By Brendan O’Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – Hundreds of mourners gathered on Monday for a candlelight vigil at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in suburban Milwaukee to commemorate the lives of six worshippers killed there a year ago by a white supremacist during a mass shooting.
In that attack, Wade Michael Page walked into the temple in Oak Creek as worshippers prepared for Sunday services and began firing a semiautomatic handgun.
Satwant Singh Kaleka, the 65-year-old president of the congregation; Sita Singh, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Prakash Singh, 39; Paramjit Kaur, 41; and Suveg Singh, 84, died of wounds.
Next to the temple where the shooting occurred, a fire truck ladder lifted a large American flag behind a makeshift stage on a lawn, where several dignitaries and Sikh community members gave emotional speeches.
Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi said he had “grown to love” Sikh temple members “as family members because they’ve shown me compassion and kindness, even in the midst of their great sorrow.”
Mourners sat on chairs or stood while wearing white scarves on their heads and holding long, white candles throughout the two-hour vigil, which included Sikh prayer and song.
“It’s pretty sad that you have to have tragedy to bring so many people together like this, but when it does happen, it’s amazing what we can do,” said Pam Fleming, 13, who attended the vigil with her father Brian, a police officer.
Four other people were wounded in the shooting, including Brian Murphy, a police officer who was shot a dozen times. Page, 40, was shot by police in a temple parking lot before he fatally shot himself.
The rampage at the Sikh temple was one of several mass shootings that marred 2012, including one that took the lives of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Many speakers during the vigil called for politicians in Washington to address gun violence in the United States.
“We can do better and we must do better to reduce the violence in this country,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.
The vigil concluded three days of memorials and events in the Milwaukee area to mark the anniversary of the shooting.
“The Sikh community showed us the best way to respond to the tragedy was with love,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said in a statement. “It is amazing that in the midst of so much personal loss, the greatness of American character shines through.”
The U.S. Justice Department said last week it would provide more than $512,000 to the Wisconsin Department of Justice to help pay for mental health and trauma services for the victims and survivors of the shooting.
The department also said it would begin to track hate crimes specifically against Sikhs along with individuals of the Hindu, Arab, Buddhist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness and Orthodox Christian faiths.
“It’s critical to remember that each American continues to bear the responsibility for understanding that acts of violence against minority faiths do not happen in a vacuum,” said Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, in a statement before the vigil.
Sikhs, who wear turbans and have long beards, are sometimes victims of hate crimes by Americans who confuse them for Muslims.
There are 500,000 or more Sikhs in the United States. The Sikh faith is the fifth-largest in the world, with more than 30 million followers.
(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Ken Wills)
[Mourners attend a candlelight vigil on the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin August 5, 2013. REUTERS/Darren Hauck]