By Harry Sutton ’20
On March 22, 2019, Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka visited The Gunnery to share their stories of morally examining their behavior and learning forgiveness in the wake of a Sikh temple shooting. Michaelis was part of the same white supremacist group as the gunman, and Kaleka’s father was killed in the shooting, but through the horrific event, they actually became friends.
Kaleka’s life was turned upside down on August 5, 2012, when a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page made an armed attack on the Sikh temple Kaleka was part of in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Page fatally shot six people, wounded four others, and took his own life after being pursued by police. Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Suveg Singh and Satwant Singh Kaleka were killed in the shooting. This temple was where many members the Sikh community of Oak Creek spent their lives, and its members considered it a sanctuary.
While the family members and loved ones of the victims were mourning the tragedy and contemplating how to restore their targeted community, a man who was affiliated with the shooter was contemplating his entire life.
Michaelis was born and raised in the most segregated city in America: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He grew up in an alcoholic and abusive environment, and acted on his home life frustrations with violence elsewhere. He said that he started out as a school bus bully, and continued his life of anger and hate to a point of horrible violence. He combined this constant anger at the world with a mindset that sent him down a loathsome path.
Michaelis told himself a mind-plaguing story: “I’m white, so I’m superior.” At the age of just 17, Michaelis joined a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. Michaelis spent six years in the hate group, and described his ordinary day as getting ridiculously drunk with his friends and going to a neighborhood and attacking people unprovoked.
Michaelis said that near the end of his time in the group he started to reflect upon his actions and realized that he couldn’t continue that way. He was hailed as a “VIP skinhead war-god” and “a reverend in a racial holy war,” and he knew that he needed to leave this life behind to save his daughter and to save himself. Michaelis had seen his best friends killed and imprisoned, and his 18-month-old daughter was starting to take note of his sickening actions. He knew that leaving would convert him from an “Aryan Superman” to a jobless single parent with a shameful past, but he also knew that perpetuating his lifestyle would be wrong.
After much reflection and desperate attempts to make up for his actions, Michaelis reached out to Kaleka, the son of the founder of the Sikh temple Page had attacked, who was also killed in the shooting. Michaelis tried to make reparations for his doings and developed a camaraderie with Kaleka.
Over time, the two became friends, wrote a book called The Gift of Our Wounds, founded an organization called Serve2Unite and are now visiting as many places as they can as they try to spread their message of forgiveness and progress.
Kaleka explained how the tragedy hurt his family and community, but explained that progress cannot be made if people cannot forgive those who try to right their wrongs. Michaelis talked about how he fell into a spiral of hate, violence and alcohol by telling himself that he was a superior person, but emphasized the importance of people having the ability to examine themselves and realize that what they are doing could be wrong.
Michaelis and Kaleka taught us that people can hurt and torment others, but it is possible to return from the darkest and worst depths of existence as better people. Michaelis represents what it’s like to realize that what you’re doing is wrong and change yourself based on that realization. Since the shooting, Michaelis has reassessed himself and devoted his life to making sure that future generations understand the importance of doing what’s morally right.
As Ms. Schomers always says, whether you are leaving a hate group or just being aware of your surroundings, it is vital to know how to “get meta.”