Like most other gathering places in Northeast Florida, the local Sikh house of worship closed as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
But the Sikh religion, which is the fifth-largest in the world, calls on its members to regularly perform Seva, or selfless service. So in May, Gurudwara Jacksonville, home of the Sikh Society of North East Florida, launched the Share a Meal project.
Every Saturday masked and socially distanced members prepare and deliver meals to the homeless and other needy people. By August they had provided 3,000 meals, as well as bottles of water and face masks.
"Members share the expenses," said society secretary Sukhbir Singh. 'It's just a blessing."
Such community service is one of the "three pillars of Sikhism," he said.
Kirat Karni means hard and honest labor, Naam Japna is reciting and remembrance of God's name and Vand Chakna is "sharing one's earnings … with others, giving to charity and caring for others," Singh said.
Part of caring for others is Langar, providing a "free community kitchen" to all, regardless of faith or status. The message: "Let no one be hungry, let no one sleep in hunger and no one die of hunger," he said.
Jacksonville's Sulzbacher, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive services for the homeless, is among the beneficiaries of Share a Meal.
“The Sikh Society has been coming to volunteer in our kitchen for many years, supporting their homeless and hungry neighbors," said Sulzbacher CEO Cindy Funkhauser. "When the [pandemic] shutdown came and it wasn’t safe for us to have volunteers in our kitchen, they still wanted to help, so they started dropping off meals for us to serve to the community. They really are amazing partners.”
Sikhs have been following their three "golden rules" for about 500 years.
Guru Nanak Dev founded the Sikhi religion in the 15th century in the Punjab region in South Asia, which spans modern-day Pakistan and northwest India. There are about 25 million Sikhs across the world, including an estimated 500,000 in the United States and about 100 families in the Jacksonville area. They began arriving in this country in the late 1800s.
"Sikhs have been a part of our country's social fabric for more than 125 years, but many people still don't know much about the faith tradition or the people who practice it," said Rucha Kaur, community development director of the Sikh Coalition, a national civil-rights organization that also works to raise awareness of the religion, among other things. "You will often find Sikhs stepping up to help not just in times of need … but also routinely in their neighborhoods."
Meanwhile, they have suffered "bias, bigotry and backlash" because of their "distinct visual identity and articles of faith" such as wearing turbans and unshorn hair, she said. Also, the "discriminatory rhetoric" voiced by some elected officials can make life difficult, she said.
"But as a counterpoint, the unity we've seen across the country — people helping people through the devastation of this pandemic — has provided opportunities for Sikhs to demonstrate the values of our faith by helping those in need," Kaur said. "In Florida alone, we know of Sikh sangats [communities] not just in Jacksonville but also in Oviedo and Tampa that are going above and beyond to help others."
Singh, with wife Sargum, arrived about 25 years ago for job opportunities. They both work in the computer software field and have raised two sons, one an economist, the other a physician.
Northeast Florida has been largely welcoming, but like Kaur they said they are concerned about the current tenor nationwide.
"There are so many divisions in society, people not being treated equally," Sukhbir Singh said.
The Sikhi religion, his wife said, believes everyone is equal and should be treated with the same respect, from CEOs to the poor. That should apply to "all people who love God, regardless of caste," she said. "Recognize and respect each other."
To help spread that word, the society works with OneJax, a nonprofit institute based at the University of North Florida that promotes racial, religious and cultural tolerance.
"The Sikh community is very active in community service and active in several OneJax programs," said OneJax Executive Director Kyle Reese.
They lead the OneJax Interfaith Gratitude Service every year and in 2019 donated food to the UNF food pantry in conjunction with the 550th birthday of the founder of Sikhism, Reese said. They also have an annual “Wear a Turban Day” at UNF to educate students and other people about the meaning of the head covering.
Wearing a turban can lead to "mistaken identity" because people of many religions and cultures wear turbans for many different reasons, Sukhbir Singh said. Also, some people associate it with the people responsible for the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
For Sikhs, wearing a turban can be a unique way to spot each other in a crowd or to take care of their unshorn hair. It "asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion and honesty," according to the coalition.