After Pardeep Singh Kaleka’s dad, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was murdered along with six others in the 2012 Sikh-temple massacre in Oak Creek — attacker Wade Michael Page identified as a white supremacist — the grief consumed him. Overnight, the former police officer and teacher became a media spokesperson for his community.
Most of the people in the temple “couldn’t voice themselves,” says Kaleka. “We felt like we were targeted. Many people shot and killed were first-generation immigrants.” Kaleka’s father, too, was an immigrant. He was also a temple leader.
Two months later, after reporters’ questions lessened, Kaleka began to ask his own questions. In his struggle to understand why someone would commit a hate crime, Kaleka reached out to Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead and founder of Life After Hate, designed to educate people about threats concerning violent extremism and racism. “That was to get a deeper understanding of who the shooter was,” explains Kaleka.
Kaleka met Arno Michaelis for dinner in October of 2012. They walked out of that dinner changed.
“I was very nervous to meet Pardeep,” recalls Michaelis. “That was the first time I’d met with someone who had lost a loved one. His mom was crying herself to sleep after losing her husband of 35 years.”
Two years earlier Michaelis had gone public with his story about how, as a 16-year-old in Mequon, he got swept up in the white-power movement, a decision he now deeply regrets. That was in 1987. He stayed with the movement for seven years, rising to popularity as lead singer in the hate-metal band Centurion and founding the world’s largest racist-skinhead organization (which Kaleka learned during their first meal together included Wade in its membership).
“Outside of all that, I was this alcoholic high-school drop-out who worked a minimum-wage factory job,” says Michaelis. “I got into it because I was suffering. There was dysfunction in my childhood home.” He now realizes he had it better than most of the world. As for his parents, “They were both mortified by my choice of direction but they still loved me,” he says.
What caused him to finally leave the movement? “The simple answer was really just exhaustion. It’s literally cutting yourself off from the rest of the world,” he says. Michaelis, who calls himself a “film and music geek,” was forbidden by the movement to view or listen to mainstream movies and music. Another source of agony: “From day one, I knew what I was doing was wrong,” he says.
In 1994 he became a single parent to his 18-month-old daughter. Then a friend was killed in the street after one of his concerts. It was time to leave.
When a friend of Kaleka’s with connections to literary agents encouraged him to write a book. Michaelis proved to be the perfect co-author. Their book, The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate, published this month by St. Martin’s Press, documents their not-so-parallel lives and the beautiful way they finally came together in founding Serve2Unite, an organization united around cultivating courage, wisdom, love and human kinship.
Today Kaleka, a father of four, uses his difficult journey through grief to inspire trauma survivors in a new career as a therapist. After the shooting, “I was actually going through the symptoms of PTSD. I was having flashbacks and hypervigilant about my surroundings,” he says. Entering into mental health empowered him to understand these underlying issues.
“Pardeep has enhanced my life so much. I could write a book alone about that,” says Michaelis. “Like many guys…I’ve never seen a therapist but Pardeep, being a therapist, is like my therapist.”
Kaleka and Michaelis have visited Milwaukee schools — including Westside Academy II and Fernwood Montessori in Bay View — to facilitate honest chats about hate and forgiveness. “We, as human beings, have far more in common than differences,” says Michaelis. “The older the students are, the more we let them drive. They let us know what they want to work on.”
These visits have expanded his view of Milwaukee, both literally and figuratively. “Growing up in Mequon, I had no clue what was happening four miles away on Hampton. Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the United States. That segregation causes crushing poverty and hopelessness in the inner city,” he says.
They’ve expanded their chats to municipalities struggling with how to navigate demographic change. Recently they visited a small Massachusetts town with a growing Hindu population. Another outreach via Serve2Unite is with law-enforcement officials to help identify people at risk of causing national disasters. In Newtown, Conn., the site of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 that took the lives of 29 children, they witnessed a community in need of healing. “It’s a real small, quaint town,” explains Kaleka. “I’d be in the gas station talking to someone and there was definitely this loss hanging in the air and that something had not [been] resolved. There was the air of ‘We’re not accepting that this has happened. It’s just this deep wound that we’re going to ignore.’ To heal, you have to honor and accept it.”
In their visits, they talk often about the definition of masculinity. “Society tells us men need to be a certain way or they’re not worth enough. We also need to have some conversations around ‘what does manhood look like?’” says Kaleka. “We have a very toxic culture of what it means to be a man.”