5th January 2022
Pardeep Kaleka on finding forgiveness after his father was killed in one of America’s deadliest race-based hate crimes
Marina Cantacuzino talks to Pardeep Kaleka about how in the wake of his father’s murder in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin he found compassion and became a powerful voice against hate crime and violence. Pardeep now works to promote understanding and compassion with his friend Arno Michaelis who is also a guest on The F Word Podcast. Having both experienced extreme racism, albeit from very different ends of the spectrum, together they co-founded the organization Serve2Unite and co-authored the book, The Gift Of Our Wounds.
Pardeep Kaleka is executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, co-founder of Serve2Unite, co-author of The Gift Of Our Wounds and a clinician specializing in utilizing a trauma-informed approach to treat survivors and perpetrators of assault, abuse and acts of violence. A native of Punjab, India, Pardeep Singh Kaleka grew up in Milwaukee, WI. As a former police officer and educator in the city of Milwaukee, Pardeep understands the difficulty facing our communities locally and abroad. Both in his practice and out, Pardeep’s passion remains one of healing and transformation.
“I am not going to let somebody else dictate what happened.”
“If Wade Michael Page was here in front of us and around us, I would sit down and have a conversation with him. There’s no point in my heart feeling any kind of rage towards him personally.”
“I also think forgiveness is very natural. I think that when we don’t forgive, that’s not natural.”
“I think we have a responsibility as a society not to wash our hands of the Wade Pages of the world and just say, well those guys are just evil, they are just monsters, they are going to be evil. And, I think that as a society we got to understand our own complicity in creating a rejectionist culture.”
“To me, forgiveness is freedom and sometimes that’s self-forgiveness. That is also freedom. And, communal forgiveness is freedom. Institutional forgiveness is freedom.”
“Racism, also, is causing us to not be free. We can’t enjoy how beautiful another person is. And that’s what anger, frustration, rage, hatred, all of these things, do to you over time. They cause you to become insulate and they cause you to exist in that trauma, so we are not really free.”
“Forgiveness is not something that you can prescribe. It is something that needs to be participated in and each person participates a little bit differently. But, I think you do need someone to kind of show you and embody it.”
Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series that examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through.
Each episode I will be talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
My guest for this episode of the F Word Podcast is Pardeep Kaleka. In 2012 Pardeep’s father was murdered when white supremacist, Wade Michael Page, stormed the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin killing six people and ever since Pardeep has been exploring the healing power of understanding and forgiveness.
Shortly after the shooting Pardeep met ad then forged a strong bond with the former white supremacist, Arno Michaelis, and these two very different men have worked together tirelessly in the past few years to create a more compassionate, open-hearted and peaceful world. Together, they founded the organisation, Serve 2 Unite, which works with youth and in schools to create inclusive, compassionate and non-violent communities. They have also co-authored the book, “The Gift of our Wounds” which charts both of their parallel stories.
And, by the way, if you are interested to hear what Arno Michaelis has to say, he features in another episode of the F Word Podcast.
Hello, Pardeep, it’s great to have you today on the FWord Podcast all the way from Wisconsin in the United States.
Pardeep: Hello, Marina.
Marina: Pardeep, I’d like to start with your childhood and growing up in America. I’m really interested to know how that was. You are part of the Sikh community. Did you experience hate crime and racism or did you feel really safe and accepted in this new country that I believe you came to when you were a child. Is that right?
Pardeep: Yes. My parents and I came over when I was six years old. They were from a small farming village in Punjab, called Dugrau and they decided to move our family all the way across to the other side of the world and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When we came here Milwaukee was a little bit different than it is now. There wasn’t a lot of Sikhs here. I think maybe we were only the fifth family from Punjab and so there wasn’t really a representation.
When we moved here we I guess just tried to kind of assimilate to the culture. My mother had graduated fifth grade. She needed to go back to school. My father he graduated from high school but both were farmers and largely had agricultural backgrounds so they really didn’t have the skillset needed to be successful in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
They started to go back to school. Meanwhile, my brother and I were going to school as well. So, our upbringing was one of our parents working. My dad found employment working for another person who had a small business, a gas station and my mum would go to school and then she would work as well. That was really our life style when we were growing up.
I think when I was around ten or eleven years old they purchased their first small business and then they worked hard at that business and really started to get some traction into this American dream, the promise of it. And, I became the first undergraduate of our family. My brother graduated and I went into policing shortly after that.
And, by the time that the shooting really happened, I think that we had achieved that middle class American dream that immigrants really come to this country for. My dad was president for fifteen years at the Sikh temple. So, not only did he achieve this dream for himself but he was opening the door for lots of other people to come here and also have a chance.
Marina: So, Pardeep, the attack happened in the Oak Creek Gurdwara which is the place where Sikhs come together to worship. Wade Michael Page, who had served in the US army, entered the building where over three hundred people were and he killed six of them including your father, who was director of that particular Gurdwara.
America is not immune to mass shootings at all, as we both know, so was this something you had considered? Was it something that you were afraid of?
Pardeep: No, I never would have thought that a mass shooting would happen at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Every Gurdwara in the world has four doors. One to the east, the north, the south and the west. That’s done deliberately to show the openness of the Sikh faith. And, before the shooting happened all four of those doors would typically be wide open. There was no lock. You could come and go as you pleased and we never thought that something like this would every happen.
I think for most people who are involved in some type of mass shooting still don’t believe that’s going to happen to them, right? They are used to watching the news, not being part of the news. So there was a level of just sheer shock from the community.
I think part of that shock was trying to make sense of what happened. I think there was a lot of people within the community who were trying to make sense of it. The media sources all speculating the motive of the shooter. Was it because he Sikhs with Muslims? Was it that he had some kind of vendetta against somebody within that temple? But, I think that for everyone within the south eastern Wisconsin community it really was a shock.
This was 2012. This was the time when President Barack Obama was running for re-election and this was a time when you didn’t hear about this happening within faith locations. You heard about it happening obviously at schools and theatres and other places but at that point this was one of the deadliest hate crimes to happen at a faith place in all of US history. So, yes I think it was very shocking.
Marina: How did you respond in the days and weeks that followed? Obviously, it was an enormous shock. Were you full of rage and anger? What was your immediate response after the shooting in those first days and weeks?
Pardeep: I was full of rage, anger, guilt.
Marina: Guilt, for….?
Pardeep: Just surviving the shooting.
Pardeep: The only thing that kept us out the shooting was really my daughter forgetting her notebook and us being about ten minutes late.
Pardeep: And so there was a sense of guilt. There was also a sense of guilt around what we were doing as a society and maybe we’re not doing enough. I was in public service for a very long time as a police officer and as an educator. I was committed to doing that work before but I sometimes think about it and say we are not doing enough. Maybe, what we are doing is just a sense of absolvement and the issues still exist and they will exist until we really challenge ourselves to commit to really addressing a lot of the ills that had been there for so long.
I felt rage. I felt anger, frustration. I felt like our community was not a priority. I thought about how long it took law enforcement to get into the Temple itself. And, thought in this way of, if there was another population, would they have treated it differently? Would people have gotten in sooner? There were people who bled out. It’s hard to live with. It’s hard to imagine and think to yourself that your dad actually bled out and he could have been saved.
Marina: Yes, I can see where the rage came from. Do you mean they bled to death because they were left lying there for so long?
Pardeep: Yes, some people bled to death.
Marina: So, how did your own journey of healing progress when there was so much personal hurt but also hurt for a whole community?
Pardeep: The other part of me is that I am not going to let somebody else dictate what happened. I’ m very mission driven and what I do know is how to get to work. When you are down just get to work and the work was really how do you put a brave face on for the world? How do you not let people know that you are hurting?
How through that anger and frustration, guilt and that feeling of not feeling like your community matters enough and save people bleeding out, how do you work through that? And so, that was really the mission afterwards of putting on a brave face for the world.
But then, you also have to come back to later. How are you doing? Because, it’ss exhausting. It feels like you are in a swimming pool and in certain situations you are in a bit deeper and in certain situations you can reach the bottom and have some control. I felt like I had a locus of control. I felt like I had some traction that other community members, that had lost their fathers and mothers, did not. So, I felt an incredible responsibility to do something with even just a limited amount of control that I had.
Marina: I really like this idea of getting to the bottom of the swimming pool from where you can kind of push back and propel yourself back up.
So, with this control that you found, could you then help your community deal with the trauma of what had happened?
Pardeep: What I was just thinking about was how am I going to make sure that our community that’s traumatised, is not so traumatised that they don’t get out into the wider world. I had children who never wanted to leave the sanctuary walls. We had children who never wanted to see white people again. Never want to see a tattooed person again. They were that in their trauma. They don’t understand that for one, they’re beautiful, they’re brilliant, but they are not free from what their trauma looks like.
Marina: Thank you for that.
So, a little while after the attack I believe you reached out to the former white supremacist, also from Wisconsin, Arno Michaelis, who you asked to have dialogue or to meet with him. Was that to get some answers as to why something like this horrendous, racist attack could happen?
Pardeep: My motivation for reaching out to Arno was to get some answers, to get an explanation on why the shooter did what he did. And, when I reached out to Arno there was a feeling, even in that email and correspondence that we had early on, was lovingly challenging my way out of trauma. I knew that I was existing in it.
I knew that I was trying my best to put a brave face on for the world but I knew it was inauthentic. It wasn’t real and that’s a feeling that only the person going through it knows because there is a jitteriness that happens and everyone that is struggling through those feelings, knows that of like I’m trying, but at this moment I’m doing my best. I couldn’t have told you then but I wanted my journey to be real.
Marina: Yeah. Had you heard of Arno? Was he connected in any way to the perpetrator?
Pardeep: Arno, from what I gather, was not connected to him personally but Arno was a founding member of the same organisation that the shooter belonged to. When I first reached out to him the answers that I wanted was why did the shooter do what he did? Why were we targeted? And, maybe the other one, that wasn’t so intentional at the time, was what can we do about it as we go forward.
Marina: And, was there anything comforting in what Arno said or helpful, at least?
Pardeep: Yes. You know the comforting part was when we first met I had a small injury to my eye where my eyelid was lacerated and I couldn’t blink. He asked me about that injury and it took me back a bit because here’s a person that I’m looking for answers from and he opens up with genuine concern and as I shared that we can see how each other are feeling. We were very tuned into that.
And, so I see that he has got a level of concern about me. And, that is where our relationship started, from this level of concern and empathy and understanding and even sort of a relationship building through our mutual klutziness that we both had. And, as we started to talk, we talked about everything but the incident. But, we did finally get to the place where we talked about that. And one of the comforting things that Arno told me is that “hurt people hurt people.”
Marina: Just to repeat it. “Hurt people hurt people.” I think you mean the idea that if you are carrying around a lot of anger, hate, pain, guilt you will find destructive ways of expressing that in the world.
Pardeep: Yes, and it’s something that I could hold on to. And, it’s something that we could go forward with. And, it’s something that we could help alleviate for society.
And so over the past nine years going on ten years now we’ve been on a mission. Is it a mission around hate? Is it a mission around racism or white supremacy? What is it? And, it’s really a mission to better understand pain. It’s a mission to listen to it with a sense of witness that is genuine. And I think as a society, if we could get back to understanding and listening to pain, we can do something about it as we go forward.
Marina: So, with the shooter, Wade Michael Page, do you give him much thought? I mean, are you able to see him as a person in pain? Have any compassion or even forgiveness for him or is that really one step too far?
Pardeep: Marina, if Wade Michael Page was here in front of us and around us, I would sit down and have a conversation with him. There’s no point in my heart feeling any kind of rage towards him personally.
Wade Michael Page was once a baby that was born in this country. He was once a boy just like all of our children. He grew up in this world. Somehow, some way he understood that rejection is an answer and I think as much as he rejected other people, he probably rejected himself to the extent that it was such a deep and painful thing. So, if he was here now I would have no sense of anger towards him.
Marina: So, it might not be forgiveness but it’s trying to understand and certainly compassion, it sounds like?
Pardeep: Yes. I think compassion for him. Compassion for other people. I think it comes innately. I also think forgiveness is very natural. I think that when we don’t forgive, that’s not natural. That’s again like swimming in that water and you are just trying your hardest and sooner or later you are going to get exhausted and the only person that’s going to suffer is going to be you, your family, the people that you care the most about. So, to have someone like Wade Michael Page change you, and not be that way, I think that would be devastating for your family.
Marina: I think I see what you are getting at there, Pardeep. Are you saying that we, as human beings, have this really innately compassionate and forgiving nature?
Marina: And so, if that is taken away by someone like Wade Michael Page, your father’s killer, it’s just a massive loss and truly devastating. I was wondering also, Pardeep, I know that Wade Michael Page shot himself at the scene of the shooting but have you ever reached out to his family?
Pardeep: I reached out to Wade Page’s girlfriend. I think about two years ago and she never returned, but I wanted to sit down with her and find out what was happening with him. Not from the sense of like I’m investigating what happened, but what can we do about the next person who is feeling like Wade Page, to make sure that he doesn’t go out and hurt other people.
I think we have a responsibility as a society not to wash our hands of the Wade Pages of the world and just say, well those guys are just evil, they are just monsters, they are going to be evil. And, I think that as a society we got to understand our own complicity in creating a rejectionist culture.
Marina: I would like to signpost you here to a couple of other stories shared by The Forgiveness Project that echo what Pardeep said and explore what a restorative and healing path looks like in the aftermath of a mass shooting.
The first is from Tom Mauser whose son was killed in the Columbine School shootings in 1999. Tom talks about now dedicating his life to cultivated acts of hope that can honour his son, Daniel, rather than allowing anger and hatred and despair to mar his memory of him.
The other story comes from Scarlett Lewis whose six year old son, Jesse, was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. She, too, talks about this need to honour Jesse’s life by encouraging people to change an angry thought into a compassionate one, because it was anger, she said, that led to such an extreme act of violence.
Like Pardeep, both Scarlett and Tom make the important point that these killers are not evil monsters separate from us, rather they are all of our responsibility because we belong to the society that has created them.
What they mean, I think, is that whether it’s because of, for example, gun laws or lack of social emotional support structures, our society somehow makes it possible for violent and vengeful people to think it’s OK to go on a shooting rampage, whether in a school or a shopping mall or indeed, a temple.
Anyway, I then went on to talk to Pardeep about forgiveness which is such an important concept for him and I asked him whether the idea of forgiveness came immediately to him as part of his healing process.
Pardeep: In the aftermath forgiveness was not something I was even thinking about.
Marina: Also, you mentioned before, Pardeep, that the children in your community were not free because after the attack they never wanted to see a white person again. They wanted to stay within the confines of their homes or the temple, so in a way fear was caging them in. Does forgiveness fit in here and if so, what does it look like?
Pardeep: You know when someone tries to forgive it looks different for different people and everybody’s journey is unique.
But, for me, forgiveness is freedom and sometimes that’s self-forgiveness. That is also freedom. And, communal forgiveness is freedom. Institutional forgiveness is freedom.
As a society, if you think about America right now, I don’t know if we are truly free. Sometimes we talk about constitutional freedoms and talk about freedom of speech and we talk about freedom to have guns. I don’t know anybody that can say that they are truly feel free right now to live the existence that they want to live.
Racism, also, is causing us to not be free. We can’t enjoy how beautiful another person is. And that’s what anger, frustration, rage, hatred, all of these things, do to you over time. They cause you to become insulate and they cause you to exist in that trauma so we are not really free.
Marina: It sounds like you have come so far since your father’s murder. Have you been able to bring your community with you? How have the community dealt with it in the last few years and can you say a little bit about Serve 2 Unite and how that fits into the whole picture, restoring your community?
Pardeep: A great question.
With Serve 2 Unite it was founded by the youth in the temple and really it was also an effort to try to get youth who were kind of existing in their own trauma outside of sanctuary walls. And, it’s funny to say sometimes, it’s ironic to say, sanctuary and trauma together. But, sometimes existing in their trauma is the safe place for people. It is like I’m comfortable here, don’t take me out of here. But to other people it’s like they are never going to be free.
So, Serve 2 Unite was originally formed to do that. Lovingly, getting people out into the community and showing who Sikhs were and then over time we started to realise, as Arno and I started to work together, that a lot of youths existed in their own trauma, existed in this place and not because they wanted to but just because whatever circumstances and strengths had shaped their life. So, as we moved forward we wanted to lovely challenge them out of it and for us as a community. People are in different places on this journey. There are some people who within a year or two understood it. And, then there are some people who are still trying to get it, nine years later.
So, forgiveness is not something that you can prescribe. It is something that needs to be participated in and each person participates a little bit differently. But, I think you do need someone to kind of show you and embody it and say, “OK here’s what this looks like” and hopefully you embody it to the point that someone can see it and say, “OK, Pardeep is genuinely happy. He can see things in life that make him happy, the small things of life. He doesn’t need something big to happen that makes him happy.” And, some people might call that mindfulness and some people might call it something else. But, I call it this forgiveness journey and part of it is, it’s so creative and I think for all of us, we are all artists. I don’t dance. I don’t make music. I don’t draw but I still think that I am an artist. And, as long as you are coming back to yourself, that journey you are drawing, you are creating.
It’s when we don’t create then we get stuck on that forgiveness journey. So, I think for everyone I want to encourage them to continually be an artist and redefine what your life looks like. It should always be changing and you should embrace that.
Marina: I just really love that idea that you mentioned of being an artist in terms of drawing and creating a different life for yourself. It gives a whole new dimension to something I have always known and that is the healing power of the arts in someone’s recovery journey.
Marina: And also just generally, Pardeep, I found this whole conversation really useful in understanding not just about how individuals recover from trauma through embracing a more compassionate path, but also how whole communities can be helped.
So, really I just want to thank you for sharing everything that you have today.
Pardeep: Thank you so much, Marina, and I really, honestly, thank you so much for the work that you all do at The Forgiveness Project. Arno and I have used so many stories for inspiration for youth who are programming and there are so many children who are now exploring what forgiveness means to them.
Marina: Ah, I think that’s a great way to end, Pardeep. So, I just really want to say thank you for talking to me today on the F Word Podcast.
Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.