About six years ago I became part of a Khalsa Council spin off group focused on promoting langar programs. We would meet once a week on the phone to brainstorm, and on one of the calls someone mentioned they had heard about an interfaith soup kitchen in Espanola that would like to have some Sikh participation. This sparked my interest and I began asking around, trying to find this program. Eventually I got in contact with Suzie Roybal, who coordinates the San Martin de Porres Soup Kitchen. I learned that they serve lunch Monday through Friday, with a different faith group taking charge of each meal. We could do a meal once a week, every two weeks, once a month, or whatever worked for us. I thought once a month would be a good place to start, and then gauge how much enthusiasm there was in the ashram for this project.
I sent out a notice inviting anyone interested to come to my house for dinner and a discussion about the possibility of forming a seva group to serve at the soup kitchen. My hope was that the lure of delicious food would maximize the turn out. About ten people showed up, and we quickly formed a tight knit group that continued getting together for dinner and to plan the logistics of our seva at the soup kitchen. We began meeting in October and finally served our first meal in January. It took us all this time to plan a menu, organize a cooking crew, designate who would buy the groceries, and specify a team to serve the meal and another to do the cleanup.
Finally the day arrived and the cooking crew arrived at the soup kitchen bright and early to begin their job. Because it was our first time effort, the meal preparation took a bit longer than expected. When mealtime arrived the servers assembled in the dining room to meet our clients, and to let them know the food would be ready in about ten minutes. We were roundly criticized for not providing hot water so they could warm up with tea and coffee, and they let us know they were used to eating at 11:30 on the dot. We realized that this was not an easy crowd.
Eventually the cooks carried in the food and we could begin serving. The care that had gone into the food and our graciousness in serving it created a slight thaw in the icy atmosphere. As the clients warmed up to us, frowns of resentment turned into smiles of appreciation and acceptance. At the end of the meal a number expressed hope that we would come back, and several came over to say “God bless you” before walking out the door.
We sighed deeply with relief and satisfaction as the cleanup crew began the final task of the day. It seemed that somehow we had passed a test, and our sincere intentions had pierced a wall of distrust. Over the six years we have been showing up at the soup kitchen, our bond with those we serve has grown deep and strong. They greet us with joy when our day rolls around. There are hugs of welcome, enthusiastic appreciation for the food, and so very many stop to bless us as they leave for the day. I always feel uplifted and that I’ve received a rare gift when I’ve been at the soup kitchen.
For me the strongest incentive to continue our soup kitchen seva is the bridge it builds between our ashram and the community that surrounds us. There is a great divide between the two. In the ashram we are steeped in the teachings of the Siri Singh Sahib and the blessings of our Guru. We have the support of a spiritual family and a technology through which we can merge with the Infinite. Surrounding us is a community plagued by poverty, crime and drugs. Its needs are great, and even though we have much to share, there are not avenues through which an exchange can easily take place. The world of the ashram is to them an intimidating unknown. So the soup kitchen provides a way for our two communities to intermingle. A place for us to share our consciousness and desire to give that feels comfortable and non-threatening to those we want to serve. It’s a way for them to see beyond the turban and exotic name and experience our sincerity. It’s a way for us to step out of our cozy ashram and into a harsher world that needs and values whatever it is we can give from our hearts.