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Movie screening fosters dialog about love

Event opens eyes about Sikh culture, resilience after tragedy

Dec. 19, 2012

Oak Creek - The local and national Sikh communities are turning an act of hate that saw white supremicist Wade Michael Page kill six of their members during an Oak Creek worship service Aug. 5 into a life lesson: Know your neighbor, and love even those who hate.

On Dec. 12, they reached out once more to the larger community, along with the nonprofit Peace Learning Circles, by showing two films at the Marcus South Shore Cinema.

The film screening was the first event in PLC's educational series "One Community, One World." Filmmakers Valarie Kaur and Sharat Raju presented two Sikh-centered films shot before the tragedy.

"American Made" by Raju, a short fictional work focused on issues of racism, faith and Sikh culture, was shown alongside narrated clips from Kaur and Raju's documentary "Divided We Fall."

A new film, "Oak Creek: In Memoriam," which documented the Oak Creek Sikh community's response to the tragedy, was screened for the first time.

"We captured the grief and sadness but also the courage and resilience in the week after the tragedy," Kaur said. "We turned that footage into a short, seven-minute piece for the community. It's supposed to be a short film that allows for introspection and reflection, but also hope."

A mission to educate

Traditional Sikh food and music were played before the movie showings and there was a question-and-answer session for audience members afterward.

The night's purpose was twofold: to address the events in Oak Creek, but also to educate the community about Sikhism and the backlash Sikhs experienced after the 9/11 attacks.

The backlash against the Sikh community resulting from 9/11 gave Kaur and Raju the impetus to begin their work as filmmakers. The first act of hate resulting in a death of a Sikh was the murder of a gas station owner in Arizona. He was a friend of Kaur's family and had been mistaken for a Muslim by his killer.

Victims of the Oak Creek tragedy, including Pardeep Kaleka, whose father was slain in the Aug. 5 attack, also gave testimonials.

Hate into love

While Wednesday's event was hosted by PLC, a group separate from the Sikh religion, local Sikhs have been advocating for peace and understanding.

Kaleka has teamed up with Arno Michaelis, an ex-white supremacist, to lead a series of talks on issues of hatred, acceptance and redemption.

The two spoke at Cudahy High School on Dec. 3 and plan to spread a message of understanding in future talks.

"I think it's very important that people do not see this as a Sikh tragedy," Kaleka said. "It's an American tragedy, and, far worse, it's a human tragedy. This is a complete injustice anywhere."

Kaleka emailed Michaelis after finding out about his post-supremacist work with the group Life After Hate. The two immediately hit it off and became good friends. Michaelis now calls Kaleka "Par" and the two aren't afraid to call each other brothers.

Since joining forces, their message has been simple: Reach out to others and break down barriers.

"You see the world as it hates you," Kaleka said. "One thing that sticks out with me with Wade Page, if someone had come along at some time and showed him that compassion and kindness, we wouldn't be talking right now. He would have changed his way."

Michaelis got out of the white power movement after becoming a single parent and losing a friend to a street fight in 1994. With most of his supremacist friends dead or in prison, he knew that he was all his daughter had. He also experienced acts of kindness from those he had hated while he was involved in the white power movement.

If Michaelis could say one thing to his 1993 self, he said it would be: "The world is as beautiful or horrible as you care to see it."

Opening communication

Both Kaur and Kaleka agree that the Aug. 5 tragedy has brought Sikhism to a never-before known national spotlight. The two aim to keep the discussion alive via Kaur's film, Kaleka's talks and any other way possible.

"It was an enormous challenge to explain our faith and community at the same time as calling for a response to tragedy," said Kaur, whose family has lived in America since 1913. "I am profoundly proud of my peers and those who work alongside of me. There's a new generation of Sikh Americans in their 20s and 30s who really rose to the challenge after that tragedy."

Although the event brought the relatively new religion into the national spotlight, Kaleka believes that more could have been done.

Speaking of the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., just weeks before the Oak Creek shooting, Kaleka said: "I hate to say it, but I think that the Colorado shooting was more newsworthy because it has a certain aspect of relatability. Maybe to a certain extent, people couldn't relate to being in a Sikh temple."

That's what he's hoping to change, not necessarily through his talks and work with Michaelis, but through his actions as a community member.

"After this, I hope that people start to realize that Sikhism is best defined as a culture by the things that we do, rather than how we look," Kaleka said. "If we want to be part of the broader community, we have to help the broader community."

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