Friday, May 21, 2010

The Lord's Langar

As Christians, we are called to show unconditional hospitality to all the human family. We are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and comfort the broken-hearted. All too often though, we forget or ignore our call because of the inconveniences that arise from living out this sacred mission. When we see evidence of people living out God’s message of unconditional hospitality, it can be a powerful moment of reawakening. My faith journey has been peppered with these moments of epiphany, the most recent being my visit to the Sri Harmander Sahib—the Golden Temple at Amritsar. The temple is, in itself, breathtakingly beautiful, but what touched me was the unconditional hospitality of the Sikhs. Just as with Christianity, absolute kindness and generosity towards others is sacred in Sikhism, and at the Golden Temple, Sikh devotees carry out this mission every day.
Accommodation at the Golden Temple is free. Massive buildings that house thousands of beds are always open to pilgrims and travelers who wish to stay, regardless of religion or nationality. The rooms are kept clean and as comfortable as possible by an army of volunteers from the community. Unlike other temples, mosques and churches in India, visitors can see the Sri Harmander Sahib free of cost. There is no charge to visit the temple, no charge for a headscarf and no charge for shoe service (shoes and uncovered heads are not allowed in the temple proper). Everyone is welcome.

While we were at the Golden Temple, we experienced langar, the traditional Sikh meal that is shared with the whole Earthen community, regardless of race, religion, caste, sex or nationality. Every Sikh temple (gurdwara) serves langar, but the Sri Harmandar Sahib easily serves the most people, over 70,000 a day! Because Sikhism rose out of an opposition to the caste system, it is very important to Sikhs that everyone at langar eats the same food in the same place at the same time. Langar is also a means of feeding the poor; anyone can partake of langar at any time. We gathered our plates and followed the crowd into a large room that could easily sit 1000, and probably did. We sat down and servers came around, ladling daal (fried pulses in curry), channa masala (chickpea curry), sweet rice and chappatti onto our plates. We were allowed to eat our fill, the servers coming by often to ask if we wanted more of anything. After we had eaten, we took our plates out and deposited them in baskets, where they were immediately picked up and washed by an army of volunteers. To cook, serve, or help wash dishes for langar is considered a sacred duty among the Sikhs.

As I ate, I thought about Paul’s idea of the Lord's Supper. The Lord’s Supper, Paul says, is based on equality and fraternity, it is a meal shared among the human family. Class, creed, gender, none of these divisions should be preserved during this holy meal—it is a act of radical equality. I felt that sense of radical equality when I ate langar, in a way that I had not experienced before. Thousands of people, from all over the world, were sharing one meal side by side. Those who provided the meal did so without payment, without expecting any reward. As I was sharing langar with hundreds of people from every walk of life, I felt a holiness that I have, in the past, associated with sharing the Lord’s Supper. Although there was no ceremonial breaking of the bread, I felt the Spirit’s presence. It was amazing to find a familiar holiness in a place so foreign.

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