SALT LAKE CITY — On Friday, the international Sikh community hosted some 7,000 new friends for lunch.
Their guests are people taking part in the 2015 Parliament of the World's Religions. Sikhs throughout the world are offering langar throughout the five-day event.
In the Sikh religion, langar means common kitchen in temples where food is served to all visitors without distinction of background for free.
Visitors are asked to remove their shoes, cover their heads and wash their hands before taking a seat on a carpet, where they are served a vegetarian meal that commonly includes dishes such as rice, curry vegetables and naan, an oven-baked flatbread.
"Everyone sits on the floor and feels equal. Let's say President Obama and a homeless man come to the langar. They would sit down together," said Sarbjit Singh, of Los Angeles, a Sikh who is affiliated with the Khalsa Care Foundation.
Singh said Sikhs feed all people who visit their temples so they regularly serve hundreds of free meals. But scale of the langar served each day at the Parliament is massive.
Since Thursday, thousands of pounds of food prepared at two Sikh temples in Salt Lake County have been trucked to the Salt Palace Convention Center, where the Parliament is being conducted, said Jagdish Singh Gill, a Utah Sikh who is a leader of the langar committee.
"It's service to humanity. We want to share with them. They're coming from all over the world. We want to be able to provide them free food, tea and coffee," he said.
At the Salt Palace, dozens of volunteers cook hundreds of pounds of rice in enormous pots, bake some 4,000 naan in ovens, and prepare hundreds of gallons of tea and coffee.
"Sharing and caring, those are the two keys. Every Sikh must do it with everyone, not just each other. We're all children of God," Singh said.
Parliament participant Jen Bernstein of Petaluma, California, said sitting down for a meal with people of such diverse faith backgrounds was "incredible."
"It's just remarkable. It tears me up a little bit, quite honestly, to see so much hospitality, so much grace and unflagging hospitality and kindness," she said. "It's really quite overwhelming, actually."
Bernstein, who said she is Jewish and Pagan and serves as a veterinary and community chaplain, is deeply immersed in interfaith activities.
"This is still remarkable, special and unique," she said.
Cameron Kennedy, a filmmaker from Australia, said he had his first experience with langar when the Parliament of the World's Religions met in Barcelona in 2004.
When his group arrived in Spain, they were exhausted, spoke no Spanish and came upon langar by happenstance.
"We felt the love and the food and the give. This one is a little spicier than the one in Barcelona," he said.
Kennedy's daughter, Emily, took part in her first langar Friday.
"I'm feeling the love," she said as volunteer servers walked down rows offering additional helpings of rice, garbanzo beans and other dishes.
"They keep coming back and they want to make sure everyone is served, that they're very full and that makes me happy," she said.
Singh said hundreds of volunteers will prepare and serve langar each day for the duration of the five-day parliament.
While local volunteers representing many faith traditions are helping out, some Sikhs traveled throughout the county and the globe to contribute. There are 60 volunteers from the United Kingdom alone.
Kennedy said he brought his daughter to the last two Parliament so she could be immersed in religious diversity and to learn about the global service performed by interfaith organizations.
"The world would probably be a different place without the people at this event, he said.
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