OAK CREEK, Wis. — Mandeep Singh Khattra and his family received Michelle Obama with an embrace Thursday as the first lady consoled relatives of worshippers gunned down earlier this month at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee.
"She gave us a hug and said, `I'm sorry for what happened,'" said Khattra, 26, whose grandfather, Suveg Singh Khattra, was one of six people killed Aug. 5. "She asked what kind of person he was, and my dad told her he was always good-natured, always at the temple."
Obama spent nearly 90 minutes visiting with the Khattras and other families of Sikh worshippers who were killed or injured in the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. She expressed her sympathies, offered support and listened to many stories about victims.
Relatives of the victims said afterward that Obama asked informed questions that showed she had read up on the plight of those killed and injured.
She especially seemed to know the story of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple president who tried to stab the gunman with a butter knife in an effort to stall him so women and children in the temple would have time to hide.
"The thing she kept repeating was, `Your father was a true hero,'" said Amardeep Kaleka.
The visits with worshippers were private, and she took no questions during a public appearance with the Oak Creek mayor and a temple official at a nearby high school. She offered sympathies to them in hushed tones, then went into a classroom for private visits with each of the families.
Six Sikhs were killed and three others injured when a gunman with ties to a white supremacist group strode opened fire at the temple. The gunman also shot Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy nine times at close range before killing himself.
Murphy was released from the hospital Wednesday. As a sign of their deep gratitude, temple members gave his family a $10,000 check along with a large banner signed by well-wishers, said Inderjeet Singh Dhillon, a temple official.
A second shooting victim, Punjab Singh, remains hospitalized in critical condition. A third, Santokh Singh, was released last week and the fourth was treated for minor injuries on the day of the shooting.
As the Sikh community here continues to mourn the dead, the members have taken solace in one fact: The killing has drawn attention to their religion and given them a chance to share. Obama's visit offered one more opportunity for them to preach unity and compassion.
"There's a prayer we say twice a day, asking God to please give peace to everybody and give progress to every person in this birth," Dhillon said. "We don't mention a person's name or color or religion. We just say one word for every human on Earth."
There are an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Sikhs living in America. However, it's not uncommon for Sikhs to keep to themselves, leaving non-Sikhs to wonder from afar about Sikh customs – for example, why the men might have long beards and wear turbans.
Sikh leaders in the U.S. have tried to change that. They have encouraged people of all faiths to visit their temples and sit with them on the floor to partake of free meals. One of those leaders was Kaleka, the temple president.
Kaleka's son, Amardeep Kaleka, said the gunman may have sought to divide the community, but instead his evil actions brought people together. Sikhs and non-Sikhs grieved together at candlelight vigils, Kaleka noted, and dignitaries from Mrs. Obama to Attorney General Eric Holder made time to come and pay their respects.
"It has definitely helped in the mourning process," he said. "It's comforting to know that after what happened, with Mrs. Obama coming here, people throughout America are getting a chance to understand what Sikhism is all about."
Sikh Temple of Wisconsin: http://www.sikhtempleofwisconsin.com
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.