US Sikhs tirelessly travel their communities to feed hungry Americans

Worldwide, Sikh temples, also known as Gurdwaras, offer free meals to anyone who shows up....

 CNN — When Gurpreet Singh and other members of the Sikh community in Riverside, California, started to organize efforts to provide food assistance in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Singh figured it would simply be a variation on the work the Riverside Gurdwara had been doing for years.

“When the pandemic came along,” Singh told CNN, “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.

Worldwide, Sikh temples, also known as Gurdwaras, offer free meals to anyone who shows up. Known as Langar, it’s a tenet of faith and a key part of the Sikh religion, which emphasizes a concept of selfless service to the community at large...

...“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 said he quickly realized the scope of the problem.

“Hunger has no days off,” he said, “so there’s no way we can serve less often than every day.”

On the busiest days, Singh said, the line of cars can reach two or three miles long...

...Memphis: Providing for essential workers

The Mid-South Sikh Sabha, on the outskirts of Memphis, is the only Gurdwara for 100 miles in any direction, Singh said. The community is small, no more than 300 people at its most active, by his estimate. At the beginning of 2020, Singh said he was focused on interfaith outreach, connecting with Christian and Jewish communities in the greater Memphis area.

“Then — boom — coronavirus came along,” he said.

“As a community, we thought, ‘OK, how can we contribute?’” he said. It was a question made all the more difficult by the fact that the pandemic meant services in the Gurdwara were suspended.

Together with a small team of volunteers, Singh coordinated food donations to local hospitals and aid organizations.

Initially they provided meals to healthcare workers in Memphis hospitals. Working long shifts in a city mostly devoid of restaurants, the city’s essential workers were having a hard time finding food, Singh said...

...St. Louis: 1,500 meals a week

Up the Mississippi River, Deb Bhatia and the volunteers of his non-profit, the Sikhs of STL, had organized similar efforts in St. Louis, Missouri.

When the state started to shut down, Bhatia said, he reached out to his local Gurdwara to ask about using its kitchen.

“When we started, it was for two shelter homes,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Bhatia organized volunteers from the Sikh community to go volunteer at local shelters. As fear of the coronavirus spread, Bhatia said shelters told him they weren’t getting enough volunteers to run their own kitchens.

So with four volunteers, Bhatia set the modest goal of making and donating 150 hot meals. But as he started making deliveries, he said he noticed more and more people in need.

“We started driving for hours downtown, bringing people food,” he said. A large group of homeless St. Louis residents had set up tents in front of City Hall, and Bhatia began making weekly visits to deliver meals...

...Community ties

The call to selfless service now goes beyond food. The Riverside Gurdwara is no longer focused simply on feeding those in need, but rather on building the community up. A big part of that, Singh said, is helping those waiting in the long food lines to celebrate with one another.

Singh says he’s integrated Mother’s and Father’s Day celebrations into the drive through. The volunteers gave out flags on Memorial Day.

And the larger community has given back in the form of donations. Singh said he framed a $15 donation from a 9-year-old boy.

“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.”

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