The Gift of Forgiveness: Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis

BY NAN BIALEK | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

 Arno Michaelis

They are brothers, even though they were raised in distinctly different cultures. Even though they once followed opposing paths. Even though their DNA says otherwise. 

Pardeep Singh Kaleka, whose father was murdered during the Oak Creek Sikh Temple shooting on Aug. 5, 2012, and Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist skinhead, now insist they are brothers because of their intention to heal through love.

Kaleka and Michaelis recently received the 2019 Robert H. Friebert Social Justice Award from the Milwaukee Jewish Federation in recognition of “their individual and collaborative work to counter hate, provide a model for friendship and the power to change one’s life.”

Their kinship was almost lost to fear. 

In the book they wrote together, “The Gift of Our Wounds” (St. Martin’s Press), Kaleka says he was hesitant to meet Michaelis at an East Side restaurant just two months after the shooting. Seven people, including the shooter, died in that tragedy, and now Kaleka had arranged to meet a man who was once a cheerleader for white power. Michaelis had his doubts too. Although he had disavowed white supremacy some time before, he wasn’t sure Kaleka would trust him. Michaelis wondered if he may have influenced the Sikh Temple shooter when he was preaching at racist rallies and writing and performing white power songs. The thought haunted him

Kaleka, a former Milwaukee police officer and educator, admits he would have preferred the shelter of family and friends as he worked his way through the aftermath of the shooting. Despite feeling uneasy, he chose to go ahead and meet Michaelis.

“When I reached out to Arno, it was obviously as a way to try to understand what happened by speaking to somebody who was close to that lifestyle,” Kaleka explains. “I need to understand the ‘why’ from a really genuine source. There was also a personal reason that I reached out to Arno — because I felt sort of bitter and embattled at that time. It’s just a hard time to navigate and you need friends and allies. And sometimes our friends and allies will actually challenge us to get to a deeper, spiritual level of healing.”

The men talked over cups of tea, and Michaelis and Kaleka found common ground. Kaleka says they “had a lot of the same anxiety, fears, wishes, hopes and dreams.” Both were fathers, and Michaelis revealed that he had turned his life away from violence and hate because he wanted to be a good man for his daughter’s sake. After talking for hours, Kaleka finally asked the question that had been nagging him: Did Michaelis know the man who had killed his father?

Michaelis had never met the man, but, based on what he had learned from newscasts, felt that he “knew him intimately.” The shooter had been affiliated with one of the skinhead groups Michaelis had cofounded, though Michaelis left the group long before the shooter joined. Still, Michaelis says in the book, because he helped create the environment that led the shooter to unspeakable violence, he has “a regret that will follow me to my grave.”

Pardeep Singh Kaleka

Kaleka turned to his religion to try to find peace, and talked to Michaelis about what he calls “the will.”

“It could be God’s will, personal will, but it’s really the divine will of the universe and how we cannot turn back time,” Kaleka explains. “If [Arno] doesn’t understand this shooting and the suffering to be part of the divine will, he will be dysfunctional because of it. I said, ‘You have my blessing to speak about those things whenever you can. In fact, it’s your responsibility. Arno raised his hands up and said, ‘I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to righting the wrongs.’”

Michaelis often reminds himself that if he dwells upon  the past, “it cripples my ability to be a good person in the present. That doesn’t mean that the harm I’ve done is OK. It means I’m doing the best I can to atone for it and making myself available to serve others and assist in their healing processes. Pardeep has been one of my greatest teachers.”

Both men are trying to help heal the wounds left by racism and lack of empathy. Today, Michaelis travels the world, working toward a society “where everyone is valued and included. That’s the world I want for my daughter and everyone’s children. And by ‘everyone,’ I especially mean those who I vehemently disagree with. Compassion is the root of value and inclusion, and it is inherently unconditional. It’s not just for people we’re sympathetic to.”

Recently named executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Kaleka continues to move forward from that awful August day. “I’m not angry at all,” he says. “I’m so at peace, I don’t think anybody could be more at peace.”

He holds on to the words that Sikhs say every time they leave the temple: “For the peace and prosperity of all mankind, we shall be relentlessly optimistic.” MKE

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