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Sikh group uses power of food and hundreds of years of tradition to build bridges in Calgary

Offering free meals to strangers — the Sikh tradition of langar — has long been a core part of the Sikh faith.

Hundreds of free langar meals were dished out in Forest Lawn this week to get people talking

The langar meal is a centuries-old practice that affirms Sikh beliefs about equality. 0:34

Offering free meals to strangers — the Sikh tradition of langar — has long been a core part of the Sikh faith.

And where better to talk about our similarities, and differences, than over a plate of food.

Organizers served up hundreds of meals to Calgarians from all walks of life this week in the name of breaking down barriers and bringing the city closer together.

"We don't know who's right next to us and how much we have in common," said Rusveer Kaur Jones with the Sikh education organization Basics of Sikhi.

Rusveer Kaur Jones with the group Basics of Sikhi says using the tradition of langar, which dates back hundreds of years, is a great way to bring people together to learn more about the Sikh faith and culture and dispel and few myths along the way. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"We're sharing the message of oneness, we're all connected and doing that over food is breaking down all sorts of barriers, socio-economic, religious, we're just two people sharing a meal together," said Jones. "This has been going on for hundreds of years."

Jones and a team of volunteers dished out more than 700 free meals in Forest Lawn this week at the Alex Community Food Centre to create an opportunity for people to talk openly with Sikhs and ask all sorts of questions about their beliefs and culture.

Volunteers help dish out more than 700 meals over the course of the week to a diverse range of Calgarians including First Nations, Christians, Sikhs and even a few Muslims, who are fasting for Ramadan but came to show support. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Every Sikh temple or gurdwara — including Calgary's — offers people a free meal at any time regardless of sex, colour or religion. There are no rituals involved and everyone eats together. It's at the centre of Sikh teaching around equality.

"We're always scared of what we don't know so we need to break down all of that stuff and see that we're all the same, we're all one," said Jones. "It's been fascinating to see our neighbours here and hear the questions they have."

"Just them piecing it together like, 'I never knew that's what you believed,' or, 'I had a Sikh neighbour for 20 years and I never knew you guys did this,'" said Jones.

The langar meals dished out to Calgarians included paneer - a type of Indian cheese - mixed vegetables with rice and naan with yogurt. Langar meals are always vegetarian so as not to exclude anyone from the practice of sharing food with people from all religions and walks of life. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The event was timed to coincide with Empathy Week 2018, a seven-day festival of events in Calgary to promote empathy and human connection, organized by Calgary-based group Humainologie

"Food is a very, very powerful tool for breaking down barriers," said Miriam Bankey with the Alex Community Food Centre on International Avenue, which hosted the meals. 

The Alex brings people in the community together to grow, cook and share food, holding classes and food-focused programs.

Miriam Bankey with the Alex Community Food Centre says International Avenue in Forest Lawn is the perfect venture for a food-based event like the community langar. Bankey says food can be a powerful tool in bringing people together. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"We all eat and we're all deeply connected to food, it connects us to the land, to ourselves and each other so today is a perfect example of how food really can connect us to each other," she said.

"Good food is a basic human right that everybody deserves and we're here in the heart of Forest Lawn, we're very diverse out here and there's a lot of amazing restaurants with delicious food so it made sense to bring in the Sikh community and share with our community," said Bankey.

Organizers say they hope to hold the event again next year.

About the Author

Dan McGarvey

Journalist

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist at CBC Calgary, filing stories for web, radio and TV using only an iPhone and mobile tech to gather and produce news stories. You can email story ideas to Dan at: dan.mcgarvey@cbc.ca