Pardeep Singh Kaleka lost his father in 2012 during a mass shooting when a white supremacist entered the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., killing six worshippers. Nearly 10 years later, Kaleka stood before the Class of 2021 as the Commencement keynote speaker with a message about courage as graduates prepared to take on the next transition in their lives. With that courage, he said, will come growth in learning how to forgive.
Kaleka arrived in the United States in 1982 at age 6 from Punjab, India with his parents and his brother. Together they built a life in Milwaukee that involved a foundation of service to the community. He grew up to become a police officer in one of the city’s most impoverished and challenged neighborhoods. Later, Kaleka would find his calling inside the classroom as a social studies teacher, helping children from that same neighborhood to strive for success through education. He said in an interview with the Office of Alumni Engagement that he has led a life of service that “comes from a deep sense of listening to our spiritual call."
"We’re all called to help one another and feel each other’s pains and joys, and if there is pain, then doing something about it,” he said.
His own family’s unimaginable pain came on August 5, 2012. On that morning, he was on his way to the Sikh temple in Oak Creek with his children. Inside the temple, Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people, including Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, who was the temple’s president. Four others were wounded. Page took his own life after being shot in the hip by a responding police officer.
Pardeep might have been there, too, had it not been for his daughter, who forgot her notebook for Sunday school at home. Ten minutes into their drive on the way to the temple, she asked her dad to return home so she could retrieve the book. He did.
“Prioritizing my child is what saved us that day. We were 10 minutes too late for a shooting that had already started,” he shared when he spoke to the audience of undergraduates at Carroll on May 8.
He stood at the podium in front of Main Hall, looking at the rows of students in caps and gowns before him, just after Carroll recognized him and his life’s work with an honorary doctorate. This was his first time speaking to a college audience and he did not come with a speech written and read. Instead, before him was list of six simple points that he hit as he shared his journey and spoke from his heart.
One of those points was, “Prioritize what you love. Prioritize our children,” he said. “As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, I put on a brave face for the world and I told the world we weren't struggling. We were fine." He noted that there is a saying in Sikhism, Charhdi Kala, which means “we move in relentless optimism.”
Any aim for optimism after such a loss, though, still leaves trauma, and that is exactly where he found himself, he said.
“I was struggling, and it was difficult. Three months after the shooting happened, things got real. The cameras left. The adrenaline wore off and I found myself very much in this place of trauma,” he said.
To deal with his own trauma and to try to gain an understanding of what had happened, he reached out to “the most unlikeliest of people,” a man named Arno Michaelis. Michaelis had started the white supremacist organization that the shooter, Page, had belonged to, Kaleka said.
Although friends and family told Kaleka the meeting was not necessary with Michaelis, that Kaleka was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he met with Michaelis anyway. They had dinner. They talked. They formed a friendship. And then they formed an organization, Serve2Unite. Together, they also co-authored a book, The Gift of Our Wounds, A Sikh and Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate.
“There was something pushing me inside,” he told Carroll students. “Somehow, some way I describe sadness not as something bad that happens to you and happiness is not something good. It’s a state of being. And it’s the clues that show up subtly in your life that point you to where you need to be and saying, ‘Yes’ to those.”
He said one of the biggest lessons he learned from his dad is “you have the responsibility to be there for people.” Since losing his father and others in the 2012 shooting, Kaleka has worked to build bridges in the community. He serves as executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and a trauma clinician specializing in treatment with survivors of assault, abuse and acts of violence.
He said forgiveness is a lifelong journey and one in which we try to get to a place of freedom, to try to get to a place “where we can genuinely appreciate one another and separate the person from the actions they did.” He noted that is not to condone harmful actions of an individual but to strive for a place of forgiveness that will help better identify and address the root causes of problems in communities.
He told students, “It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen over a month. It’s nine years later and I’m still struggling with what forgiveness looks like. It’s not something I can prescribe. Each of you is unique, special, understanding of your own circumstances. I would say give forgiveness a chance.”
Kaleka encouraged students that as they are looking out through the windows of the world to always remember to also look in the mirror.
“Come back to the original parts and fight for what you want rather than define yourself by what you're against,” he said.