shooter,” he explained. 

Singh Kaleka thinks he knows where the kind of murderous, militant rage that so often expresses itself in mass shootings–often in places of worship or schools–comes from. He believes it cannot be stopped by more rage, even the righteous kind. 

He recently teamed up with a former skinhead named Arno Michaelis to write a book about it, “The Gift of our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate” (St. Martin’s Press). Now he and his co-author, a former member of the same hate group as the gunman who killed his father, are touring together, spreading a message that radiates hope, despite the tragic fibers inexorably woven into the fabric of their shared story. 

“What me and Arno…are talking about is how our roles converged,” says Singh Kaleka. “We are talking about how to go beyond the tragedy, we are talking about self-rejection narrative, and how when people don’t feel self-worth, they can turn outward rather than in.”

“Look for rejection,” he continued. “I think a lot of these people feel rejected. I think social media gives them artificial acceptance or rejection.”

When people feel lonely, disconnected from the rest of the world, or simply void of self-worth, their frustration can find expression in acts of violence against perceived enemies, he says. 

“It’s easier to look out a window than into a mirror,” he muses. 

He suggests that the suffering of these shooters is real, while the causes they see, the perceived enemies they single out as the source of their pain, usually are not. In the end, they simply spread more suffering, rather than ending their own. The man who killed Satwant Singh Kaleka, for example, died by his own hand shortly after murdering the families in the Oak Creek gurudwara. 

“Whether it is real or not, it is real to that person,” Singh Kaleka says. “You are feeling a narrative, some of it’s real, some of it’s made up, but to you it’s real.”

Ironically, his response, and the way he has come to terms with the loss of his father, is directly linked to the Sikh faith that so angered the shooter. The central tenant of Sikhism is a simple statement: “God is One.” In it, he sees a message for people of all faiths, from all cultures.

“You can really value the identity you have, but you are all from the same source,” he says. He believes that narrative, that God is one and so are the many people who look to God for answers in a mysterious and seemingly paradoxical world, can help prevent future tragedies. He believes it can help angry, isolated teens feel connected to their fellow human beings, rather than taking up arms against them. He suspects it’s the type of thing that could prevent people like Page from killing innocent Americans. 

More than just suspecting, he knows it’s the kind of message that can inspire an ardent white supremacist like Michaelis to abandon an ideology based on despair and hatred. He knows, because he’s seen it happen. He stands side-by-side with Michaelis, talking about the message in their book. A message of hope, and even redemption. 

Looking back, Michaelis says he had “everything going for him” as a kid. But growing up outside Milwaukee, the child of a loving but alcoholic parent, he eventually found that he enjoyed bullying. 

“I liked to make people afraid of me,” Michaelis says. He loved, and still loves, punk music, but through it he hooked up with a growing collective of white supremacists. 

“The band I was in was like a magnet for angry white kids,” he remembers. “We radiated hate and violence out into the world, and the world radiated it back.”

Then, people started dying. And yet he did not leave. 

“We interpreted our misfortunes as the fears of white supremacy,” he explains. “It wasn’t our fault – it was the Jews.”

What fueled Michaelis’ hate of other religious and ethnic groups was simple: their own hatred of him.

“If you really dissect it, this is an ideology that cannot function without a sense of oppression … it’s all about the idea of genocide against the white race, cultural Marxism and those things. It’s BS, but there are little bits of truth in there that you will latch onto.”

He said he saw well-intentioned, social justice narratives drive young, white men into hate groups, by enhancing the fantasy that “other” people conspired against them. Today, he’s politically progressive. He says Scandinavia, which is well-known for its warm embrace of Democratic Socialism, is “how adults run a society.” But he also finds himself cautioning those on the left: The forces of hatred wish to inspire hatred and intolerance, by any means necessary. There is, he believes, only one way to defeat them.

“It’s all driven by a sense of persecution,” he says. “By the idea of being at war with everybody else. They can’t do it alone. They need a push from outside groups.”

Michaelis has seen it from both sides. “Today, the lens through which I see the world tells me we are all connected,” he says. “We are all better together.”

So, what drove Michaelis away from white supremacy? 

“Exhaustion,” he says. “Pure exhaustion. There were so many things–I love sports but I couldn’t even watch the Packers because it was a bunch of black guys and in order to do well they all had to work together. But the most exhausting thing of all was when people I hated treated me with kindness. They were actually defying me, because what I wanted in return was hate.

“My intention was to provoke hatred, and their response was, ‘No, I’m going to show you how you treat another human being,’” he says. “It was an act of resistance.”

Without their kindness, he says he might still be a skinhead.

“People refused to capitulate to my hatred,” he states. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that kindness changed the course of my life.”

Singh Kaleka says that the end result of Page’s decision to kill his fellow Americans is that it will bring people closer together. 

“These people died in a place they helped build,” he says. “But in a way, it didn’t cause misery; it caused a fundamental shift. It strengthened our faith.”

That’s the message he brings to local high school students, who he hopes do not descend into despair and isolation. He says he wants them to see value in themselves, regardless of the color of their skin or the name by which they know God. He says they have something good in them, something he likens to “a spark that flickers.” 

He hopes his message, which grew out of the tragedy that ended his father’s life, will ignite a flame of self-worth. If they see it in themselves, he says, they will see it in others, too.

 

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