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Church reaches out after Sikh temple attack Heather Hahn, Aug 17, 2012
Bishop Linda Lee
By Heather Hahn United Methodist News Service
United Methodists joined in prayer and reached out in support of their Sikh neighbors after a gunman’s attack Aug. 5 at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee that left seven people—including the shooter—dead.
Oak Creek United Methodist Church, about two miles from the temple, held an evening prayer vigil for the community on Aug. 6.
“The hope is that we can build community and know our neighbors and extend Christ’s grace to those around us—his love and his way of peace,” the Rev. Paul Armstrong, pastor of Oak Creek UMC, told United Methodist News Service.
The Rev. Deborah Thompson, the superintendent whose district includes Oak Creek, said the district would mobilize its spiritual care team as well as its Stephen ministers to listen and provide counseling if needed.
Wisconsin Area Bishop Linda Lee called for United Methodists to join other Wisconsin Christians in a day of prayer Sunday, Aug. 12, for the families and others affected by the tragedy as well as for the entire Sikh community. The Wisconsin Council of Churches, which the bishop has served as president, also called for prayer on the same day.
“As United Methodists, we accept and respect all faiths, and do not condone any type of hate crime, which this appears to be,” Bishop Lee said in a statement.
She noted that the Social Principles in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, “direct us as United Methodists to embrace all hues of humanity, delight in diversity and difference, and favor solidarity transforming strangers into friends.”
Bishop Lee and the Wisconsin Council of Churches both expressed hope that the day of prayer would be “an occasion for Christians in Wisconsin to learn more about the Sikh religion.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that on Aug. 5 children were in Sunday school, women were preparing the free weekly meal and others were preparing for worship when a gunman entered the Sikh temple and began shooting. Among the victims were one woman and five men, including the temple’s president, Satwant Singh Kaleka.
Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy, who was shot while trying to assist a victim, remained in critical condition on Aug. 6 but was expected to survive.
Law enforcement officials have identified the gunman, who was killed by police, as Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old Army veteran. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States, said Page was a member of two white supremacist rock bands.
Law enforcement officials have said they are investigating the assault as a possible hate crime.
Leaders across the U.S., including President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, called for prayer in response to the shootings.
Hope to draw closer
Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that began in the late 15th century in the Punjab region, which is split between what is today India and Pakistan. It is an offshoot of Hinduism, much the same way Christianity has its origins with Judaism.
Estimates of the number of Sikhs in the United States vary from 400,000 to 750,000. There are more than 20 million Sikhs worldwide. Among them is India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who called the Aug. 5 shooting “a dastardly attack.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Sikhs in the U.S. have faced discrimination, vandalism and even violence because people have confused them with Muslims.
One reason is that Sikh men traditionally wear turbans and grow out their beards. When the Sikh faith developed 500 years ago, the turban was the headgear of kings and other men of high status. Sikhs wear turbans as a sign of their equality before God.
New Jersey Area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, a native of India, said that 11 years ago when he was a district superintendent in New York, some youths set fire to a Sikh temple in Oswego County.
“They had confused the name of the Sikh shrine, Godin Sadan, for the words, ‘Go Bin Laden,’” Bishop Devadhar recalled in a special letter to his conference. “Yet out of tragedy that was born of ignorance and a misguided search for revenge came something positive: There was an outpouring of love and sympathy from people of all walks of faith in the area and a sincere desire to educate all about what Sikhism is about, including their values of love and tolerance.”
Mr. Armstrong of Oak Creek UMC said confirmation classes from his church have visited the Sikh temple in the past.
“All I can say is that they were very warm and hospitable people,” he said. Beyond those visits, he said, the relationship between the two congregations “hasn’t gone much further.
“But I’m sure after this incident, there will be a strong drive after everything settles down for the local community to be drawn closer together.”