Gun Violence Victims: Parmjit, Subegh, Satwant, Nancy, and Richard in Oak Creek
I was driving my sons to summer camp in Wisconsin on a bright Sunday morning: August 5, 2012.
Brendan, 13, was reading a book. Stephen, 8, was noodling on the iPad. I was listening to National Public Radio. The news suddenly turned ominous: a shooting rampage, a Sikh temple, worshipers dead, children terrorized, SWAT teams called.
I turned up the volume on the radio. The boys and I listened to the horrors unfold till at last the gunman was brought down.
We knew something of that horror: my 25-year-old sister Nancy, her husband Richard and their unborn baby were shot to death years ago by an intruder in their home.
As we drove North on 94 West, I saw an exit sign for the town: Oak Creek. That was a Holy Spirit moment: I knew that on the way back a week later, we could not just drive by. We had to stop to pray for the wounded and the dead; to leave a donation; and most of all, to send a message: You are not alone. We are standing with you.
So we went. At the entrance to the temple parking lot, a lone police officer in a squad car waved us in. The boys and I had scarcely gotten out of our car when bearded men in turbans nodded to us; a woman in flowing fabric, her hair neatly tucked into a bun, took both my hands and thanked us for coming.
Inside, we were surrounded with welcome. We spoke with a half-circle of Sikh men, soft-spoken and dignified. Where were we from? We were so good to come. Would we like some food? Maybe because I was so disarmed by their kindness, I found myself choking back tears as I said how sorry we were, how we shared with them the loss of innocent loved ones whose lives were snuffed out at the barrel of a gun: Parmjit, Subegh, Satwant, Nancy, Richard, their baby yet to be born.
The men's eyes widened. They seemed amazed that we had come, amazed at the outpouring of support not just from around the world, but from their backyard. They praised the police and firefighters who streamed in from neighboring towns, the bowling alley across the street that stopped its business and offered itself as a place of shelter, food and drink.
The men brought us hot milky tea, served in white Styrofoam cups, and two heaping plates of cookies, one for each of my boys. One man spoke of how his wife had been grazed by a bullet. Another told us of cleaning up the blood, the damage, but for one bullet hole left as a memorial. A third talked of the temple's plans for expansion: they are building an outdoor playground, volleyball and tennis courts, free and open to the public. "We want to bring good out of evil," he said calmly.
I was astonished: anyone else would build a high fence with a security gate, put up razor wire. These people were not closing themselves off; they were opening themselves up. Their response to the taking of their loved ones' lives was to give.
The boys and I were given head scarves and allowed to go into the worship space where a vigil was taking place. Men sat on one side, women on another; our gracious hosts showed us a place in the back where my boys and I could sit together. We held hands and bowed our heads while the sounds of the prayers washed over us.
Those prayers were in another language, but we understood them. They were prayers from the Comforter, the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us in groanings too deep for words, the one who had led us there.
Our Sikh host is right: God will bring good from evil, will overcome it with good.
The Sower has already planted some of the seeds of that victory. "We are so alike, our faiths are," Brendan observed on the way home in the car. "I want to learn more about them." Stephen said, wide-eyed: "Those people were amazing. They were so nice. How could that man think he had a right to kill them?" In the wisdom of youth, it was a rhetorical question; we both already knew the sad, true answer.