OAK CREEK, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Hundreds of people from around the country gathered on Sunday at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin for the first public service there since a white supremacist gunned down six people at the temple exactly a week earlier.
They prepared and ate a traditional meal and raised the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag, before the prayer service on the same grounds where Wade Michael Page, 40, went on a shooting rampage last Sunday and then killed himself.
“A coward came into destroy us ... and to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place, because it brought us closer together,” said Amardeep Kaleka, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s president, was killed by Page.
Page, a U.S. Army veteran with links to racist groups, also killed Sita Singh, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Prakash Singh, 39; Paramjit Kaur, 41; and Suveg Singh, 84. He injured four others, including a police officer who responded to the scene.
Investigators have not determined why Page targeted the Sikh temple.
The ceremony began at about 10:30 a.m. (1530 GMT), the same time Page arrived with a 9mm handgun and started shooting on August 5.
The first part of the service involved raising the orange Sikh flag in a traditional ceremony that symbolizes rebirth.
Outside the temple, Sikhs washed the flagpole with their hands, rubbing a mixture of milk and yogurt onto the pole and rinsing it with buckets of water. Then the triangular flag was placed on the pole and raised toward the overcast sky.
“The flag is flown in front of every Sikh temple, signifying where it is safe and where you can be fed,” said Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Inside the temple, Sikhs were busy preparing a langar, a community meal traditional in the Sikh religion and open to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.
Worshippers covered their heads with colorful scarves and turbans and removed their shoes before entering.
The procession into the temple’s main room led worshippers past a bullet hole in a metal door jamb. Below it, a small plaque said, “We Are One” and “8-5-12.”
The temple was decorated with flowers and pictures of the shooting victims. Walls were covered with posters signed by well-wishers from around the world. As the temple filled, one member taped up a flier notifying the congregation about where they can go for grief counseling.
“We can’t look back at this with horror and tragedy ... it’s not part of our religion to do that,” said Anjali Kaur, a temple member. “We will not let this bring us down.”
Congregation members - and relatives who had traveled to Wisconsin from across the country - ate before the service, using paper plates and paper towels from the kitchen pantry in which a dozen Sikh women and children had hid for hours during and after the shooting.
Hiding with them on that day was Paramjit Kaur, 54, who on Sunday was helping prepare the meal and - like dozens of other congregation members - had been cleaning and preparing the temple for services since it reopened on Thursday.
“I was worried and scared to go in,” she said. “It was a very strange feeling I had.”
In the temple’s main room, worshippers sat with their legs crossed as priests led them in hymns and prayers.
“Because of these shootings,” Kaur said, “we are stronger than ever before.”
Editing By Corrie MacLaggan and Xavier Briand