Editor’s Note: This article is part of CNN’s Undivided series, which chronicles how Americans of very different backgrounds have found common ground. In this series, which runs through the midterm elections, we profile unlikely friendships between people of differing ages, races, religions and cultures.
When Pardeep Kaleka first contacted Arno Michaelis, he was looking for answers.
It was 2012, just a few weeks after a White supremacist entered the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and gunned down Kaleka’s father and five other members of his community.
As Kaleka wrestled with feelings of anger, guilt and cynicism, he wanted to understand what would drive someone to target his place of worship. More than that, he wanted someone to take accountability.
After carrying out the massacre, the Oak Creek shooter had turned the gun on himself. So Kaleka turned to a substitute: Michaelis, a former White supremacist who had helped found the neo-Nazi skinhead organization to which his father’s killer belonged. The two exchanged some messages and agreed to meet at a Thai restaurant in Milwaukee a few days later.
When the day came, Kaleka started to question whether he had been naive.
Michaelis had spent the late ’80s and early ‘90s attacking Black, Jewish and LGBTQ people – anyone who wasn’t White or straight – in the name of White supremacy. Though Michaelis had since renounced the White power movement and committed to helping others abandon far-right extremism, Kaleka’s mother was unconvinced. She pleaded with him not to go.
Kaleka pushed through his fears and went ahead with the meeting. He felt it was something he needed to do to heal.
The two men ended up talking for hours – about growing up in Milwaukee, about their daughters, about the work that needed to be done after the Sikh temple shooting. It was the beginning of an unlikely friendship.
“There’s a certain amount of relief to know that you’re never going to be alone in this fight as you go forward,” Kaleka says. “That day, we didn’t know what it was going to look like going forward, but we knew we’d at least be there for each other.”
Ten years later, they call each other brothers.
They discovered a shared purpose
Ahead of their first meeting, Michaelis was nervous, too – but for different reasons.
Michaelis didn’t personally know the Oak Creek gunman, but he couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for what transpired. He spent seven years of his life as a recruiter for a White supremacist organization and the lead singer of a White power band, promoting the same racist ideology espoused by the man who killed Kaleka’s father. He felt inadequate in the face of Kaleka’s loss, as if nothing he could do or say would ever be sufficient.
As soon as Kaleka walked into the restaurant, though, the tension melted away.
Kaleka had athletic tape over one eye, resembling “an MMA fighter who had just come from a match,” says Michaelis. It was so distracting that instead of offering condolences about Kaleka’s father, Michaelis blurted out, “Dude, what happened to your eye?” Kaleka explained that he had injured himself with a loofah hook while bathing his daughter.
“I’m a tragic klutz myself,” Michaelis says. “I’m far and away my own worst enemy, so to hear this story of clumsiness was quite endearing to me.”
Kaleka, in turn, was surprised by Michaelis’ seemingly genuine concern. That and other small observations – his enthusiasm for Thai food, his friendly interactions with the wait staff, his warm expression – softened his impression of the tough-looking, tattooed man before him.
Over squash curry and many pots of tea, the two chatted for hours about everything but the Sikh temple shooting before Kaleka finally broached the subject: What could Michaelis tell him about the man who killed his father? And how could someone do something so terrible?
Michaelis could only share what he knew from his former life. Lacking a healthy sense of belonging, he says he cultivated a sense of White racial identity as a teenager and convinced himself and other White people that they were being persecuted, which fueled the physical assaults and other crimes he committed.
He suspected the Oak Creek shooter held the same mindset, likely viewing Sikhs – with their turbans and brown skin – as an example of what was wrong with society.
Though Michaelis didn’t see people of color, LGBTQ people and Jewish people as human during his time as a White supremacist, those same people gave him the benefit of the doubt time and time again – from the Jewish boss who didn’t fire him despite the swastika he sported on his jacket to the Black coworker who offered him half of his sandwich when he didn’t bring lunch.
Displays of compassion from people he claimed to hate tore at the foundation of his racist beliefs, and ultimately contributed to his exit from the White power movement in the mid-1990’s.
Now, Michaelis promoted a message of “a common humanity” in his efforts to lure young people away from right-wing extremism.
Speaking to Michaelis that day, Kaleka saw that the two shared a common mission. Since the Oak Creek shooting, he had thrown himself into supporting his community. He advocated for the families of victims, helped plan funerals and co-founded the organization Serve 2 Unite to foster relationships between Sikhs and the broader Milwaukee community. Michaelis was responding to the tragedy in his own capacity, shedding light on how people become prey to White supremacist ideology.
“Both of us, without even knowing each other, knew that we had to do something to repair it,” Kaleka says.
So they decided to join forces.
They helped each other heal from their traumas
In the months after the Oak Creek shooting, Kaleka and Michaelis traveled around Wisconsin sharing their message of compassion and forgiveness. Soon they were getting speaking invitations around the country. The story of the budding friendship between a Sikh and a former skinhead in the face of tragedy was picked up by local media outlets, underscoring just how much people were seeking hope and unity in an increasingly polarized society.
But as inspiring as their story was, there were still scars that had yet to heal.
Michaelis recalls a speaking engagement early on in Chicago after the two had shared an Airbnb the night before. At the event the next day, Kaleka told the crowd that part of him feared that Michaelis might try to kill him in his sleep.
Kaleka acknowledged onstage that those fears stemmed from his lingering anxiety and trauma after the Oak Creek shooting. Still, Michaelis says he was taken aback.
Kaleka had such an easygoing attitude that it was easy to lose sight of the tragic circumstances that led to the two becoming friends. To this day, Michaelis says he has to remind himself of that.
“Another really important aspect of our relationship is that over and over and over again, I forget why we met,” Michaelis says. “Our friendship and our relationship is not defined by this hate crime – almost to a fault at times.”
Michaelis was working through his own issues at the time. After he left the White supremacist movement in the mid ’90s, he struggled for years with substance abuse before quitting drinking in 2004.
When he met Kaleka in 2012, he still hadn’t fully processed his guilt and remorse over the damage he caused as a White supremacist. He says he would break down crying in public sometimes, and Kaleka would be there to offer a shoulder.
Crucially, though, Kaleka says he and Michaelis held each other accountable. They allowed each other to sit with their pain, but also pushed each other to work through it.
“I think that’s the way that we need to go together as we move forward in America,” Kaleka says. “We all need to help each other work our way out of this pain. That’s going to take genuine relationships.”
They don’t agree on everything, but they continue to show up for each other
Along the way, the bond between Kaleka, 45, and Michaelis, 51, transcended the work of fighting extremism. The two now consider themselves genuinely close friends.
They live about 15 minutes from each other in Milwaukee, and meet up every few weeks for dinner or just to hang out. They also call each other frequently when one of them needs to blow off steam.
A few years into their friendship, Kaleka had an epiphany of sorts and picked up the phone. Michaelis had been there for him as he battled his inner demons after the killing of his father. Kaleka could have easily turned bitter and cynical but credits Michaelis with helping him return to being a good father and a good person.
“I called him on that Sunday morning and said, ‘Man, just thank you,’” Kaleka recalls. “You’ve been my brother. You’ve been my friend. You’ve also been my therapist.”
As their careers have taken different paths, Kaleka and Michaelis don’t do as many speaking engagements together as they once did. But they’ve both made the fight against violent extremism their life’s work – Kaleka as a therapist specializing in trauma and deradicalization, Michaelis as a public speaker on counter-extremism and peace.
For all the common ground that Kaleka and Michaelis share, there are some issues that they don’t see eye to eye on.
With more conversations taking place about race and racism in the country, the two have found that they don’t agree on how best to approach these problems.
Michaelis says there’s an over-emphasis on race in the current public discourse, which he feels echoes the mindset he had as a White supremacist. He says he “abhors racism” and understands how it affects people of color, but that’s precisely why he thinks people should stop thinking about the world in terms of race. Seeing himself as different from people of other races fueled the toxic ideology he once believed in, Michaelis says, and he now believes in “a single race of human beings.”
Kaleka feels that it’s easy for Michaelis to hold that view because as a White person, he has never felt the sting of racism. Kaleka, meanwhile, came to the US as an immigrant from India. His family has always had to consider their place in this country and how White people might perceive them, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, he says.
His father, who wore a turban as part of his commitment to his Sikh faith, was ultimately killed by a White supremacist.
“For him, to be a person of color or have that experience will always be an empathetic or intellectual exercise,” Kaleka says. “For me, it’s a lived experience. And vice versa.”
Michaelis is passionate about his beliefs, and he admits that he can get heated when talking about these issues. But his friendship with Kaleka has challenged him, and he says he tries to embody the message of compassion that he now preaches.
That means not just showing respect for his friend’s views, but others who disagree with him, too.
“I just try to remind myself and give them the benefit of the doubt,” Michaelis says. “The opinion this person has is based on their lived experience, which is every bit as valid as mine. No more, no less.”
Despite their disagreements, Kaleka and Michaelis both feel that at their core they share the same values. Both men try to see humanity in everyone.
And both try to treat people with kindness and compassion – especially in moments, like the tender days after the Oak Creek massacre, when it feels most difficult.