MIDDLETON, Wis. - Sikhs in the Madison area are offering prayers and turning to lessons of tolerance and peace to deal with the massacre Sunday at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee.
Federal authorities are calling the shooting in Oak Creek that left seven people dead, included the gunman, an act of domestic terrorism against the Sikhs.
Local Sikhs said many in their congregation know and interact with the Sikhs in Oak Creek.
In this time of tragedy, rather than turning to differences, local Sikhs and those hoping to support them are coming together.
"It embodies our faith and our culture and who we are," said Bimal Pangly, a member of the Sikh Society of Wisconsin-Madison.
Pangly called her place of worship her second home.
"To be a Sikh is to basically live a peaceful lifestyle," said Pangly. "That's what it means to me."
The Sikh Temple in Middleton is where peace and tolerance serve as pillars of faith, which is why Sikhs said the fatal shootings at Oak Creek's Sikh temple are a struggle to comprehend.
"We believe in principals of peace, charity and tolerance of others," Pangly said. "It's hard for a peaceful community to understand what just happened. How do you begin to comprehend that level of hate and ignorance?"
Sikhs in the United States have always struggled with how little Americans knew about the faith.
Sikhs began arriving in California and the Pacific Northwest as farmers and lumber mill workers in the late 19th century. In 1907, a mob in Bellingham, Wash., ran them out of town.
They came to the U.S. in larger numbers in the 1960s when the government eased immigration quotas. Analysts estimate the number of Sikhs in the United States is no more than 500,000.
Sikhs said they are so misunderstood in the United States that they've become targets of hate crimes for events ranging from the Iranian hostage crisis to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Those misunderstandings of what Sikhism is about has generated a certain amount of prejudice or animosity towards them that's unwarranted," said Don Davis, a professor of language and culture in Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Davis said the monotheistic religion founded in India is often incorrectly perceived as a hybrid of Islam and Hinduism.
"It's better to think of Sikhism as growing up in an environment where there were many Muslims and Hindus, but forging a new path, forging an innovative path," said Davis.
Grieving from Sunday's shootings, Valerie Wyer said she came to the Middleton temple to learn more about a group she knew nothing about.
"We are so afraid of everything that we keep ourselves separate," said Wyer. "And fear is what's running the world. And I think until we can come into empathy and love, we're not going to break down those barriers."
Sikhs such as Pangly said they now hope to find strength by healing together.
"It's a common saying in one of our prayers. We say 'Sarbat da bhala,'" said Pangly. "And that means, 'We ask for the well being of everybody.'"
Those at the Sikh temple said their Sunday services are welcome to all who wish to learn more. They said if more people knew about what they stood for, perhaps tragedies like the one in Oak Creek could have been prevented.
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