On Sunday, a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., killing six worshippers and wounding several others.
More than 2,000 miles away, the Turlock Sikh community is dealing with the repercussions of that attack.
“Everyone is shocked, everyone is kind of stunned,” said Harinder Grewal, a Sikh community leader and Turlock Unified School District Trustee.
“This was a hate crime. We know that. This is something that can happen anywhere, at any time. It’s sad.”
The gunman, Wade Michael Page, 40, entered the Sikh temple at shortly before 10:30 a.m. Sunday, and opened fire with a 9mm handgun, killing or fatally wounding six people. He later took aim at an Oak Creek police officer, who was in the process of helping a victim.
Page was reportedly an Army veteran, a neo-Nazi, and the front man for a white-supremacist hardcore rock band. He was shot dead by police following the shooting rampage.
Page’s precise motives remain unknown, but Sikhs have been targets of hate crimes in the past.
Though nearly all turban-wearing Americans are Sikh, misconceptions led to widespread persecution in the days following 9/11. A Sikh-American gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz. was shot five times and killed on Sept. 15, 2001, because his killer thought he was an Arab Muslim.
But Sunday’s shooting was the first mass killing of Sikhs in America, a religion which ranks fifth nationwide in terms of followers and tallies almost 26 million adherents worldwide.
Followers of the Sikh religion, based in the Punjab region of Northwest India, have called California home since the early 1900s. Sikhs believe in equality for all – regardless of race, sex, social status, or religion – to the extent that one Sikh Guru was martyred for his support of Hindus.
Followers are asked to work hard, to share with others, and to remember God. And Sikhs are also asked to maintain a unique identity, with an uncut beard, a turban, and other religious items. The unique appearance is meant to make Sikhs instantly recognizable, so all might know who they can turn to in a time of need.
The Oak Creek shooting has left the Sikh community sad and angry. But most importantly, it’s proven the need to do more outreach, and to educate Americans about Sikhism.
The Turlock Sikh Temple conducted an outreach day in May, inviting local mayors, law enforcement representatives, and school officials to tour the church and learn about Sikhism. In June, the Temple held its first parade.
“That was one small step,” Grewal said. “We need to do that a lot more, not only in Turlock. It should be a statewide and nationwide movement.”
The tragedy has received local and nationwide recognition from government officials.
On Monday, Turlock Mayor John Lazar announced that flags will be flown at half-staff at all city facilities until Friday, in honor of the shooting victims. The move follows President Barack Obama’s Sunday proclamation to fly flags at half-staff outside of all federal facilities. And Gov. Jerry Brown released a statement expressing his “sympathy and admiration” for Sikhs following the shooting.
At 8 p.m. on Friday, the Sikh community will hold a candlelight vigil for the victims of the tragedy at the Sikh Temple in Hughson, 5713 E. Hatch Rd. Between 400 and 500 community members are expected, including political figures and leaders of other religious and ethnic communities, many of whom have expressed sorrow following the attacks.
Rev. Wilson Koppula, of India Community Ministries, a Turlock-based Christian organization, has worked with the Sikh community for 17 years. He has helped Sikhs learn English and earn their citizenship, and knows the community well.
“The Sikh community is hardworking, good citizens,” Koppula said. “My heart goes out to all the people that have been affected, all the families.
“All people need to live happily and harmoniously in this land of opportunities.”
It’s a time for unity, Grewal agreed, in the wake of Sunday’s hate crime. The United States’ strength comes from diversity, he said, and America belongs to its people.
“Regardless of anything else, we are Americans,” Grewal said. “That is how everyone should think.”