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Sikhs across America rally to feed the country's hungry: 'We're all in this together'

Seva, the term for "selfless service," is a tenet of the Sikh faith. It's the reason the Sikh community has come together to fight food insecurity during the pandemic.

Sikhs across America rally to feed the country's hungry: 'We're all in this together'
Image Source: SikhsOfSTL / Facebook

Before the pandemic set in, Sikhs across America would offer free meals (known as "Langar") to anyone who showed up at their Gurdwaras, the Sikhs' place of worship. However, as various states in the country went into lockdown, their temples, too, had to stop their services. This seemed odd to many Sikh community leaders; Gurpreet Singh, one of the members of Riverside, California's Sikh community stated in an interview with CNN, "When the pandemic came along, 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." Therefore, he and other Sikhs across the United States decided to ramp up their volunteer efforts from their homes—all while maintaining social distancing and top-notch hygiene standards.



Singh, whose Riverside Gurdwara provided 800 to 1,000 free meals on a regular Sunday, began offering these free meals twice or thrice a week when the public health crisis worsened. Soon, they realized the problem of food insecurity was worse than they had imagined. "We thought, 'We'll run it two or three days a week—good deed done, pat on the back," Singh shared. "[But] the lines got crazy. Hunger has no days off so there's no way we can serve less often than every day." On their busiest days, there are lines of cars that reach two or three miles long. Singh is not the only one who has gone above and beyond to heed his faith's call for Seva, or "selfless service," a tenet of Sikishim.



In St. Louis, Deb Bhatia and the volunteers he has recruited for his non-profit, the Sikhs of STL, have organized similar efforts. Bhatia explained, "When we started, it was for two shelter homes. We started driving for hours downtown, bringing people food." The initiative quickly grew in size as more volunteers joined hands. Though he does all the shopping, 85 families have come together to cook 1,500 meals a week for the city's most food insecure. At the end of each week, the volunteers drop by his home to leave the meals they've cooked and he distributes the meals himself so volunteers don't expose themselves. "A lot of elderly and kids—I didn't want them to go out," he said. "It's my responsibility."



Funding for these free meals has extended beyond the Sikh community. Bhatia set up a GoFundMe account to raise money and was able to hit his goal in two weeks' time. When he was asked who donated, he responded, "It's not only the Sikh community, it's the whole community." This was the case with Japjot Sethi as well, who has led efforts to reduce food insecurity in San Jose and surrounding communities. To date, he and a group of about 10 volunteers have made 20,000 hot meals and distributed them to shelters in these regions. He affirmed, "My goal is to make sure our resources really go to the people in need."



The call for Seva has surpassed the plate and ignited a sense of community for many Sikhs, who have, for years, been targets of racial attacks. According to Singh, watching his community gather around his Gurdwara has been an energizing experience. "This is not just food, it's getting everyone to feel a sense of community, a sense of support," he stated. "It's a way of being American—we're all in this together. It's been humbling, it's been emotional. 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. 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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