Saturday, November 30, 2013

Two Hands (Up) for Compassion

Four years before the shooting in the Sikh Temple, it was my own faith that was under attack. In 2008, a man who sharpened his anger on the jagged edge of hate walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church and opened fire killing two people and injuring eight.

The Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville held 200 members and 25 children that day who were presenting a stage play for the congregation. The shooting was politically motivated. The shooter railed against liberals, democrats, African Americans and homosexuals saying they were the ruination of America.

Unitarian Universalists are free thinkers and the standing joke is that trying to organize UUs is something like herding cats. Each is on a different path to faith and understanding. The bonding factor for Unitarian Universalists is that all believe the questions are the answer and each is on a quest for truth. Call it a search for the holy grail if you will-- and it may be religious (or not) but it requires no allegiance to dogma or doctrine. All faiths and journeys to God (or not) are respected. UUs are known for a common dedication to social justice and to make the world a better place.

The Sikh Temple shooting wasn't a politically motivated act. It was pure racist rage. The man who walked into the temple in Oak Creek was a Skinhead White Supremacist. He was acting out of hatred and the fear that his race was destined to be extinguished. I attended a candlelight vigil in solidarity not at Oak Creek but at our local Sikh Temple.

I was impressed by the warmth of the membership, the solemnity was certainly present but there was a generosity of spirit and a welcoming that went far beyond simple protocol. The appreciation for the support shown by the community rallying in brotherhood was palpable. We were welcomed into the sanctuary and treated to food in order to break bread together--  an old and cherished religious custom. It was beautiful and I thought I had done my part to show solidarity and sympathize and my part was over.

Until I met Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis.

Pardeep lost his father, the Temple President, in the massacre in Oak Creek. The morning of the shooting his mother and father were already there and Par was on his way when he turned back to retrieve the notebook his daughter had accidentally left behind. Still grumbling about her irresponsibility, he encountered a police car blocking his access to the temple after watching several emergency and official vehicles whizz past him.

Par cites something that has visited every person who has suffered fear and shock in a highly charged situation:

"Sometimes you hear someone say something and you ask 'what?' not because you didn't hear them but because you can't bear what you heard. Your mind can't grasp it and you think if you ask again maybe the result will be different."

Par's mother called his cell phone from her hiding place in a closet to tell him there was gunfire in the temple and someone was shooting people. The Priest called him from his fathers cell phone to ask him to get help because his father was wounded.

By the time it was over 6 people were dead, one was left vegetative and a police officer had been shot 8 or 9 times; he miraculously survived. The shooter was wounded in the stomach by an officer and then took his own life.

Pardeep had to be strong and delay his grief for the sake of his mother and the community. When he was finally ready to confront the whole of it, he reached out to Arno Michaelis on a recommendation by AVE- (Against Violent Extremism.) Michaelis was an author ("My Life After Hate") and a former Skinhead and metal musician whose music was filled with hate and used to entice new recruits to white supremacy.

Michaelis, with his tattoos, 6 plus foot frame and raspy booming voice could be scary and intimidating on first meeting. Or second. Or seventeenth. As lead singer for Centurion, he belted out many screaming lyrics and his voice betrays the abuse to his vocal chords.

He is a towering figure. His story is compelling. He explains how racism is a prison of sorts and how life becomes more and more narrow until all that is left is the paranoia. The rhetoric is that it is everyone else's fault and the white race must be saved from the mongrel mixed races at all costs. Life must be preserved for the white children, for the future. What Arno describes is a cult-like programming, an indoctrination and a fraternity that might appeal to an angry and disenfranchised youth-- precisely whom makes the perfect recruit.

Under any other circumstances these two on the same stage might be an visual oxymoron. They met, spent hours talking together and over time developed a trust and kind of brotherhood. The two have a genuine affection for each other. And their union inspired an epiphany-- they would make something beautiful from tragedy. They would partner in bringing their story to kids. They would infuse art and inspiration into the sterile desert that has become schools. They would take their message to educators-- that children need more than physical security and safety in schools; they need social wellness.

Social wellness is more than zero tolerance for bullying; it is a hands on nurturing of respect, recognition and celebration of the individual. Serve 2 Unite, the brainchild of this most unlikely coupling of reformed violence and violent reformer with souls reclaimed is a program being piloted in several of Milwaukee's public schools. Serve 2 Unite speaks of diversity, challenge, and compassion-- a radical kind of compassion takes responsibility and embraces everyone while accepting the obligation to create change for a better world.

If you want to read more and know the whole fascinating story as it unfolded, go to the Charter for Compassion where it is featured as a part of the chartered movement toward global compassion.

 And while you're there, sign up as a compassion advocate, a compassionate school, compassionate organization, compassionate city or country.

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A few Thoughts...

When I think about it, my own life is no less rich and the living no less inspiring than my pioneering ancestors and I come from a long line of Indians and outlaws so don't ever turn your back on me!

Life is, after all, a slice of human consciousness lived from its place in human evolution. "From here to eternity" as it were-- from earth to the stars, from personal space to cyberspace, from a small local footprint to the world reduced to the size of a notebook and sitting on your lap!

As a child I lived with the perpetual and immenent threat of annihilation. That's child abuse! It wasn't a kid-friendly world and I couldn't understand why the grown-ups who were in charge weren't doing something?

So at age seven with my face in the window eyes turned up into the night sky and staring at the stars I made a vow: "When I am a grown-up, I will do something."

My writing is that something and I write to "simply change the world." If that sounds like a lack of humility it isn't because I know that one person absolutely can change the world and I've met some who have.

Kay Kennedy put together an anthology that puts the reader in the midst of history to view it from the inside out.

When I was in high school and even college, history classes were stale and boring featuring memorization and regurgitation of dates that coincided with events that had no human face, certainly no magic, and no life!

Anthologies are great fun and stores are rich remembrances. History books chronicle; stories are little narrative slices of living. History comes alive through story. I often think of my grandmother and her story, her life-- the history she lived. In her lifetime she saw humankind evolve from horse and buggy to man on the moon.

I was a sixties kid and for the youth of the sixties, turmoil, disillusionment, and revolution were everyday 'business as usual'. Like a radio perpetually on low volume, fear and death dronned on in the background. The superpowers threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, the Vietnam War was escalating and peers were being escorted home under American Flag blankets. The civil rights and equal rights movements were testing human civility, and faster than one could recover from one shock another real life hero would fall to yet another assassin. Despair was commonplace. Contrast that with a man on the moon... we could conquer space travel but couldn't make nukes or war obsolete! It was a time when youth needed hope because hope was scarce. When it was finally resurrected, it came in the form of idealism and a philosophy of brotherly and universal love. Perfect principles; imperfect execution.

For others who contributed to "Looking Back," the history is different for each because the "times" were different as well as the perspective of the individuals. The stories of human societal evolution are enlightening, heartwarming, poignant and spellbinding. They put a human face on the past.

And there are people now who are putting a face on the future...