Family of Sikh priest shot by white supremacist is sustained by his lifetime of preaching optimism

Published: August 3, 2014
Sikhism-priest

Raghuvinder Singh, left, and Jaspreet Singh, right, pose with their mother, Kulwant Kaur, and a photograph of their father, Punjab Singh, on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, at Jaspreet Singhís home in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Dinesh Ramde)

DINESH RAMDE
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

OAK CREEK, Wis. — Punjab Singh spent a lifetime preaching the Sikh principles of optimism and hope — the very principles that his family now rely upon to sustain them during his slow recovery from being shot in the head two years ago by a white supremacist.

Singh, 66, can neither move nor speak. Doctors say his injuries were so severe that he may never recover further. But his family refuses to give up hope, saying that with prayers and God’s grace, anything is possible.

“We never lose the hope,” his elder son, Raghuvinder Singh, said. “God is able to do anything he wants.”

Sikhism teaches forgiveness and peace, as well as the idea of living in “chardhi kala.” The Punjabi term describes a state of constant optimism, which believers say reflects an acceptance of God’s will.

It’s that spirit from which the family draws their strength. Because of their optimism, there is no anger at the shooter, no frustration over the turmoil they’ve endured, no agonizing over why such a bad thing happened to a good person.

“My father never teaches me anger to anyone. He teaches me always be in chardhi kala,” Raghuvinder Singh said. “I respect that and I practice that.”

Punjab Singh, an internationally known Sikh priest, was wounded Aug. 5, 2012, when a gunman opened fire at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. Six worshippers were killed and four other people were injured. The motive of the gunman, who killed himself, is unknown.

Singh was in a bedroom at the temple that morning. When he heard gunfire he tried to barricade himself, but the gunman forced the door open far enough to reach his handgun inside and shoot Singh in the face.

The bullet damaged brain tissue, blood vessels and the brain stem. He was in a coma for two months, and a pair of subsequent strokes nearly paralyzed his left side.

Improvement has been marginal. Today he can blink his eyes to answer yes or no, and he has a hint of motion in his right arm and leg. While he can’t speak, Raghuvinder Singh said his greatest prayer was to hear his father’s voice again so he could learn what happened that day.

Punjab Singh now lives in a nursing home in southeast Wisconsin. All of his medical bills have been paid by insurance.

Raghuvinder and his younger brother, Jaspreet Singh, used to maintain 24-hour vigils at their father’s bedside, alternating shifts and sleeping in a bed next to his.

They changed their routines after Raghuvinder, 44, returned to his job as a priest at a Sikh temple in Glen Rock, New Jersey. He’d been working there since 2008, and has a visa for religious work. His salary supports his family of four, as well as his mother and brother.

He returned to Milwaukee last week for memorial services that last through Tuesday, the two-year anniversary of the tragedy.

His mother and Jaspreet remained in Milwaukee ever since they arrived from India, days after the shooting.

With the aid of federal officials Jaspreet has been able to keep getting his six-month visitor visas renewed. However, he can’t legally work. Instead he spends five or more hours a day visiting the nursing home, washing his father’s face, combing his hair and beard and reading spiritual hymns.

When Jaspreet comes home he Skypes with his wife in New Delhi — and with the 1-year-old daughter he has never met. Ekampreet was born after he left India.

Growing up half a world away from his only child has been hard. But knowing that he’s being a dutiful son maintains him in chardhi kala, he added.

“Yes, I want to hold my daughter. But in Sikh religion, if you are serving your mother and father it’s like you’re serving God,” he said. “I want to serve my father.”

Their mother, Kulwant Kaur, spends her days alternating between visiting her husband and worshipping at the temple where he was shot. She too remains optimistic, drawing strength from the Sikhs around the world who pray for her husband.

“The prayers are working,” she said in Hindi. “We ask people to keep praying and things will improve.”

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde@ap.org.

20:04ET 03-08-14

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