"It's a way of being American — we're all in this together. It's been humbling, it's been emotional."
In India, you can always walk into any Gurudwara (Sikh Temples) and be assured that you will not leave hungry. For years, though Sikhism is relatively new, the religion has been feeding several mouths all over the world. Founded around 500 years ago in Punjab, India, Sikhism has some 30 million adherents, making it the fifth-largest religion worldwide. There are close to half a million Sikhs in the United States alone. Sikh faith is Seva - "basically, 'selfless service,'" explained Vaneet Singh, a member of the Sikh community in Memphis, Tennessee, according to CNN. "It's so ingrained in our faith, it's everywhere."
"We believe that to serve others, to help others, is a key to who we are," he said. Thus, the most visible example of Seva is their Langar. It's basically the practice of a free community kitchen based in a Sikh temple, which is open to everyone. "The concept of the common kitchen is you sit together on the floor and eat together — you are all equal in God's place," Singh said. When the pandemic was at its initial stage, Gurpreet Singh and other members of the Sikh community in Riverside, California, thought they would be able to continue their efforts, and that just a variation on the work the Riverside Gurdwara had been doing for years would suffice.
"When the pandemic came along," Singh said, "the Sikh temples were shutting down, and that didn't seem right. At times of dire need, you don't close down, you open up. Before the pandemic, the Riverside Gurdwara used to provide around 800 to 1,000 meals each Sunday," Singh said. This was also their busiest day. However, the community was unable to gather in large groups inside the temple because of pandemic restrictions. So, they decided to serve food out front — Langar-by-drive-through. "We thought, 'we'll run it two or three days a week -- good deed done, pat on the back,'" Singh said. Within the first week, however, "the lines got crazy."
Singh added that he soon realized the issue. "Hunger has no days off," he said, "so there's no way we can serve less often than every day." On their busiest days, Singh says that the lines are as long as two or three miles. Vaneet Singh, a member of the Sikh community in Memphis, Tennessee, then started to wonder what they could do to help out as a community. So, with a small team of volunteers, Singh coordinated food donations to local hospitals and aid organizations. Soon enough, a lot more people reached out, in need of food. In all, Singh said, his small community distributed 1,700 meals before pausing to reassess.
"I hope and pray that this goes away," he said, but he expressed concern about another rise in coronavirus cases. "I don't know how long we have to continue this." Deb Bhatia and the volunteers of his non-profit had organized similar efforts in St. Louis, Missouri. When the state was shutting down, Bhatia reached out to his local Gurudwara to ask about using their kitchen. "When we started, it was for two shelter homes," he said. As the pandemic spread, they weren't getting enough volunteers. But the need for food kept going up. "We started driving for hours downtown, bringing people food," he said.
Before long, the demand had grown to 1,500 meals a week. Bhatia said that around 85 families had volunteered to cook meals in their own kitchen. He also added that he does all the grocery shopping himself. The idea is to minimize his volunteers' exposure, he said. "A lot of elderly and kids -- I didn't want them to go out. It's my responsibility." To help out with the expenses, they had set up a fundraiser, was fulfilled in two weeks' time. "It's not only the Sikh community," he said when asked who donated, "it's the whole community." Riverside Gurudwara member Gurpreet Singh says the call for Seva has now gone beyond food.
"This is not just food, it's getting everyone to feel a sense of community, a sense of support," he said. "It's a way of being American — we're all in this together. It's been humbling, it's been emotional," Singh said. "This is what the Sikh temple and the Langar were supposed to be about. Langar is about everybody at large feeling free enough to sit and eat with each other," he added. "We're going to continue doing what we're doing and hopefully bring a lot of people with us and make it not just a Sikh thing." He estimated that they now distribute between 3,000 and 5,000 meals a day.