A certain numbness settled on me as the day wore on yesterday. For hours it was the only response I could muster to the horrific shooting just down the Interstate in suburban Milwaukee. As unsettling and depressing as the Dark Knight shooting in Aurora, Colorado was this act of violence hit me harder for several reasons. It happened in my beloved state of Wisconsin. It happened in a place of worship, a place that should be safer even than a movie theater. It happened to a peaceful people for no apparent reason (though now it appears likely that the reason was simply hatred for those who are perceived as other) and with women and children there.
Like many others I sat transfixed in front of the television, hanging on every word, hoping despite knowing in my gut that there would be no fatalities, that the police got their man right away and that there would only be the initial reported injuries. When I heard the police spokesperson announce in a briefing that six people had died and that the gunman was also down my heart sank. Not here, I thought. Not so soon after Aurora. And then–not ever. How can this keep happening in my country? How and why? And all the while on the crawl beneath the images of the Sikh temple in Oak Creek and the stunned faces of men in turbans were stories of a couple dozen people killed by a bomb in Yemen, two people killed somewhere else in the United States. And I knew that the talking heads and the crawl were not reporting murders taking place somewhere in the inner cities around the nation.
If it is possible for a soul to be numb then mine was numb at that moment.
As I watched and listened, though, I began to process the pain and think about healing. I thought about how the gunman did not represent my Wisconsin or my nation, that most of the people in this world are good and kind. The gentle nature of each and every Sikh person interviewed on television had an impact. They did not talk about retribution, but about trying to understand. They helped me to understand that love cannot be beaten down by hatred, that kindness cannot lose to fear, and that emotional numbness can be cured by action. I knew that I had to act, that I had to counter what I knew was an act of hatred with a moment of love, that I had to resist a moment of horrible violence with reaching out in peace to my brothers and sisters. I knew that I had to honor the victims and the survivors in some way.
My instinct was that I wanted to take a candle to the State Capitol and hold it in honor and memory of those lost, even if I only stood there by myself. Candles represent bringing light to darkness for me and it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. I posted on Facebook “there should be some sort of candlelight vigil or something this evening for the victims of the Oak Creek Sikh temple today. If anyone hears of such a thing in the Madison area, please post it.”
Within a short time several people had liked the post, enough that I thought maybe I would go there and encourage others to join me, especially after my friend Bambi wrote that she would come and be there with me. A short time later I posted that I would “be taking a candle to the State Street side of the Capitol at 7:00 p.m. for a silent vigil in honor of the victims of the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek today. Please feel free to come and share in prayer/positive energy for our fellow human beings. This is not an organized rally; just folks who want to be together and honor those slain and injured and who want to put out positive energy for a more peaceful world. Love and peace to all of you.”
Again within a short time quite a number of people had liked the post and several had commented that they would be there. I decided there was a need beyond me and that I should create an event page and invite everyone I knew who was anywhere close to Madison and encourage them to invite others. Several friends, notably Chaous, Sara, and Felix helped spread the word. Three hours later I was leading a vigil at the Capitol. It was entirely impovised, but it turned out incredibly well.
With little advance notice about eighty people showed up, along with all three network television stations, a radio station, the daily newspaper, and the event was U-streamed live. About 20 of those in attendance were members of Madison’s Sikh community, who had heard about the event through Facebook and a listserv and who arrived little by little as the event progressed. It was small enough when we started that I didn’t want to use the bullhorn that we had, but instead felt it would be better to draw the crowd in closer to each other, so I asked everyone to step closer so we could just speak with our voices and still be heard.
I spoke first, though I didn’t want the vigil to be heirarchical in any way; I wanted it to be a shared experience, so I suggested what I thought we should do and asked everyone if that seemed okay to them. I also suggested that I felt this was not a night for politics, but for peace, reflection, and honoring the victims. Nobody objected, so we took a full five minutes with candles or alternate light sources lit to just sit in silence. It gave everyone an opportunity to pray, put out positive energy, reflect, or just sit with the silence for that time. For most Americans sitting silently with one’s thoughts for five minutes can be very difficult–it can feel like an eternity.
But everyone there committed to it. I can’t imagine what was going on within those minds. Some were likely thinking political thoughts about the need for gun control, some were likely meditating, some were likely praying for the families or for peace in general. All were respectful. Everyone took it seriously and stayed within themselves for the duration.
After that it was opened up for anyone who wanted to speak to take some time and speak from their hearts about whatever they were feeling. For an hour people shared heartfelt words, thoughts, tears. Many of the Sikhs in attendance talked about their feelings. One woman told of how she and her family were recently at the temple in Milwaukee–they go there often–and that they knew most of the members of that temple. They talked of how hard it was to not yet know the names of those lost. They educated us about the basics of their religion, that they were the first religion to preach equality for women, that they are welcoming of all other religions, that they are a peaceful people, that they will not be afraid to go back to their temple because of this. Others expressed their sorrow and their condolences to the Sikhs, but also talked about how this was a loss for all of us. The primary themes that came through were those of not giving in to fear and that love is always stronger than hate.
I had noticed during the sharing that to my right was a large group of white Madisonians and that to my left was a smaller group of Sikh Madisonians and between were an Asian-American woman and a South American woman, so I improvised. When everyone was done speaking I suggested that we seemed to be done with the more formal part of the event (though really it was all pretty informal), but that maybe we shouldn’t be done, that maybe we should all just hang around for a bit and interact, introduce ourselves, talk, and get to know each other.
For more than two hours dozens of people stood and sat in front of the Capitol to further share their feelings and open up lines of communication between cultures and among people who knew little if anything of each other before this day. I looked around and saw a pair of Sikh men talking with a white couple, the Guatemalan woman speaking with a Sikh woman and a white man listening to them share their thoughts, people mixing with each other and opening up doors to other worlds.
This, I thought, is the way to win against hatred, to open up doors of love. For every person killed at that temple on Sunday morning at least two new friends were made on Sunday night, and that was just in our little spot in the world. If we can keep that door open we can walk back and forth between worlds, learning from each other and learning to love each other in a deeper and far more real way. Love can win, one person at a time, one moment at a time, if we choose to welcome it into our lives and to fully live with it. I went away from the vigil with love and peace in my heart.