Speakers’ unlikely friendship forged from tragedy
An unlikely friendship that emerged from a violent tragedy symbolized a message of forgiveness and understanding delivered at Mount Royal University in March.
On Aug. 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., and shot five men and one woman to death. Page was shot by police, and then subsequently took his own life. The horrific attack shattered families and elicited worldwide outrage and grief, but from the fragments of that terrible day has come a restorative campaign of hope.
Arno Michaelis was a founder of the white supremacist group to which the shooter belonged. Pardeep Singh Kaleka is the son of victim Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple leader. Following the shooting, Kaleka and Michaelis, who had denounced his former affiliation in 1994 and had been working in peace education and to counter violent extremism since 2010, met and founded Serve2Unite, an award-winning, international peace-building and educational initiative.
The two, along with New York Times bestselling author Robin Gaby Fisher, have collaborated on a book titled The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate, published in April 2018 by St. Martin’s Press.
Michaelis and Kaleka appeared as part of Mount Royal University’s Manmeet Singh Bhullar “Sikhs in Public” Lecture Series on March 12 at the Bella Concert Hall. The pair also received the Arts Distinguished Speaker Award, which recognizes persons who through scholarship, advocacy or service are considered champions for advancing the importance of the arts and/or social sciences. The Faculty of Arts’ Speaker Series and the Office of the Provost and VP Academic funded the event.
After the shooting, Kaleka was devastated. His family had emigrated from India to the U.S. when he was young, and he was left angry and wondering what his family and the temple had done to deserve the terrible, racially motivated attack. And although Michaelis had long been disassociated from white supremacy, as a founder and former leader of the same large skinhead organization to which Page belonged he had also spent years committing heinous acts, attacking those who looked different from him with sickening regularity.
It was Kaleka who bravely reached out to Michaelis, asking simply to help him understand the provocation. Michaelis had built a minor name for himself as an author and speaker against race-related hate crime and was easy to find. They quickly became allies and friends, unified in a common goal.
Through Serve2Unite, the pair has since worked with students to create inclusive, compassionate and nonviolent climates in schools and communities. The story they will share in Calgary is one of triumph of love over hate, and of two men who breached a great divide to find forgiveness and to strive for resolution.
“We’ll talk about how certain people make it back from tragedy and other people don’t,” Kaleka said during a phone interview. A former police officer, he is now a therapist specializing in holistic, trauma-informed treatment for survivors of assault, abuse and acts of violence.
“It’s really about nurturing that part of your human spirit that is forgiving, that is compassionate, that says maybe forgiveness doesn’t look like forgetting but looks like vengeance ― not against a particular actor, but against what happened to you. You can change the narrative of your life.”
Having spoken to groups over the last number of years, Michaelis, now also a filmmaker, says audiences have been receptive, although these themes can be difficult for some.
“We humans have far more in common than otherwise, and we all have the ability to heal and to serve others, helping them heal,” he said. “Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, although the theme of ‘oneness’ can be challenging to people with extreme political or religious views.”
Response to the book, Michaelis says, has been “amazing.”
“Many people find the title alone to be an asset in their healing processes, as the idea of finding value in trauma is new to many. People who have read the book have said that they are inspired to help others and maintain faith in humanity. It’s such an honour to touch lives in these ways.”
Kaleka says the duo’s speaking events look forward rather than back, using the tragedy of Oak Creek as a way to discuss current events and what is possible in the future. These themes cut across many of the disciplines contained in MRU’s Faculty of Arts, says event organizer Michael Hawley, PhD, an associate professor of religious studies.
“It tells us about the value of what we do across the arts,” says Hawley. “It really speaks to the value of all the disciplines in this faculty.”
Academic areas that touch on the speakers’ themes include religious studies, women’s and gender studies, sociology and anthropology, policy studies, political studies, criminal justice and history.
“And they’re good storytellers,” Hawley says of Michaelis and Kaleka. “It’s not going to be academic jargon. It’s going to be engaging; it’s going to be something that’s very much a conversation about some really difficult issues.”
Interested schools and community groups are invited to learn more about Serve2Unite as it continues grow.
Source: Mount Royal University