When Disasters Hit California, Gurdwaras Provide Meals and Refuge

Sikhs statewide have organized to feed their fellow Californians in crisis.

ON A CLEAR FALL MORNING earlier last year, Kashmir Shahi received an urgent call from the Salvation Army. The organization wanted to know if he would be able to provide food for over 700 people at a Santa Rosa shelter who had been displaced due to the Kincade Fire burning through California’s Sonoma County.

“They called me at 11 a.m.,” Shahi remembers. “They needed the food at 4 p.m. I live in Union City, and Santa Rosa is an hour and a half drive from there. They asked if it was possible and I said, ‘We will make it happen.’”

Shahi is a member of the Gurdwara Sahib of Fremont, a Sikh temple in Northern California. He immediately put out word to his congregation, and other members assembled to prepare food in the gurdwara’s kitchen. That afternoon they drove rice, beans, bananas, cake, chips, and oranges up to hundreds of hungry evacuees.

It was hardly the first time Shahi and the broader Sikh community have mobilized to help victims of California’s natural disasters. “I’ve been doing this since 2009,” Shahi says. “I know what it takes to do that much food.”...

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...Members of roughly 20 gurdwaras, from Sacramento to San Jose, formed a group called Sikhs for Humanity. Now, when natural disasters strike, the group keeps in touch through WhatsApp and Facebook groups to coordinate collecting supplies or preparing food. During the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, Sikhs for Humanity collected food and blankets to send to a local shelter, while a gurdwara in Stockton organized a blood drive. During the first week of the Tubbs Fire, Shahi estimates that gurdwaras in Northern California served more than 5,000 meals to evacuees and first responders.

When the group hears about a wildfire or other potential emergency, members usually begin by reaching out to relief organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to find out what the needs are on the ground. “The idea is, number one, not to overflood with items that are not needed, and number two, to streamline a process of providing these things,” Shahi explains.

Because gurdwaras also have regular outreach actions during the year, organizers know who they can depend on. The Fremont gurdwara, for example, takes part twice a year in Feed the Hungry events in conjunction with San Francisco’s GLIDE Memorial Church. “When the disaster comes, we have to act quickly,” Shahi says. “So during these events volunteers learn how to manage things and how to build a team. And, God forbid anything happens, they already have experience.”...

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...A focus on charity is not unique to Sikhism. Most religions emphasize the value of helping one’s neighbor; churches, mosques, synagogues and temples all mobilize with donations, supplies, and volunteers in the face of natural disasters. A 2012 report from the University of Southern California emphasized the outsized role that smaller faith organizations can have, as they are able to respond quickly to immediate and localized needs on the ground. In 2017, USA Today found that many religious groups partner with state and federal agencies to provide a large proportion of the country’s disaster relief.

But even outside of disaster, many gurdwara doors are always open. “We serve food 24/7 to anyone who comes, regardless of religion or anything else,” says Channy Singh, a member of the Fremont gurdwara. “In the gurdwara, the food is always cooking, always there in large quantities, in large pots. We use the same facility to prepare those meals for disaster-prone areas.” Because volunteers cook so frequently, when the need arises they simply double or triple the quantity of whatever they are making, knowing that the rest will be sent out of the gurdwara doors.

But Singh stresses that while a gurdwara kitchen is helpful when it comes to logistics, the core Sikh belief of feeding the needy is what inspires the community to do what they do. “It is more based on the religious principle, not necessarily the physical infrastructure,” Singh says. “Obviously the kitchen comes handy, but it is the principle that is the driving force.”

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