Faith, Food, and Creating Interfaith Community
by Tahil Sharma
This article was originally published on March 15, 2013 by The Interfaith Observer.
The Transforming Power of Hospitality
One of the best ways to generate community with young people is food. Food is a must! It not only provides an excuse for multitudes of people to come together but can create a strong bond, stronger than we imagine. Centuries of tradition and craftsmanship have gone into the creation of humankind’s many foods, and they can bring peace to one’s mind and stomach. A delicious meal, from whatever community, can also be a great conversation starter. In America, if you have Murgh Makhani (an Indian chicken curry dish) with Naan (bread), or Saag (collard greens) with rice, people can ask about the origins of the dishes and the role food plays in a community.
As a Hindu and Sikh myself, food possesses great importance and respect, a blessing we receive from God reminding to be thankful for the world we live in. I had the blessed opportunity to do this through a meal I helped prepare at a gurdwara (a Sikh temple) in Walnut, California. We prepared a purely vegetarian meal served to over a hundred people from communities near my university. This free meal at the temple, called langar – bread, legumes, vegetables, and water – began a conversation about Sikhism, what we believe, and how the interfaith movement can grow in our communities. The result is having more people interested and invested in educating themselves and others about the different perspectives and religions people have on our campus and beyond. I have served communities through soup kitchens and community meals for over a decade now, and my faith grows through giving back to the world that has given me so much.
Langar in Sikhism means more than just the food. The community meal emphasizes the main values of the Sikh faith: devotion to God, a lifestyle of honesty and determination, and being able to share one’s wealth with those less fortunate. Our ability to show devotion, determination, and selflessness through these meals contributes to the karma we earn and helps benefit the world around us.
We enter the sacred space barefoot, with heads covered, and sit on the ground to share a simple, vegetarian meal which all can partake. We are reminded of the respect given not only to those of other religions but the mutual respect of all humans before God. As the scripture of the Sikh faith, the Guru Granth Sahib, is seated highest within a Sikh temple, reminding us of the reverence and authority given to God, we are all seated below on the same platform. This underlines our understanding that human beings are equal in value, while recognizing our diversity and each person’s individualism. Langar is found in every gurdwara in the world, open at all times, and available to all that come.
From the perspective of the Hindu tradition, food is revered as the essence of Brahman, or the Supreme Being that permits our existence in the world. The Taittiriya Upanishad in the sacredVedas regards food as the essence of humanity and the ‘oldest of all creatures.’ This essence comes from the Supreme Being that formed the soul; from the soul was formed the elements, and the elements formed the cosmos and the earth. From that herbs came forth, then food, whose seeds brought forth human beings. The development of our existence resides within all that is necessary for our existence.
Both Hinduism and Sikhism find their greatest joy and satisfaction in selfless service. Both provide food for all those that come in the doors of their temples. (Though, too often, people stay away from what seems strange and unknown.) And today, faith and interfaith groups are organizing to provide sustenance for the hungry. From the Khalsa Peace Corp’s “Project Share-a-Meal” in California to the Mobile Loaves and Fishes social outreach ministry in Austin, Texas, thousands of religious and interreligious groups are working hard to provide sustainable solutions for those who are destitute, as brothers and sisters in humanity.
One group where I’ve enjoyed doing such work comes from the Church of the Brethren, the faith tradition of my school, the University of La Verne. They started a local Food Network feeding members of the community once a month, especially students, with a multitude of different foods for everyone to enjoy. The hard work and love that the kitchen volunteers put in to make and serve the food can only be understood by the deliciousness in every morsel of food we receive. It calms people and opens us up to each other. Good food and good conversation with good people can go a long way.
I believe that food and fellowship are crucial for the interfaith movement to go forward and prosper. Is it innate for us to help a person who is suffering from an illness, injustice, or hunger. Gandhi said, “For the hungry person, God begins in the stomach.” His wisdom will help us grow as a community and serve God, whatever our tradition.
Published with the author’s permission