Three years ago, before the gunfire erupted at a Sunday morning service, members of the close-knit Sikh community in suburban Milwaukee seldom locked the temple doors.
Those who arrive this evening to pray for the victims in Charleston, S.C., will have to ring a buzzer for a full-time security guard to let them inside. This is life for the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin after a gunman killed five men and one woman in 2012, the last major bloodshed at a place of worship in the United States before the deadly church shooting in Charleston.
“It used to be in the Sikh religion, all doors stayed open,” Balhair S. Dulai, vice president of the temple. “But what happened here, and what happened in South Carolina — these things could happen anywhere. No one is immune.”
The temple’s Thursday gathering will focus on Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic African American church, where authorities say Dylann Storm Roof, 21, fatally shot nine people during a Wednesday night service, an apparent hate crime.
News of the tragedy rocked this Sikh community, many of whom recall the day Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, stormed the temple as priests were preparing a lunch and sprayed automatic gunfire.
Worshippers scattered in the chaos that August morning, rushing outside and locking themselves in bathrooms. The attack killed six and wounded three. After an Oak Creek police officer shot Page in the stomach, the army veteran shot himself in the head, taking his own life.
“It all comes back in a flash,” Dulai said. “We will pray for all the victims, for all the families. We will pray for the whole world wide.”
After the shooting, temple leaders met with Wisconsin leaders and a terrorism task force to design a new security system for the 17,000-square-foot building. The $75,000 protections resemble those at a military base. Twenty-four cameras monitor the sprawling grounds, broadcasting footage to the local police department.
Contractors have reinforced windows to withstand bullets. New safe rooms have the capacity to hide the temple’s roughly 500 worshipers, Dulai said. Only a couple suspicious characters have since brought the police to the premises. They most likely came to snoop around the site of a news event that drew the world’s attention, he said, and ultimately proved harmless.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world with approximately 30 million followers worldwide. An estimated 314,000 Sikhs live in the United States, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. The Oak Creek temple, one of two prominent congregations in greater Milwaukee, opened its doors in 1997. Membership has grown since tragedy struck.
Worshipers enter the light brown brick building without fear, Dulai said. Those who lost family members and friends in the 2012 rampage come to pray each week. “They never stopped,” he said. “That only makes us stronger.”
He hopes those who lost loved ones in Charleston will also find comfort in their faith.