From Langar, With Love: Reflections from the 2018 Parliament

It’s only my second day of the conference, but I already know my favorite part. (For the record: I reserve the right to discover a new favorite part, just in case.) Let me preface this favorite-part declaration with an explanation that I am pretty new to the interfaith world. I grew up in a community that was predominantly one religion, and I’m a member of that religion. Interfaith interactions were few and far between simply because my community was fairly homogenous. I became involved in interfaith work last year when I started my graduate program. All of that introduction is meant to explain that I had never heard of an amazing thing called…Langar!

Langar technically means “kitchen” but more generally refers to the free meals that are offered every day at Sikh temples throughout the world. The meals are vegetarian so that everyone, regardless of dietary restrictions or religious traditions, can eat. Everyone eats together, sitting on the floor with their heads covered and their feet bare. This structure of communal eating emphasizes that all people are equal. In addition to offering Langar every day at Sikh temples, the Sikh community in Toronto is providing Langar to attendees at the Parliament of World Religions.

Today at lunch time, I, along with other Parliament attendees, walked through the exhibit hall to where Langar was provided. I removed my shoes and walked to a row of chairs where Sikh volunteers tied head scarves on everyone. The woman helping me took my head in her hands after the scarf was tied and, in the sweetest, most loving voice, thanked me for coming and told me to enjoy my meal. I then walked over to the food line where I was handed a tray, a spoon, and a napkin. As I walked through the line, I received rice, roti, lentils, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, peas and potatoes, each in a sauce bursting with flavor and spice that was at times too much for my weak palate. Each volunteer smiled as they served. I grabbed a cup of water and walked over to a spot on the floor where I enjoyed my meal with friends. Throughout the meal, more volunteers walked around, offering us more rice, more beans, more roti, and more water. It was difficult to say no to these additional offers of food even when my stomach was full because they were so generously given.

Besides thinking immediately about how nice each volunteer was and how generous and loving they were as they made sure each person was taken care of, I also wondered how Langar was funded. Finding volunteers to spend so many hours preparing, transporting, and serving food was amazing in and of itself. But as a current grad student living on student loans, I am also painfully aware that food costs money. Feeding thousands of conference attendees every day is not a cheap endeavor. Upon further investigation (in the form of asking my new Sikh friends), I learned that Sikhs donate at least ten percent of their income, referred to as dasvandh, to the Sikh community. This was not a new concept for me, as I know many religious practices, including my own, require some kind of tithing or zakat. But seeing the actual output of what those donations produced was both impressive and humbling.

Many reading this blog may already be familiar with the concept of Langar, but it was new to me. A friend had told me that Langar would be provided at the Parliament, but I didn’t really understand what that meant—there is a difference between learning about Langar and experiencing it firsthand. Now that I’ve seen Langar in action, I have a greater appreciation of its role in blessing participants with a full stomachs and full spirits. My favorite part of this Parliament has been seeing people from so many different places and so many different backgrounds come together to share their love, their communities, and their traditions, all while sitting on the ground as equal recipients of an entire community’s dedication to making sure no one goes hungry and everyone is respected.

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