I struggled with what to write about for my May post. Would I write about the ridiculous notion which has countless Americans buying into the idea that COVID19 is a hoax? I could write about how it is fool hearty for us to even consider lifting stay at home orders when the number of infected patients are still rising daily. The list goes on due to the rising pressures, frustrations, and anxieties that are surrounding each one of us.
Yet what I really want to talk about is a shining example of the goodness and compassion of humanity. During times of utter sadness, fear, and the unknown, we need to keep talking about things that warm our hearts, remind us there is beauty and happiness in life. So, for the next few monthly posts of mine, I am going to be highlighting specific communities, organizations, and peoples that are doing extraordinary things during these uncertain and challenging times. The first community that I want to talk about is the Sikh Community.
For many, Sikhism and Sikhs might be a religious community that is not widely known. Sikhism is a religion founded in Northwestern India in the 1400’s and formally established on April 13, 1699. The religion grew amidst strong religious persecution; persecution that continued into modern times. And especially in America, after 9/11, Sikhs were largely misidentified as terrorists due to many of their male believers donning traditional head turbans. Sikh women who have chosen to observe kesh (uncut hair) have been ridicule for having facial hair.
Sikh communities across the global have continually been targets for hate crimes and xenophobic rhetoric. Despite the continual acts of hatred and ignorance placed upon them, they have continued carrying out their religious ideals and being forces of immeasurable good.
One of the most important religious ideals for Sikhs is that of Seva. For Sikhs, this means selfless action/service. It is an ordained philosophical mandate for Sikhism that followers partake in seva throughout their lives. At the core of seva is that service should be done without any expectation of results/awards/benefits. It is service done for the well-being of all. It can also be considered dedication to the welfare of all beings. By being of service to everyone, it helps to reinforce another crucial foundational idea for Sikhism; that of equality. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, firmly believed in establishing practices of equality.
One of the tangible ways that equality is shown is that the majority of Sikhs are given gender neutral names at birth. Another way that Guru Nanak tried to establish equality is through food. Hunger and the need for quality food is something that all peoples experience. By the 1500’s, community kitchens or Langars were being established in Sikh communities.
Langars produce free meals not just for the members of the Sikh community but for all humans. The meals made at the Langar are vegetarian so that all faiths can be able to partake in the food considering different religious dietary restrictions. A free meal is available to all regardless of religion, gender, economic class, and ethnicity. When eating at the Langar, all peoples sit on the floor to further reflect that all are equal and valued. In many langars, men and women sit next to each other which in many South Asian communities is taboo.
Langar is also Seva. It is done to help all those, to establish a safe space for all to be fed. Sikh Langars have become one of the largest global entities which feed the homeless populations. LangarAid is an organization established to address the growing need in the UK surrounding hunger and homelessness.
Langars and the Khalsa (which stands for both the community of believers and a selected initiated dedicated devotees) are also some of the first non-profit organizations brought in when a natural disaster, war-zone, or crisis has occurred. Khalsa Aid currently is helping Syrian Refuges as well as relief efforts in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Congo.
Now we come to our current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic and what the Sikh community across the globe is doing during this pandemic. From the Punjab, the streets of the UK, Canadian provinces, and to small and large cities across the US, Sikhs are feeding people, providing services for those not able to go on essential run orders, running businesses that provide necessary equipment, and medical care.
The Sikh Coalition has published information regarding all aspects of COVID-19 in both English and Punjabi. Sections include educational programs, taxi driver relief help, and much more. What is fascinating is that alongside the resources to ensure that Sikhs are taken care of, is resources and links for Sikhs to volunteer and help in multiple ways. A way as the website puts it, “As always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly.”
The Largest Sikh Gurdwara(temple) in Delhi is serving over 100,000 people a day. All the food and service are donated by the Sikh community. According to the United Nations affiliated organization United Sikhs, they have, as of April 13, fed over 1 million people globally.
They provided 30,000 meals in NYC alone, started mobile COVID-19 testing and treatment in Seattle, and made grocery runs in Texas. My own local Sikh communities are being highlighted for their efforts during this global crisis. Sikh women are rising to the need to create homemade masks, hospital gowns, and surgical caps. Sikh families are using their own kitchens to make meals to be distributed at the langars.
Before the pandemic, I would take my classes to the Sikh Gurdwara every semester. The students were always blown away with the generousity and kindness they experienced. Everyone, men and women are required to cover their hair when entering the Gurdwara. Like all other institutions which are functioning in a patriarchal system, there is still work to be done within the Sikh community to truly establish gender equality. One of the things that is tangible is that during this global crisis, the Sikh community is finding ways to help all peoples.
From tirelessly ensuring that peoples of all faiths and races are fed, providing support in multiple ways for the community, and being part of the front lines to combating this global pandemic, the Sikh community is a fundamental part of how we will all come out of this as better human beings. Thank you to all those that have helped, continued to give their time, resources, and money to ensuring that all peoples are fed and being taken care of. To the Sikh Community – Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.
Anjeanette LeBoeuf is hunkering down during this pandemic and hopes all that reads this are safe and well. She is the Queer Advocate for the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She is focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. During this pandemic, she has started to tackle the mounds of books that have piled up and is simultaneously reading YA fantasy books and strenuous academic books.