In the Sikh religion there is an institution called langar, in which the temple feeds the congregation on Sundays.
But when the Sikh Gurdwara temple in Thonotosassa closed because of COVID-19, the tradition that is central to the religion had to be accomplished another way.
So volunteers from the temple began taking food out into the community to demonstrate that the practice was being continued, establishing the Tampa Gurdwara Vulnerable Outreach 2020 initiative.
They started by delivering food from restaurants to health care workers and first responders.
Gradually, they went to homeless shelters and realized how many people needed food, as well as personal hygiene items including masks, so they delivered supplies to them as well.
The volunteers partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay and sponsored a day of meals. They fed 350 people that day, with volunteers from the temple including Harpartap Singh, who said it was a wonderful feeling.
That feeling sparked the idea to start cooking at the temple, which Singh said has a pretty decent kitchen, and to start feeding people every Sunday outside of the temple via drive-through.
To spread the word, they made large signs and put them out around the temple.
The first week, they cooked 300 meals, thinking that maybe 20 or 30 people would show up. If no one did, they arranged to give the food to Feeding Tampa Bay. But 250 hungry people came. Singh said they were blown away.
The experience was highly emotional, he said. He recalled a woman who was in tears because she hadn’t been able to feed her two children a proper meal in days. Singh said they told her to come back and they would give her enough food for the week.
Their program caught on quickly via social media, garnering volunteers to come cook and distribute meals. At this point, in the program’s eighth week, they have 55 volunteers. They can’t all work at the same time, so they’re scheduled in shifts.
Social media also helped them get donations for the program, from members of the congregation and beyond.
“We didn’t even have to knock on anybody’s doors, they just started writing checks,” Singh said. In about four weeks, they raised about $38,000.
They take donations through the Tampa Gurdwara (USREF) Vulnerable Outreach 2020 Facebook page, a GoFundMe and a Zelle account. Singh said they’re getting donations from other states and countries.
As the word spread, the number of meals increased to 400 each week.
One week, when they had 50 or 60 boxes left, they went to a bridge in Mango where they’d seen a lot of homeless people. Once they opened their doors, about 80 hungry homeless people showed up. Singh said they now bring them food once a week.
“This is part of our religion,” he said. "In the past we have been feeding people who are well fed and well-to-do but now we are feeding people who are really needy.”
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Singh said they’re hoping to grow the program and continue doing it for as long as possible. There are discussions of increasing it to twice a week. They’re also making a list of people to bring weekly groceries to. So far there are 30 families on the list.
The experience has been “uplifting and amazing,” Singh said.
“It’s great that we are able to do this. Hopefully we can do it more and more, for more and more people.”
Meals are served every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Sikh Gurdwara of Tampa Bay, 15302 Morris Bridge Road, Thonotosassa. (813) 986-6205. To donate, volunteer or learn more, visit tampagurdwara.com.
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