When Veenu Ghotra first heard about the shooting that claimed the lives of six fellow Sikhs at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before the gunman fatally shot himself, her first reaction was shock.
At the time of the attack, Ghotra, 60, who resides in Chandigarh, India, was visiting her son in Milwaukee, only about 30 minutes from where the attack took place.
Before the Aug. 5 shooting, she and other family members had planned on going to the Oak Creek temple later in the day. Those plans quickly changed as news of the attack emerged.
“Maybe God was protecting us,” Ghotra said quietly, sorrow audible in her voice.
Ghotra was one of more than 300 people, both Sikhs and members of other religious and nonreligious communities, who attended a vigil on Aug. 11 at the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara in Monroeville for the six victims of the Oak Creek attack. Along with hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, the service included prayers for the victims, speakers and a candle-lighting ceremony. The vigil began a little after 7:30 p.m. and lasted more than an hour and a half.
The speakers included not only members of the temple’s sangat, or congregation, but also elected officials and other guests from outside the Sikh community. All expressed a message of solidarity with the victims and with members of the Sikh faith as a whole.
Chitratan Singh Sethi, a member of the executive committee of the gurdwara (a Sikh temple), opened the service in front of the somber audience that had gathered, most of its members sitting cross-legged facing the altar, which was draped in white cloth embroidered in red.
“On Sunday, Aug. 5, we saw the darkest side of mankind,” Sethi said, expressing grief that a place of worship could be the scene of such senseless violence.
He went on to praise the Oak Creek police, who responded to the attack — especially Lt. Brian Murphy, the first officer to arrive on the scene. Murphy sustained nine gunshot wounds during the attack.
Sethi concluded his remarks by thanking those guests from other religious backgrounds, government officials and the community at large for the solidarity it had shown following the attack.
“The Sikh community has been touched during the last few days by the outpouring of support from the nation,” he said.
Following Sethi’s remarks, Bhai Sahib Sucha Singh, a priest at the temple, led hymns and a prayer in Gurmukhi, the form of Punjabi in which Sikh scripture is written.
Sucha Singh then outlined the history and beliefs of Sikhism, which he said originated in northern India in the 16th century and is distinct from the other religions of the region, such as Hinduism and Islam. It boasts more than half a million followers in the U.S. and about 25 million worldwide, making it the world’s fifth-largest religion.
As the audience continued to listen intently, Sucha Singh emphasized that focus on God, honest livelihood and sharing within one’s community are central to Sikhs’ faith. He also cited scripture that counsels believers not to seek retaliation against enemies.
After Sucha Singh’s address, two other members of the sangat also shared their thoughts on the tragedy.
Sangat member Bani Kaur discussed Sikh-Americans’ contributions to the nation, pointing out to that the first doctor to arrive at the World Trade Center following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was a Sikh-American.
Amar Singh, another member of the sangat, spoke after Kaur. His remarks focused on the turban, the headwear Sikhs don as an outward sign of faith. He pointed out that the turban emerged as a sign of equality during a period of Indian history when castes dictated citizens’ social positions. Despite the events at Oak Creek and other violence directed at Sikhs in the United States and around the world, for Singh, his turban is linked inextricably to his identity.
“While the turban may make us the targets of these senseless attacks,” Singh said, “I have never been prouder in my life to tie the turban.”
U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and Pitt Law School alumnus David Hickton also addressed the audience, pledging support to the Sikh community and praising its restraint. He called the actions of Wade Michael Page, the alleged shooter, “an attack on our core principles.” He went on to pledge that law enforcement will be committed to protecting the Sikh community.
“Such attacks are unacceptable and will never be tolerated,” Hickton said.
Other government officials also attended the ceremony to offer condolences and support to the Sikh community.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy offered his sympathies and added that he had seen cause for hope at the service, where so many expressed solidarity with the Sikh community.
“We are not a nation of hate,” Murphy said. “We are a nation of love, and as such, there is no room for hate in this room.”
James Kennedy and Jeffrey Schaffer took the stage on behalf of Gov. Tom Corbett and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle respectively, also extending condolences.
Tharren Thompson, who teaches religious studies at Penn State, told the audience about his longstanding relationship with the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara, where he often brings his students.
“The fact that I am a Christian does not prevent being welcomed here,” he said.
Thompson went on to say that members of all faiths were rallying around Sikhs to offer support.
Following the service, those in attendance slowly filed out of the sanctuary, each taking a small serving of Karah Parshad, a sweet, traditional pudding that symbolizes their acceptance of the teachings of their religion’s founders.
At the doorway that led to the parking lot, sangat members handed a candle to each person who filed past. Most of those leaving the temple paused to replace their shoes, which all those present had removed previously as a sign of respect before entering the sanctuary.
Candle light illuminating each of their faces in the dark, the attendees gathered around the Nishan Sahib, a tall, saffron-colored flag symbolising Sikh identity, whose post was mounted beside the gurdwara’s parking lot.
After a priest and gurdwara leaders said the name of each of the six victims, the rest of those present responded, “Waheguru,” a Sikh name for God, in unison. Following the mention of those slain, the name of Lt. Brian Murphy was also recited.
After all of the names had been read, the worshippers and attendees patiently awaited their turns to drip melted wax onto the cylindrical base which held the Nishan Sahib’s post upright before affixing the bottom of each flickering candle onto the flat concrete on the top of the base.
Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill said that his only regret was that it had taken a tragedy to bring so many different communities together. He noted that he felt there was some commonality between Sikh beliefs and his own.
“It was comforting to see how closely Sikh scriptures parallel our own,” he said.
Gibson also mentioned that there were three other rabbis present.
Speaking after the vigil concluded, Hickton reiterated that law enforcement is committed to preventing hate crimes and that in recent years the Department of Justice has implemented outreach programs to the Sikh, Arab and Muslim communities in an attempt to protect their members’ civil rights.
Hickton also discussed the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which investigate potential threats, but cited the difficulty in anticipating such attacks by individuals like Page, who apparently acted alone.
“We spend a lot of time in our office trying to prevent things like [the Oak Creek shooting], but there’s a difference between preventing something like this and anticipating it,” he said.
On a personal level, Hickton reiterated the shock he felt at hearing of the Aug. 5 tragedy.
“If you listened to the service tonight, it is very hard for anyone who is hinged and reasonable to disagree with the principles of this wonderful community,” he said.