When you see the black Toyota Camry waiting in the next lane at a red light or parked at the gas pump, and your eyes and curiosity get caught by the Wisconsin vanity plate — I AM SIKH, it reads — that is very much as its owner intends. The smiling young man behind the wheel with the turban on his head knows what you may be wondering. He wants you to ask. He is eager to answer all your questions.
The story begins on August 5, 2012, a Sunday. Gurveer Singh, the guy who will go on to crown his sedan with that attention-getting license plate, is feeling a bit anxious but overwhelmingly joyful, the way you do when a relative you love is about to get married.
The wedding of his cousin, Lakhveer Kaur, who is more like a sister to him, will happen the following week at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, a suburb south of Milwaukee. Singh is half a world away at his university in Punjab, India, stuck there because of exams but eager to hear the stories and see the photos of his Wisconsin relatives — he counts 45 of them, in all – joining Lakhveer and her new husband, Jagmeet Chahal, at the boisterous celebration.
There is a terrible change of plans. As Singh’s family completes its nuptial preparations, a 40-year-old white supremacist walks into the Oak Creek temple, carrying a legally purchased 9-millimeter pistol. Without a word, he opens fire on a close-knit community enjoying a day of rest and peace, with children at Sunday school and women in saris preparing the weekly feast.
Kaur, shopping at the time, hears the news and immediately calls her husband-to-be, who lives close to the temple and typically spends his Sundays there, along with many other relatives. “I was thinking maybe he was in there, too,” she says. By a stroke of fortune, he is not. Her other relatives are also spared.
The gunman has little apparent understanding of the congregation he has singled out for massacre but a long-nurtured hatred of nonwhites in his heart. He kills six and wounds three more before his rampage is stopped by the intervention of a local police officer, and the gunman takes his own life. Another officer absorbs a bullet in the firefight.
For the families of the bride and groom, what was to be a week of joy plunges into overwhelming sorrow, their wedding venue now a crime scene, the sparkle of Kaur’s light pink lengha, a traditional Sikh wedding dress, set aside as the TV crews’ lights are thrown on a faith and a culture about which the majority of Americans will admit knowing nothing at all.
The temple shooting fits an awful pattern that set in after September 11 and continues to this day. White supremacists see Sikh men, with their beards and turbans, mistake them for Muslims, and shoot Sikh Americans dead.
International terror, domestic terror, it has the same aim: To strike fear, sow suspicion, to divide, to isolate.
In Oak Creek, it does not work. Temple leaders reopen their place of worship within days and invite in anyone interested (First Lady Michelle Obama was one such someone) for spirited vigils and sumptuous meals. The temple hosts services again the next Sunday, as usual.
“You carry on as normal,” Sukhdeep Gill tells a reporter the Monday after the shooting, explaining why he was right back to work at his family’s gas station in Madison. “If you change your ways, haven’t they won?”
For the bride and groom, the week that was to be spent making final touches to their special day becomes a mad scramble, amid their grief, to figure out where, or even if, a ceremony can happen. Days before guests are due to assemble, Kaur’s father decides against the temple because of the chaos and books a local hotel ballroom. Finding a priest proves difficult; some won’t do weddings outside of a temple.
“Everybody worked so hard to get the whole marriage rolling at a totally different location,” Kaur says. “It’s crazy and hectic.”
Yet come Saturday, as planned, she is there in her lengha. The groom and his family walk into the banquet hall, where the bride’s side greets them with sweets, and the priest says a prayer, as Punjabi tradition dictates. After the wedding, they go to her house for another outing, where Kaur says a ceremonial goodbye to her family, “and everybody cries,” she says with a laugh.
Five years later, the happy memories of the day still mix with the pain of what other families lost. “Every time our anniversary comes,” she will say, “I get sad at the same time, because of all those people who passed away. It’s their anniversary, too. It’s kind of connected.”
After the wedding, Singh, in India, faces a decision: stay in his native land, or join his many relatives in the United States, as planned? His reaction to the temple massacre was the reaction too familiar to Americans who, by one count, had lived through 19 high-profile mass shootings in the five years before the temple massacre, and have witnessed another 30 in the half-decade since: “I was shocked,” he says. None of the temple victims were from his immediate family, and for that he was grateful. But he had also now felt America at its worst.
After a long wait, Singh’s visa finally comes in. He makes a choice: He will go. And when he arrives in the United States in 2015, he will not try to obscure his identity. He will advertise it.
In a state used to license plate homages to Brett Favre, Bud Light and Badgers, Singh asks the people at the DMV for something different: “I AM SIKH,” his Toyota will trumpet.
“I thought people in America don’t know who we are,” he says. He would do his own part to fix that.
Singh, 24, now works as a long-distance truck driver. At home, he drives the Camry and serves as a self-designated ambassador for his people. When he sees strangers noticing the plates, he motions them over, retells the story.
Did you know that the Sikh faith is regarded as the world’s youngest major religion? “Young” being relative, of course: It was born more than 500 years ago in Punjab, India.
Sikhism was founded on principles of love, service and equality before God for men and women and rich and poor.
At the Sunday meal, it is traditional to sit on the floor, to emphasize humility.
And as a sign of respect, if you are a practicing Sikh, you cover your head. Men with a turban, women with a scarf.
Singh says the response to the license plate has been even more encouraging than he had imagined. He gets thumbs-ups from passing cars on the highway. Stops at parking lots or the gas pump become occasions for new friendships.
Seeing another stranger noticing the plates, he motions him over. He answers his questions.
Singh says that not once has anyone who has approached him given him reason to be afraid or lose hope.