Parliament of the World’s Religions: Sikhs feed thousands at World’s Religions conference

A sikh man serves langar, a traditional Sikh vegetarian lunch, to attendants of the Parliament of the World's Religions.
A Sikh man serves langar, a traditional Sikh vegetarian lunch, to attendants of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. (Erica Palmer)

Thousands of people from 80 countries and 50 different faiths flocked to Salt Lake City last weekend to be spiritually fed, but a group of Sikh volunteers took it upon themselves to ensure that they were physically fed as well.

Sikhs from Utah and around the world united to accomplish a huge feat of service: in addition to feeding thousands of conference attendants each day for free at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, they donated thousands of pounds of leftover food to a Salt Lake City homeless shelter.

“Sewa, service to the community, is essential to Sikh life and food is a big part of that,” said Manohar Singh Grewal, host of the Langar and member of the parliament’s board of trustees. “For a Sikh it is both a privilege and a duty to provide langar in the gurdwara (Sikh temple) for the entire congregation after weekly worship. The langar is part of our worship, a fundamental aspect of Sikh life, and we are honored to share it with the Salt Lake City community.”

The leftover food —which amounted to 3,800 pounds, or 3,166 meals — was donated to the nearby Catholic Community Services St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen, which provides shelter and food for the city’s homeless. The Utah Food Bank got involved to help with the logistics of donating that much leftover food, according to a press release.

Each day of the parliament, held at the Salt Palace Convention Center from Oct. 15-19, thousands of people from diverse religions lined up, removed their shoes, and covered their heads before they sat on the floor together to partake of the blessed food.

“The concept is that it doesn’t matter your background, it doesn’t matter who you are or your status, everyone comes in, you take off your shoes so you leave your status at the door, you cover your head as a sign of respect to the Lord, and you sit on the same level as everybody else, and you’re served like everybody else,” said Munpreet Kaur, a Sikh woman from England who helped put the langar together.

Volunteers old and young walked through the lines of people with large buckets of food, filling their trays with yogurt, lentils, curried vegetables, saag paneer, and other traditional Sikh vegetarian dishes.

Erica Palmer
A group of Sikhs, mostly from the U.K., who helped organize the langar at the Parliament of the World’s religions. Thousands of participants were fed each day and 3,800 pounds of food were donated to a local homeless shelter after the event. (Erica Palmer)

Kaur said they were honored to put on langar at the 2004 parliament in Barcelona. When they didn’t participate in the 2009 parliament in Melbourne, she said everyone was asking them why they hadn’t. So the chairman of their Sikh organization in the U.K. promised that if they were involved in the next Parliament, they would make sure to do langar.

Kaur said the volunteers were a mixture of local and international Sikhs, with some traveling from places like Kenya, India, and Australia to donate their manpower to the immense task of cooking for thousands of people. Many came from the U.K., including her and the main group of Sikhs who were in charge of pulling it all together. She said the money for the food all came from personal donations from Sikhs around the world, many of whom had no expectation of actually attending the event.

“The whole idea is that this for us is an absolute privilege. People were jumping at the chance to come and do this,” she said. “Because yes, we always get to serve in our own place of worship wherever we are, and we love to do that, it’s absolutely great, but the chance to come and actually serve other people that we don’t even know, it excites us even more.”

The food was all made at the local Sikh Gurdwara in Salt Lake and transported to the convention center in trucks.

Kaur said the tradition of langar started in the 1400s with the founder of the religion, Guru Nanak. He was given some rupees by his father as a young man and told to go make a business transaction and make a profit. On his way, he met some men sitting and praying who didn’t have food and clothing. But he felt “a sense of humanity,” and instead spent the money on food to serve the men.

“In some respects, we always think of (the langar) as being funded from those original rupees that he went and spent,” Kaur said.

Tajinder Bansal, another Sikh volunteer from the U.K., noted the emphasis the religion has on giving.

“You’ve got to share everything you have. Not only your knowledge, your wisdom, but your meal.” he said. “Actually all this is being done by God himself…through other people.”

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