Pardeep Kaleka tried to understand why a gunman entered a peaceful place of worship, where children gathered for Sunday school. He struggled to find meaning in the death of his father, among the six who died from the stranger’s bullets.
The shooter, Wade Michael Page, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound following his attack on Oak Creek’s Sikh Temple in August 2012.
Kaleka could not ask the shooter why he hated Sikhs, who often have been mistaken for Muslims and targeted in hate crimes.
But from the start, Kaleka and his brother, Amardeep, felt a deep responsibility to turn the horror into something positive.
Now, Kaleka and Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist, have teamed up to talk about the practice of compassion. They will tell their stories Thursday, March 7, at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County campus. The Diversity Action Team of Rock County is sponsoring the event.
Kaleka turned to Michaelis to help him understand something about the violence that killed his father. Michaelis, who founded one of the largest white power groups in the country, later left the group to advocate understanding and unity.
“Everything was still kind of raw,” 36-year-old Kaleka said, about the first meeting with Michaelis. “I was feeling a little fear. But as soon as I met Arno, he gave me a big hug.”
The two men, both of Milwaukee, passed a pot of tea back and forth at a Laotian restaurant. They filled each other’s cups as the night wore on and probed the darkness of the white power movement.
In the end, the best insight that Kaleka could take away is that Page was suffering.
“The suffering gets unbearable after awhile,” Kaleka said. “It is like holding a one-pound weight in your hand. If you hold the weight a day, it is OK. If you hold it a month, it becomes too heavy. He needed to unleash the weight on society.”
In recent months, Kaleka and Michaelis have spoken mostly in Milwaukee-area schools, where they discuss how young people can become “agents of social wellness.”
“We have to identify those isolated individuals on the cusp of getting away from us,” Kaleka said. “I’m hoping to create environments in schools where young people with these (violent) thoughts trust the schools enough to reach out for help. The idea is that you go to school to get well and not just educated.”
Kaleka is a former police officer, who now teaches at-risk teens who have behavior and learning problems. He is married and the father of three young children. His late father, Satwant, was president of the temple.
“The day of the shooting became my awakening,” Kaleka said. “I know in my heart there is so much we have to do. I could not ignore the things going on around me. I see these breeding grounds of people’s suffering, but we don’t want to talk about them.”
Michaelis is an activist for peace, who speaks as part of a movement to oppose extremism. He has written a memoir of his skinhead years and transformation.
“Working with Pardeep empowers what I have been doing all along,” he said. “If a man whose father was murdered by a white supremacist can stand alongside a former white supremacist to promote peace and compassion, I think that is really powerful.”
In their talks, Michaelis tries to explain the white-power environment. He also gives suggestions on what people can do to reach people who are schooled in hate.
“The answer is really found in my story,” he said. “People who had the courage to respond to me with kindness were able to divert my path so I did not end up as Wade Page did. Those acts of kindness are powerful gifts that can change the course of other people’s lives.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Free talk by Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis. Kaleka started a group called Serve 2 Unite, which brings together youth from many belief systems and cultural backgrounds. Information: Serve2unite.wordpress.com. Kaleka’s father was killed in the August 2012 attack at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek by a gunman. Michaelis is a former white supremacist, who now dedicates himself to opposing hate.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 7.
WHERE: University of Wisconsin-Rock County campus, 2909 Kellogg Ave., Janesville.
DETAILS: The Diversity Action Team of Rock County is sponsoring the event, which is open to the public. DAT’s goal is to eliminate racism and create an inclusive community with respect for all.
“Pardeep challenged himself to get into the mind of people like the white supremacist who killed six of Pardeep’s beloved people,” said Jean Carfora, program coordinator for DAT. “He learned from Arno and now they are helping to educate others. I admire Pardeep’s positive response to the hatred that caused this tragedy.”