The Langar: Encounter at Work

Author: Rebekah Go

By far my favorite part of the Parliament of the World’s Religions was the langar I was able to attend on three occasions during my time there. This year the Parliament was held in Chicago during a week that felt more like October than August. The weather was temperamental and often quite wet which means the success of the langar was all the more impressive.

Parliament 21
Leenah Safi, part of Zaytuna's first graduating class, joined members of the Ansari team at the langar.

What is a langar? A langar is the community kitchen of a gurdwara, the house of worship for members of the Sikh community worldwide. It is the Sikh tradition to serve all people - regardless of race, creed, class, religion, or any other defining characteristic - a langar meal free of charge. At the Parliament, the Sikh community had organized a langar for all five of the main days of the convening, for anyone who walked into that space, no questions asked.

The langar occurred in a great white tent adjacent to the McCormick Place where the Parliament occurred and 150 members of the Sikh community in the United Kingdom had flown across the ocean to oversee its execution. They were joined by local Sikhs and others from the surrounding region as each day they created and served the langar meal.

The whole operation was led by H.E. Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh. He had joined from Birmingham, England where he is the Spiritual Leader and Chairman of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, UK. With his gleaming silver kirpan (sword), he hosted guests, educated members of the public, poured tea, and spoke at the Parliament’s opening and closing ceremonies. He also joined the Ansari delegation at the Pen and the Sword panel to honor Ravinder Kaur Nijjar for her lifetime service award from Religions for Peace.

Day one of the Parliament, the clouds opened up and the downpour as well as my own fear of the unknown kept me from exploring the free lunch available just adjacent to where I was stationed. But by day two, our team leader, Mahan Mirza, had convinced me that the “real parliament” was taking place in that fragrant tent.

We walked over together. Mahan, who had also missed the first day, longing for a place he knew would be familiar. Me, anxious about what to expect. When we had arrived, industrious volunteers had laid plywood on the ground to bridge the still muddy path between the great white tent and our building and I walked on the makeshift bridge unaware that I would be transported to a totally different world.

Immediately I was greeted by a Sikh individual in all white, including a white urban, and a British accent so distinct it made me think of Ringo Starr from The Beetles. He invited me to the foyer of the tent - if a tent can have a foyer? - where I was told to remove my shoes and wash my hands before sitting to have my head covered. I followed directions and was soon seated in a chair where a kind woman wrapped my head in a scarf. Then I was directed to the big part of the tent. Mahan had already had his head wrapped in a bright saffron turban by a Sikh group that was offering the service in a neighboring booth.

The big part of the tent had an area for tables and chairs, and an area for education about the Sikh community, but the largest part was set aside for carpets which is where the majority of people were directed to sit. As I sat down I was handed a paper plate and fork and then waited in anticipation. However, the wait was hardly necessary. Before even a minute had passed my plate began to fill. First rice, then vegetables, then tofu, then yogurt, and then a sweet sticky ball that I understood to be dessert. I was also offered a cup that was promptly filled with water and a second cup that was filled with a delicious mango smoothie (whose recipe I need to find).

Musicians at the langar
Musicians at the langar

All of this was served to me by individuals wearing the white Sikh turbans and garments operating swiftly and efficiently - without spilling no less - to feed us all. The enormity of the task of serving between 6,000 and 10,000 people each day was made obvious by the silver buckets from which they scooped. I could hardly finish each thing before I was offered seconds. I imagine I could have stayed and continued eating for hours except that the meal was so filling that just one round was enough.

I didn’t get a chance to peek into the kitchen where the actual food was being prepared but it’s quite difficult to imagine preparing food at this scale. I spent 6 years of my life planning disaster response for the Red Cross and yet the Sikh community feeds thousands seemingly without breaking a sweat. I was in awe.

Leaving the great white tent to return to the Parliament, I was able to take a moment to listen to those who provided live sacred music at the langar. One day it seemed to be a Christian folk group but on the other two days the music seemed to echo the far east vibe.

Langar Picture from the Parliament
Rebekah Go sits with Sikh elders at the langar

Later during the Parliament, I had a chance to have my head wrapped in a turban by our neighbor who was now a friend, a Sikh community leader who had come from New Jersey for the Parliament. He said the Sikh community had raised $350,000 from its community to provide the langar for the week. He also explained that Sikh’s make up the highest percentage of the US population who own their own businesses because of what he referred to as “the turban ceiling” i.e. discrimination in the business world.

I also learned over the course of a separate conversation that the langar meal is always served vegetarian. At first I assumed that Sikhs must all be vegetarian. However, this is not the case. As one Sikh gentleman explained, serving vegetarian meals avoids many of the specific restrictions that individuals may have due to their own religious or personal beliefs. I later learned from another team member that, to his delight, the meal also met his need of being gluten free.

Each opportunity to participate in one of the langars left me with a full belly, a wide grin, and heart overflowing with gratitude. I was amazed by the generosity, service, humility, kindness, and joyful spirits of the members of the Sikh community whom I encountered. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - I was struck by a deep desire to look inwards. By so clearly and visibly expressing their faith by serving us, I felt called to more clearly and visibly demonstrate my own.