Helping faith leaders “circumvent the rise of hate”

The new Interfaith Conference executive director knows this subject well

Pardeep Kaleka, left, and former white power leader Arno Michaelis shake hands during a Serve2Unite presentation at Oak Creek High School. Photo courtesy of Pardeep Kaleka.

For Pardeep Kaleka, the first weekend in August was already going to be a mix of joy and sorrow. Then, at opposite ends of the country, mass shootings left 29 people dead. 

For the trauma therapist and peacemaking teacher — and now, the new executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee — the back-to-back attacks in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, underscored the importance of his work in each of those roles. Especially the newest role. 

As the first executive director of the Interfaith Conference to come from the Sikh religion, Kaleka brings not only backgrounds in counseling and in social action to the role, but a personal history: his father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was one of six people killed in a mass shooting at the temple on Aug 5, 2012, by a white supremacist who then turned the gun on himself. Pardeep Kaleka only escaped by chance, when he went home to get a notebook his daughter had forgotten.

Sunday night, on the eve of the seventh anniversary of that attack, Kaleka was balancing feelings of despair and determination.  On Saturday, he turned 43. That morning he took part in a celebration of diversity at the Oak Creek Farmers Market. Saturday afternoon and evening, and again on Sunday, he attended productions at the Broadway Theater Center of “Rag Head” — a one-woman show centering on religious and ethnic identity and conflict — and took part in post-show talkbacks.

At the Saturday talkbacks, he felt energetic, excited. Sunday, in contrast, was “somber,” he said. 

When he learned of the El Paso and Dayton attacks, “a feeling of disgust” welled up in him. “You feel like what you do is all for naught,” he  said. “But I know we’ve got to keep strong. Still, I feel like we’re not doing enough.”

Kaleka has dedicated himself to dealing with the root causes of violence. He takes a complex view of the multiple ways in which trauma distorts people’s lives, saying, “Multi-symptom problems need multi-symptom solutions.”  And has spent the last seven years working to build understanding

Born in the Punjab region of India, he immigrated with his family to the United States when he was six and grew up in Milwaukee. He graduated from Marquette University, and since then his professional career has taken him from police officer to teacher to counselor and therapist specializing in trauma recovery. 

An extraordinary partnership 

After the 2012 massacre at the temple, Kaleka  became an activist for peacemaking. He did so in an extraordinary partnership and friendship with Arno Michaelis, a one-time white power leader who more than 20 years ago turned away from that world and set about making amends, embracing multiculturalism, nonviolence, and reconciliation. 

The two formed Serve2Unite, which presents programs in schools that combine social justice and a positive sense of personal identity to help inoculate young people against violent extremism. Last year they published a joint memoir, The Gift of Our Wounds

Kaleka and Michaelis have met with civic leaders in communities that were the scenes of mass violence driven by extremism. In addition to countering hate groups and working for reconciliation and peacemaking, they have also begun to apply their work “in counterterrorism dialogue,” Kaleka said — “saying, how do we understand not only global terrorism, but national terrorism and the threat of domestic terrorism.”

The El Paso massacre in particular, like the Sikh temple attack, appears to have been the work of a white supremacist. “The two biggest ills facing us right now are habituation to misery and identity-motivated reasoning,” Kaleka said Sunday evening. “If somebody is paranoid, and that paranoia is being manipulated and fed, and we give someone the ability to cause a lot of damage with firearms and weapons, we can’t be surprised when someone does that.”

Kaleka takes his new post as the Interfaith Conference continues a transformation that has been underway for several years. The organization, founded in 1970 by Christian and Jewish communities working together for civil rights, has expanded its mission and its membership. Today its focus includes promoting interfaith dialogue and support. Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and other faith groups have joined the original Christian and Jewish founders in the conference, which formally represents 20 religious traditions and includes participants from other faith groups as well. 

Pardeep Kaleka, left, and his predecessor as executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Tom Heinen. Photo courtesy of Pardeep Kaleka.

“We have grown and the world has changed,” said Tom Heinen, executive director for the last decade, whose recent retirement led to Kaleka’s appointment. “The community is much more diverse than it has been. There are growing concerns about immigrants and refugees, and there is increased polarization on a host of issues.” 

The 2008 book The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, describes how “people have increasingly, consciously and unconsciously, chosen to live among people who are similar to them,” Heinen said. “We’re increasingly isolated and siloed, and that is certainly evident in the Milwaukee area just from a segregation standpoint. 

“When you don’t have contact with people, it’s easier to fall prey to misinformation. It’s easier to demonize people. It’s important to ensure that no one faith is demonized and to ensure that groups of people who are different, for whatever reason, are not feared and discriminated against.”

Bringing people together

That’s where Kaleka’s background and experience made him “uniquely suited” to lead the conference now, Heinen said. “He comes as an immigrant himself. He has suffered greatly, and his family has, at the hands of violence. And he has personal experience with how you respond to that.”

“Traditionally the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee has taken on a lot of social justice issues since its inception,” Kaleka said in an interview last week. “Fair housing legislation, civil rights, economic issues, employment. But over the past three or four years we have started to concentrate our energy on looking at the role of hate crimes and the role of faith leaders — what do we as faith leaders do to circumvent the rise of hate in this country?”

The Interfaith Conference sponsors a variety of programs to promote interfaith dialogue. Its “Amazing Faiths” series of intimate dinners includes guided sharing of faith experiences among a diverse group. A program for workplace groups helps coworkers understand how faith and culture interact in a person’s everyday life; that started at Rockwell Automation as an initiative of employees.

The goal is to help people be more aware of how faith practices might conflict with or otherwise affect their work, Kaleka explained — such as the Muslim practice of fasting during the day in the month of Ramadan, or the fact that observant Muslims don’t drink alcohol and might feel excluded in a corporate culture of “promotion decisions over three beers.”

The conference also organizes interfaith participation in a variety of public events — including  services held after mass shootings at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., last year and a New Zealand mosque this year, and bombings at Christian churches on Easter in Sri Lanka.

After those attacks, the conference in June put on a symposium on security in places of worship attended. Some 250 faith leaders and representatives of four state and federal law enforcement agencies took part.  

Pardeep Kaleka stands with representatives of faith groups that make up the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. Photo courtesy of Pardeep Kaleka.

Kaleka acknowledged that some religious adherents emphasize exclusivity, leaving little or no room for working alongside those of other faiths. “I think that’s the challenge that we’re going to have to navigate,” he said. “We’re blessed to have at Interfaith different faith groups that are pretty inclusive. The day that I was sworn in as director, each and every faith group that is part of the conference blessed me with a prayer, and all of the prayers had to do with oneness and openness.”

At the same time, he has come to appreciate that, with the breadth of points of view among individual faith leaders who take part in the Interfaith Conference, “I want to make sure that we all have buy-in in what we say and how we say it,” he observed. “Consensus-building has to really ramp up — that’s probably the most rewarding part of the job, and the most challenging part of the job.”

What about people who argue that religion is fantasy and possibly even dangerous? “I’d say to that person, religion is just like anything else: It can open us up, or it can close us off,” he said. “If it opens us up to suffering and compassion and forgiveness and basic human qualities that we should embody, that’s good. If it closes us off to the experience of compassion and suffering and forgiveness, then they’re right: religion is dangerous.”

Tolerance and inclusion for all

But the bad things done in the name of religion, he added, are perhaps more properly described as being done “in the name of identity” and a product of supremacist or domineering thought. And to simply dismiss religion ignores that “a lot of people of faith do great things,” he added. “Right now, as we speak, there’s probably a food drive being planned by people of faith to feed the hungry. I’m inundated by stories of people who have found refuge in places of prayer and worship.”

The Sikh tradition to which Kaleka belongs teaches that the God of all religions is the same as the God whom Sikhs follow. It also teaches that all people are equal regardless of race, religion, or gender. 

“Truly, I believe fundamentally that God is calling us to be open,” Kaleka said. “I feel like the circumstances that we live in right now are calling for a return back to humanity and an understanding of oneness.”

In the meantime, the weekend violence prompted a change of plans for Monday’s  seventh anniversary of the Oak Creek temple attack.

Originally, no formal observance was scheduled, Kaleka said, although its memory always colors this time of year, coming as it does just after his birthday.

By Sunday night, however, the Interfaith Conference, along with nine other groups ranging from the NAACP to the Jewish Community Relations Council, Forward Latino, the Milwaukee Inter-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) and others, had organized a vigil for Monday evening at Walker Square Park, 1031 S. 9th St. in Milwaukee. 

Starting at 7 p.m., “A Vigil Against Hate” will mark not just the Oak Creek temple shooting but the weekend shootings in Ohio and Texas and the shooting July 29 at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. 

The poster for the event bears this inscription: “Join us as we remember the victims, and insist on a government that promotes tolerance and inclusion for all.”

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work, the economy, health care & policy, and related subjects for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism.

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