The president of the Wisconsin Sikh temple, gunned down along with five others Sunday morning, was recalled Monday as an open-hearted, generous man who died defending the house of worship he helped build.
Relatives and temple members say Satwant Kaleka, 65, was shot as he tried to stop the attacker with a kitchen knife.
“He was trying to protect his people,’’ said Gursher Gill of Framingham, husband of Kaleka’s niece. “That was very much in his character.’’
At a prayer service Monday night at a Sikh temple in Milford — attended by people of other faiths — the spirit of the community Kaleka died fighting for was on full display as members gathered to mourn and reflect.
Sarbpreet Singh, 48, of Hopkinton, said calls of support had flooded in throughout the day. A chaplain came from several miles away to ask some of the Sikhs to teach an hourlong class on Sikhism to members of the retirement community he serves, Singh said. A middle-aged woman who attends a Unitarian Universalist church traveled from Sherborn bearing flowers.
And in a poignant gesture as dusk fell, about 20 Muslim worshipers spread blankets on the lawn of the Milford temple and prayed.
“It makes us feel that we are part of the American blanket, that we are part of the cloth that makes this country,’’ said Kaviraj Singh, a community advocate for the equal rights group the Sikh Coalition.
Kaleka arrived in Wisconsin from his native India in the early 1980s and in time ran his own small business, Gill said. He was instrumental in establishing the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee in the late 1990s, and worked tirelessly on its behalf.
“He was hard-working, industrious, a highly respected member of the community,’’ he said.
“He honestly lived the American dream.’’
Gill said his wife, Simer Nagra, was stunned by the shooting and grief-stricken over the loss of her uncle. The family will hold a cremation service when his body is returned, he said.
Kaleka leaves two sons and his wife, who survived the attack by hiding in a closet.
Gill said the family first heard that Kaleka had been shot but might survive, but learned late Sunday evening that he had died.
Kaleka was known for his “giving personality,’’ Gill said, a quality that made him a leader in the close-knit Sikh community and beyond. Gill said he often asked friends and family about their lives and plans for the future, and was quick to offer help and guidance.
“He wanted to make sure everyone was safe and successful,’’ Gill said.
Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka, Kaleka’s nephew, told CNN: “He was a protector of his own people, just an incredible individual who showed his love and passion for our people, our faith, to the end.’’
As the gunman’s ties to white supremacist groups surfaced, Gill said the Sikh religion is often misunderstood and confused with Islam, making practitioners the target of discrimination.
“We need more awareness,’’ he said. “Typically, people perceive people with turbans and beards to be of Islamic background.’’
Gill said he was not so much angry over the killings as he was profoundly sad for the victims and their families. Noting previous mass shootings in Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado, he said it was all too clear they could happen anywhere.
“It’s just overwhelming sorrow,’’ he said, “that this has to happen in society.’’
In Milford, the Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, attended the evening prayer service, saying she felt it was important for Christians to stand in solidarity with Sikhs at this tragic time.
Everett said that on Sunday, she expects many pastors to touch on the Wisconsin shooting in their sermons.
“I think it’s heartbreaking that a moment of violence in a sacred and holy house of worship is part of what draws us together, but I think we can use this,’’ Everett said.
After the service the crowd filtered out from the temple and onto the front lawn. Everyone grabbed thin, white candles and lighted them before circling for the vigil.
Mohammed A. Siddiqui, 60, of Natick, who was among the Muslims who showed their support, said, “The bottom line is no religion teaches hate or killing people.
“It just goes to show how narrow-minded people are, how close-minded.’’