OAK CREEK, Wis. — Sikh temples generally have four doors, one on each side of the building, as a symbolic invitation to travelers in every direction. But after a lone gunman walked into a Milwaukee-area Sikh temple last year and killed six people, some of the survivors suggested rethinking their openness.
After consideration and contemplation, temple members kept the policy, deciding it was important to show the world the best way to stand against violence was to respond with love, peace and compassion.
Still, officials at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin took precautions. A guard now works three days a week in the lobby, opening the door for visitors and keeping watch on the grounds and parking lot. Additional security cameras and lighting have been installed. Doors and windows are now bulletproof, and the locks have been upgraded.
But even as temple members prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of the shootings on Monday, the Oak Creek temple remains open to everyone. All members of the community, Sikh and non-Sikh alike, are always welcome to join them for meditation and free meals, temple member Harpreet Singh said.
“We will always welcome people,” Singh said.
Temple officials are holding a series of memorial events in connection with the shooting anniversary. The events include several solemn religious rites over the weekend, and culminate with a candlelight vigil Monday night.
The events are being planned in the spirit of “chardhi kala,” a Punjabi term that refers to a state of constant optimism. Sikhs believe that a positive attitude, even during times of hardship, reflects an acceptance of the will of God, temple trustee Harcharan Gill said.
Memorial events began Friday at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Milwaukee, where U.S. Attorney James Santelle held a special remembrance. Santelle’s office and the FBI investigated the shooter’s background for months before concluding that his motive for attacking the temple died along with him that day.
Wade Michael Page walked into the temple a year ago Monday and opened fire.
He killed six priests and worshippers and wounded five others, and then fatally shot himself after he was wounded in the parking lot by a police sniper.
The 40-year-old Army veteran, who also shot and severely wounded an Oak Creek police officer, had ties to white supremacist groups. But the FBI found no evidence to suggest he had help or was acting in the name of any such groups.
Several relatives of the wounded and dead say they forgave the gunman long ago. Raghuvinder Singh, whose 65-year-old father has been nearly comatose since Page shot him in the head, said he draws strength from Sikhism’s lessons of compassion and understanding.
“I was talking about forgiveness from the first day this happened,” said Singh, a Sikh priest along with his father and brother. “Sikhism is a peaceful religion. What Sikhism is teaching to us we are teaching to others. We practice it our whole lives.”
As memorial events get underway at the courthouse, priests at the temple will begin an “akhand paath,” a ceremony in which they read the Sikh holy book aloud from cover to cover. The rite can take about 48 hours, and worshippers generally stop by to listen for short periods.
The next day, the temple and the city of Oak Creek will stage a 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) run to honor the six victims. The run is free but donations will be collected for scholarships in the victims’ names. Any leftover funds will go toward the construction of a memorial, Gill said.
“The run is part of the healing process,” Gill said. “It shows that we faced this situation and we are strong enough to get over this kind of tragedy, but we are not forgetting whatever happened.”
On Monday, temple officials will join the Oak Creek community for a candlelight vigil at a nearby park.
In the past year, temple members have done their best to resume a normal life. On a recent weekend, several dozen women gathered in the kitchen to prepare free meals for the hundreds of worshippers who visit each Saturday and Sunday. Children played in the lobby underneath photographs of the six victims, and devotees meditated inside the large prayer room.
The building is expected to get one final upgrade in anticipation of anniversary celebrations. The family of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple president who was shot and killed as he tried to stab Page in self-defense with a butter knife, has spent about $70,000 to import five golden domes from India.
Officials hope to have the fiberglass domes installed by the weekend.