After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the local Sikh community began to ask how they could help in a tangible way. Pawneet Sethi made some calls and connected with Pastor Brian Norris at Living Hope Church.
That’s the short version of how a group of Sikhs started a Sunday afternoon meal service for homeless people at the Christian church in central Vancouver — a service that’s been going on now for five months.
“We make it happen every week without a hiccup,” Sethi said.
When it first started, the group received donations for cold food, but Sethi said they wanted to provide the dignity of a hot meal. A week ago it was barbecued hot dogs and macaroni salad set up in the parking lot in front of Living Hope Church. The group cooks something different every week for up to 250 people using the commercial kitchen at Namaste Indian Cuisine in east Portland. Beaverton, Ore.-based Bombay Pizza and Curry also pitches in and occasionally brings pizza.
No meat is allowed inside Guru Ramdass Gurdwara Sahib, the Sikh temple in Vancouver’s Landover-Sharmel neighborhood. It’s one of the rules of Sikhism, so the group found a workaround to serve nonvegetarian meals.
Darshanpreet Pataria is the primary cook for the Sunday meal service. Sethi refers to him as jathedar, a leader within the Sikh community. Every Sunday for the last 10 years, Pataria has helped put together the local temple’s free communal meal served to all visitors, which is called langar. Being semi-retired and with COVID-19 precautions limiting activities at the temple, he says he otherwise wouldn’t have enough to do.
“I’m keeping myself busy,” he said.
Doc Kerr, who is homeless, said the Sunday meal is a blessing.
“Food out here is not easy to get,” he said.
Kerr said people often treat the homeless poorly, but at Living Hope Church and at the weekly meal he receives “excellent treatment.”
The driving force behind the meal service is one of Sikhism’s golden rules: Share what you have. Sikhs have been talking more and more, Sethi said, about the spirit of oneness and the importance of serving humanity to the best of their abilities.
The Sikh faith and its principles are little known. During last Sunday’s service a pastor mistakenly thought Sethi was Islamic. He said Sikhs face an ongoing battle of identification. They’re often mistaken for Muslims due to the turbans and head scarves they traditionally wear.
Non-Christian faiths represent 6 percent of Washington’s population, according to Pew Research Center. Sikhism, a fairly new and progressive monotheistic religion that rejects the caste system, is bundled under “other world religions” and accounts for less than 1 percent of the population. On a normal, nonpandemic Sunday there are 150 to 200 people at the east Vancouver gurdwara. These days, it’s 15 to 20 people.
Being out in the community serving food is a chance for Sikhs to answer questions about their religion should people have any, Sethi said.
Norris said the group has taken just one week off since the pandemic began. It’s been a great relationship, he said. Living Hope Church provides services and a tent encampment for those in need while the Sikhs provide a warm meal.
“That’s what’s beautiful,” Norris said. “Nothing touches my heart more than when we see communities with differences rally together.”
When Living Hope Church last week offered to open its building as a space for wildfire evacuees, the Sikhs were quick to say they would back up the church by providing meals for those who stayed there.
“We’re a Sikh community. That’s what we do. People need food and we’re there,” Sethi said.
‘Ready to go’
Currently, there are no shelters in Washington, but there are nine in Oregon housing about 3,000 people, Michael Drake, executive director of the Red Cross’ Southwest Washington chapter, said Sunday.
“We’re ready to go if anything happens on this side,” he said.
Drake said he’s exploring what opportunities there could be for religious groups to help. The Red Cross and Sikh community talked about possibly feeding people at the Oregon Convention Center, which recently opened as a shelter for evacuees.
The massive Oregon wildfires triggered the highest level of emergency response, Level 7, meaning upwards of $7 million will be spent in response aid, Drake said. Volunteers and staff have come from across the nation to help. With such a large price tag attached to the wildfire response, a local group of Red Cross board members recently celebrated a $10,000 gift from the Sikh community. The check was presented during the Sunday meal service.
Board member Tracy Fortmann said the money will be put toward necessities such as food, lodging, clothing and prescriptions — things people have to leave behind when fleeing a wildfire.
“It’s a tremendous gift,” she said. “This is a year that’s been like no other.”
For the Sikhs, giving to the Red Cross aligns with their doctrine. It’s part of living out their faith. Sethi emphasized that the Sikh community is small while Clark County is large. Sikhs aren’t the only group able to feed the homeless one day each week or reach out to the Red Cross offering aid. He’d like to see other faith communities and business owners step up to help.
“Thoughts and prayers only go so far. It’s time for action,” Sethi said.