On the surface, Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka might seem unlikely friends. Arno is a fair-haired, heavily tattooed former White-Supremacist. Pardeep was born in Dogal, a village in rural India and moved to the U.S. when he was six. They met shortly after Pardeep’s father, the founder of the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was killed with five others by a White-Supremacist. To be with them is to be with brothers. The respect they have for each other, their kindness, and ease in each other’s presence is palpable.
In the five-years since the shooting, Arno and Pardeep founded Serve2Unite, an organization that works to bring together students to create inclusive and compassionate communities. They are also co-authors of The Gift of Our Wounds. Adam Strom conducted the following interview over email after an afternoon of Ramen and Ice Cream.
Adam S: Pardeep, many of us have only learned about your father through the shooting that took his life, can you tell us a little bit about him as a person. What brought him to the United States?
Pardeep: What’s interesting Adam is that what my father means to me as a person continues to morph even five years after his passing. We know that when we reflect on a loss that sometimes we do so with rosy-colored glasses and I’m in no delusion that I will probably do the same. My father was your typical immigrant; he sacrificed, he labored and made the most out of limited opportunities. I witnessed him improvise many plans, and become a very reluctant leader. His drive was unmatched, and his leadership was driven by service. When I think about him now, I think about how deeply spiritual he was. He often seemed to be walking in two worlds. The physical and the spiritual. He often found contentment in solitude and meditation but understood his responsibility well as the president of the Gurdwara(Temple). He could get frustrated, which I can appreciate now, but it was typically because he had the vision to see things before the fire and wanted to prevent that. It was because I knew that before he transitioned from this physical form, he was already there, that I could tell you his dying breath and dying prayer were not for self but for us to continue the work he started. Today, his guiding hand is always with us and hopefully, that comes across in our book.
Adam S: Thanks, for sharing that. As a kid, what was it like growing up as a Sikh immigrant from India in the midwest? Did you ever question if you belonged? And, how did you balance the cultural inheritance from your parents and your identity as a kid in this country?
Pardeep: I always questioned if I belong. I recall growing up and knowing that I didn’t belong and as a kid, there is nothing that you want more than to just fit in, but I didn’t. I wasn’t white enough to be white, wasn’t black enough to call myself black, or American enough, really just not enough of anything to really fit in. My vehicle to fit in and be recognized was sports. I found that I was good at baseball, basketball, and football. With that, I found myself not having to think about all the ways I was different. As I grew up, my sense of belonging or fitting in became less important. I wanted to now find my voice and my purpose, little did I know; it would find me.
Adam S: Arno, what about your childhood, where did you grow up? You’ve spoken powerfully about the experiences that helped you step away from extremism, but how did you find your way into the skinhead movement?
Arno:: I grew up in Mequon, Wisconsin, a well-to-do-suburb of Milwaukee about 13 miles north on the shore of Lake Michigan. Nice house. Nice neighborhood. My parents were
both there and they loved me very much. All the adults in my life constantly told me how wonderful I was. But my dad’s drinking stressed us all out. My mom was always miserable, which made me miserable. Looking back, I think my mom’s suffering and my subsequent suffering moved me to show everyone that I wasn’t wonderful—I was horrible. I started lashing out at a very young age, bullying kids on the school bus. The thrill of pissing off parents and teachers and making other kids fear me quickly became a habit, one that needed to keep escalating to provide the same thrill. So I went from a bully on the bus to fights in the schoolyard to breaking and entering, burglary, vandalism, etc. I started drinking when i was 14 and the first time I drank was till I passed out. By the time I was 16 I was very familiar with violence, drinking constantly, and feeling hatred towards everyone and everything. That’s when I first heard white power skinhead music, telling me that I was a warrior for my people: the white race. It gave context and validation to the hate and violence I was already practicing. Plus it really pissed people off. That was the best part.
Adam S: After the heinous shooting, that killed Pardeep’s father, how did you two find each other? Pardeep, in particular, were you skeptical of Arno when you first met him, given his background?
Arno: Pardeep reached out to me via the Against Violent Extremism Network we were both a part of.
Pardeep: I was [skeptical], but I believe that I was far enough in my spiritual journey to understand that people change. So, yes I was, but I was much more anxious about not being able to turn
this tragedy into something that the world could learn from and convert this atrocity of “happening to us,” to “happening for us.” My relationship to Arno is one of genuine brotherhood and has continually grown in a healthy testing of barriers and boundaries. As the book goes on, some of the additional challenges will rear their head. While this book centers around the shooting of August 5, 2012, I hope that readers really pick up on the sense that this is really about two boys growing up in very different circumstances, but eventually growing together because of a common purpose to heal the wounds of our past.
Adam S: It has been over 5 years since the shooting, during that time you have been working together to build connections across difference through service. And, yet, here we are in a moment when hate crimes appear to be on the rise. How do you both understand what is happening? Where is this coming from?
Arno: I’m an optimist. A relentless optimist you might say. I believe that our great human family has been progressing steadily all along, albeit in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kinda way. Whenever there is growth there are growing pains, and that’s what I feel is happening right now. Even though there’s a spike in hate crimes, that along with all the other ill sh*t that’s happening is far outshined by good things. I. e., there are fewer people living in poverty than any other time in human history, even though the population is greater than it’s ever been. Working with young people, I can see how hangups about things like race, sexuality, and gender are simply being grown out of by society. With each generation differences once feared become celebrated. As long as we can work from a place of oneness—the truth of our common humanity—there’s no problem we can’t solve, no challenge we can’t overcome. Separatism is what we must be wary of.
Pardeep: I totally agree with Arno, and we must be wary of separatism while understanding the roots. As a greater human family, we have overly attached ourselves to identity. We call ourselves a religion, or race, or nationality. And while we do this, being it provides us our uniqueness, it also is the subtle separatism that justifies hate. We are at a time where we need to question how we even subtly separate ourselves, our land, our property, our country, our faith, our people. This us and them mentality has almost become natural but is not natural to humanity. As Arno stated, oneness is actually the natural state and something that we are trying to gravitate back to. And, an additional part of oneness is that people are incredibly deflective and feel like they are separated from other people so they end up hating them. This is not true, people are actually separated from themselves, and this separation actually causes a self-hatred but because of deflection, to the outside world, it looks like they hate the other when in reality they hate that they are themselves separated.
Adam S: If you were working with the adults who work with immigrant-origin youth and their peers, what would you want them to take away from your experiences?
Arno: …that immigrants are truly what makes the US a great nation. No one works with the love and dedication that fresh arrivals to this country have. And despite the political rhetoric from both sides of the spectrum, I honestly believe that average American is a basically good human being like anyone else. If they are given the benefit of the doubt they will be much more likely to extend it themselves. We must be very mindful of not perpetuating self-fulfilling prophecies. All human beings find what they seek. If we seek enemies, we’ll find them. If we seek friends, we’ll find them too.
Pardeep: We are all immigrants, we have been traveling and changing our culture forever. Our natural state is to always be evolving. From our experiences, understand that a man could change from being a hateful, white supremacist to a peacemaker, and understand that we all have the ability to transform the hurt in our lives through forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude.
Adam S: Thank you both for taking the time to do this. Before we go, I have one last question. The title, The Gift of Our Wounds, what do you mean by that?
Arno: To me, The Gift of Our Wounds means finding the value in struggle and suffering, moving through it, and arriving at a place where we’re not just relieved to be done with it, but grateful that we learned and grew through the experience. Not just surviving, but thriving because we are now better prepared to help others through their suffering.
Pardeep: To me, it means that the sun will shine tomorrow, as much as you may not want to believe it ever will again. It will come out every day, and you may even get upset and yell, scream, cry and throw a fit. You may become frustrated with this truth. Finally, you may just become weary and ask the sun: why it continues to shine the way it does? The sun will reply because you deserve it, you always have! You will look at the sun different, and you will know The gifts of your wounds.
Adam S: I appreciate all you both do and hope that we can continue to work together very soon. If you want to know more about Arno and Pardeep’s work, read their book and watch Not in Our Town‘s powerful documentary Waking in Oak Creek.