On this particular day, Kaleka was running late.
As they were on their way to the temple, Kaleka’s daughter told him she forgot her red notebook for Sunday school.
Already on the freeway, Kaleka ran the two scenarios through his mind. One, he could drop the kids off and hopefully the Sunday school teachers would understand or two, he could turn back home and retrieve the notebook. He decided on the latter.
As they embarked on their second trip back to the temple, Kaleka became a little frustrated with his daughter, who complained the whole drive. He informed his daughter of the price of gas and reminded her about the cost of the detour.
Soon after, Kaleka noticed police cars, one after another. As a former police officer he was able to discern police cars coming from other districts —they were all travelling the same direction as him. The police taped-off the intersection leading to the temple. Kaleka asked a nearby policeman what was going on.
“There’s been a shooting at the temple. The scene is not secure,” the policeman said. “I can’t let you proceed.”
“When did this happen?” Kaleka asked.
“Ten minutes ago,” replied the policeman.
That morning at about 10:30 a.m., 40-year-old, Wade Michael Page, walked into the Sikh Temple and killed six people before taking his own life. Among the six victims was Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka. The shooter was a member of the Hammerskins, a white supremacist and neo-nazi group founded in 1980.
One of the founders of the Hammerskins was Arno Michaelis who has since turned away from the ideology and now, alongside Kaleka, runs the organization, Serve 2 Unite.
On Mar. 12 for the Manmeet Singh Bhullar Lecture Series in collaboration with the Arts Distinguished Series at Mount Royal University’s Bella Concert Hall, Kaleka and Michaelis presented a lecture on their book The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate.
During the evening, they spoke about how they found friendship after tragedy.
After the shooting that took the life of his father, Kaleka contacted Michaelis for the two of them to meet up. He wanted answers. However, since the shooter was dead, he reached out to Michaelis.
“As that was leading up, I was kind of questioning all those questions that people have — do people change? Why am I doing this? Is he going to kill me the first time I meet him?” Kaleka says.
Just like Kaleka, Michaelis had similar thoughts going through his mind. Michaelis severed ties with the neo-Nazi ideology back in 1994.
Throughout his seven-year involvement with hate groups, Michaelis was well-known within what white supremacists called “the movement.” He was a minister in the so-called racial holy war, the lead singer in a white power metal band and the founder of the Hammerskins.
“People all over the world knew who I was in the movement. Outside of the movement, I was an alcoholic high school dropout who was too much of a drunk to pay his bills and had a habit of drinking until he passed out and pissed all over himself,” says Michaelis.
“There’s a pretty stark difference between this false image of myself in the movement and the reality of who I was and my addictions.”
Deep down, Michaelis knew that the hate that he held onto all these years was wrong. It began to wear down on him and it kept building up. The ideology forced Michaelis to completely shut himself off from society as well.
“I couldn’t watch American football and I couldn’t watch TV sitcoms, like Seinfeld. I couldn’t watch Hollywood movies and I couldn’t listen to any music that wasn’t white power music. I couldn’t read anything that wasn’t white power propaganda,” says Michaelis.
The continuous hatred was exhausting to Michaelis. But what exhausted him the most was that people who he claimed to hate, like “a Jewish boss, a lesbian supervisor or Black and Latino coworkers”, treated him with kindness.
“Instead, they chose to make the engagement of rules themselves and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to play by your rules. We’re going to play by my rules which is this is how human beings should treat each other,’” says Michaelis.
“While none of those acts of kindness changed me on the spot, they all built up and I couldn’t escape them. I couldn’t escape the truth that my ideology of separatism and superiority was utterly false.”
When Kaleka reached out to Michaelis, he felt an urgency to respond to the request.
“During my time of being active in white supremacy groups back in the late 1980s to early 1990s, I helped start the white power gang that had produced the shooter,” Michaelis says.
“I felt a real urgency and responsibility to respond to this atrocity and to really offer myself to Pardeep and to his community and whatever I could do to help them heal.”
Michaelis suggest they meet at the restaurant, EE-Sane Thai in nearby Milwaukee. According to Michaelis, it has the spiciest food in the city. Oddly enough, this choice of restaurant surprised Kaleka and even put him a little bit at ease.
“He tells me that he wants to meet at this Thai restaurant. Automatically, in my head, I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s cool because white people can barely handle spicy food. So a white supremacist, if he still is a white supremacist, is damn sure not going to be able to handle spicy food,’” says Kaleka
With uncertainty surrounding their first meeting, Kaleka and Michaelis had no clue what they were going to say to each other. However, upon their first meeting, Michaelis noticed Kaleka’s eye injury.
“The first thing he says to me was, ‘Woah, dude. What happened to your eye?’ and then I explained to him the story,” says Kaleka.
A former white supremacist and a Sikh exchange a back-and-forth about the experience that changed their lives. Produced by Kiah Lucero
Michaelis couldn’t help but wince and grimace as Kaleka told the story about his freak accident. A week earlier, Kaleka got a hook caught in his left eye.
“He told me the whole story about what had happened which was pretty gruesome and I was like cringing as I heard it and he literally saw me feeling his pain that he went through and empathizing with him,” Michaelis says.
At that moment, that’s when Kaleka realized that Michaelis was not the man he once was.
“When you feel like somebody empathizes with you, you know it. You could be from different parts of the world, you can speak different languages. But empathy is that universal language of feeling,” says Kaleka.
“Once that happened, all of our worries and trepidations kind of melted away,” says Michaelis.
They talked for hours. A bit about the shooting, but more about their families and lives. Michaelis shared his life story — His experience growing up in America, what lead him to becoming a white supremacist and the reason why he got out.
“Then I got to share my experience of being a first generation immigrant growing up in this country, wearing different masks and assimilating,” says Kaleka.
“We found that we had way more in common than otherwise. It became very apparent to us that commonality is what society needs to focus on,” says Michaelis.
The Gift of Our Wounds: From tragedy to an unlikely friendship
Since then, Kaleka and Michaelis have worked together towards equality through their organization Serve 2 Unite which organizes arts-driven service learning and global engagement for children and young adults.
Back in April 2018, the two of them along with writer, Robin Gaby Fisher, published the book The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate which talks about their journey through adversity.
“We’re pleased with how The Gift of Our Wounds came out and thanks to our brilliant co-author, Robin Gaby Fisher, we feel the book does a good job of promoting the message of oneness and our common humanity,” says Michaelis.
Throughout their work with Serve 2 Unite, Kaleka and Michaelis emphasize the importance of commonalities and teaching empathy.
“I think throughout the past seven years of knowing Arno and running this program, we have never lost touch of teaching from an empathetic standpoint,” says Kaleka.
To this day, Kaleka and Michaelis remain very close friends and they continue to share their experiences through their community work.
Editor: Sam Nar | firstname.lastname@example.org