In a recent series of articles I queried, “Are you ready to deal with the unexpected?” The people of Oak Creek, Wisconsin were—even if they didn’t realize it beforehand.
On August 5, 2012, a 40-year-old avowed white supremacist opened fire in the Sikh temple, taking the lives of six people, physically wounding four, and emotionally affecting the entire Sikh community as well as the other residents of Oak Creek.
Included amongst the wounded was Police Lieutenant Brian Murphy, who sustained 15 gunshots while attempting to subdue the attacker, who later committed suicide rather than be arrested. Just like the Sikh community, Lieutenant Murphy’s life was changed forever, and just like them, he chose to let those changes make him a better, more positive person than before the tragedy.
The chaos that ensued initially quickly morphed into organized efforts to help the wounded, console the loved ones of those whose lives were taken, and unify the community. Those efforts brought the Sikhs and the rest of the people of their town together, to learn about each other, to share knowledge and culture, and ultimately to develop strong bonds of friendship. Whereas previously people passed the Sikh temple, and saw only people wearing turbans and dressing differently, they now took the time to meet them, learn about their religion, and accept them rather than merely tolerate them. As one police officer said about the shooter, “He was looking for division; it didn’t work that way; I think it brought people closer.”
Interviews with people who turned out in support of the Sikh community brought responses like, “I didn’t know anyone personally at the temple here, but it still hits close to home,” and that this was “an assault on all of us, an assault on anybody who’s a Milwaukeean, a Wisconsinite, a human being.” Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi insisted, “We can’t allow hate to dominate the conversation.”
Those observations reminded me of these encouraging words from the Baha’i teachings:
Now is the time for the lovers of God to raise high the banners of unity, to intone, in the assemblages of the world, the verses of friendship and love and to demonstrate to all that the grace of God is one. Thus will the tabernacles of holiness be upraised on the summits of the earth, gathering all peoples into the protective shadow of the Word of Oneness. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 20.
One young man whose father died wanted to go after the neo-Nazis, but his brother reminded him that revenge was inconsistent with the teachings of his faith, and counseled, “If you retaliate you’re no better than them.” That young man’s wise counsel to his brother resonates with the Baha’i Teachings:
Beware lest ye harm any soul, or make any heart to sorrow; lest ye wound any man with your words, be he known to you or a stranger, be he friend or foe. Pray ye for all; ask ye that all be blessed, all be forgiven. Beware, beware, lest any of you seek vengeance, even against one who is thirsting for your blood. Beware, beware, lest ye offend the feelings of another, even though he be an evil-doer, and he wish you ill. Look ye not upon the creatures, turn ye to their Creator. See ye not the never-yielding people, see but the Lord of Hosts. Gaze ye not down upon the dust, gaze upward at the shining sun, which hath caused every patch of darksome earth to glow with light. – Ibid., p. 73.
Rather than dwelling on hate and revenge, the Sikh community chose to move forward—much as the Baha’i community has always done when faced with great hatred and persecution. The Sikhs raised funds to help Lt. Murphy. They invited the people of Oak Creek to come and pray with them, to break bread with them. Local churches, the local synagogue, and the Native American community lent support.
At one of the gatherings, a police officer remarked, “I have seen a lot of hate, a lot of revenge, and I’ve seen a lot of anger, but what I saw from the Sikh community particularly this week was compassion, concern and support.”
Trust in God, forgiveness, compassion, and loving-kindness all helped get the people of Oak Creek through this crisis. A former white supremacist attended one of the commemorative meetings. He told them that people always ask, “How did you change? I was very fortunate,” he told them, “that kindness was given to me by complete strangers who I was outright hostile to. And while all these acts of kindness didn’t change me on the spot, they planted seeds that grew in my heart, that left less and less room for that hate and violence.”
That reminded me of a story about Abdu’l-Baha that occasioned a similar change of heart:
In Akka there lived a man who so hated Abdu’l-Baha that he would turn his back when he met him, fearing lest he lose his hatred. One day they met in such a narrow street that the enemy was forced to meet Abdu’l-Baha face to face. Abdu’l-Baha tapped the man upon the shoulder and said, “Wait a few moments, until I speak. However great may be your hatred for me it can never be as strong as is my love for you.” The man was startled, awakened, and made to feel the unconquerable power of love. – Star of the West, Volume 8, p. 69.
Lt. Murphy gave tribute to the six people who lost their voice permanently when shots took their lives, and spoke of his own voice, diminished due to the shot that went through his larynx. But he thanked the Sikh community and said that voice “has been replaced by everyone here … the voice of going forward and moving ahead.”
Do you come across people of different races and cultures? Do you pass them without acknowledging their presence or do you nod, smile, say hello?
If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 29-30.
The Baha’i Teachings urge everyone to be proactive—to seek out others, get to know them, and befriend them. Don’t wait to do so only after a similar tragedy that might occur in your own community. Who knows, it might even help prevent one from ever taking place. When Abdu’l-Baha visited the West, he advised:
… be kind to those who come from the Eastern world to sojourn among you. Forget your conventionality when you speak with them; they are not accustomed to it. To Eastern peoples this demeanour seems cold, unfriendly. Rather let your manner be sympathetic. Let it be seen that you are filled with universal love. When you meet a … stranger, speak to him as to a friend; if he seems to be lonely try to help him, give him of your willing service; if he be sad console him, if poor succour him, if oppressed rescue him, if in misery comfort him. In so doing you will manifest that not in words only, but in deed and in truth, you think of all men as your brothers.
What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless. – Ibid, p. 20.