Toronto, Canada – When Canada’s largest Sikh gurdwara shut down its langar, or community kitchen, last month due to the coronavirus, volunteers knew it could not be closed for long.
“Nothing like this has happened before,” said Ranjit Singh Dulay, secretary of the Ontario Khalsa Darbar in Mississauga, Canada. “I’m here in Canada 35 years. I’ve never seen like that.”
Before it closed, volunteers quietly served freshly-made meals to up to 2,500 people from the greater Toronto area on an average day. Regular patrons included the elderly and international students, many of whom struggled to put food on the table.
“People worried about their bills, money for groceries – now is when they need these services,” Dulay said.
That is why the langar was adapted so it could reopen as a take-out service. Up to 600 people a day continue to receive food packets, Dulay said.
When governments closed non-essential services and limited gatherings, faith organisations moved quickly, closing most churches, mosques and gurdwaras to visitors, and launching online portals or live-streams. But it was the sudden loss of experiences around worship – like communal gatherings, meals, and face-to-face connections – and necessary services that have hit faith communities the hardest. The lockdowns have been more difficult as important faith holidays – Easter, Vaisakhi, Ramadan and New Year – approach and pass.
“Langar is more than just food,” said Jaskaran Singh Sandhu, the former executive director of World Sikh Organization. As an integral expression of seva or service, a central tenet of Sikhism, community members volunteer their time, preparing meals and serving others. Sandhu said he grew up around the gurdwara. “They’re bedrocks of the community. The outpouring was really clear – it’s something that people relied on.”
Canadians’ anxiety levels meanwhile have worsened dramatically since COVID-19, according to the results of a survey published on April 2. Nearly six million Canadians have filed for job loss benefits.
During crisis, religious communities often turn to their faith, said Shahina Siddiqui, founder and executive director of the Winnipeg-based Islamic Social Services Association. “Not to be able to go to a mosque, or be in a congregation, adds a layer to that anxiety.” Her clients include refugees and the elderly.
For many in the faith community, the response to COVID-19 measures has been to look outwards, to help those in need. “While mosques may be closed, Canadian Muslims have taken this as an opportunity for caremongering,” said Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, referring to the trend that has emerged in Canada to help vulnerable communities.
Zahraa Saab, a public health professional, has been working with her local mosque and faith leaders to develop a database of evidence-based information and community services for those in need. She says there has been a tremendous outpouring of support. Initiatives like the Good Neighbour Project were created in March, with community members mobilising, delivering groceries, checking on elders, and providing services to those in need. “Charity is a very important pillar of our faith, and people are really putting that into action.”
Humanitarian aid organisations like Islamic Relief Canada and Khalsa Aid have organised drop-offs at local food banks and shelters across Canada. Islamic Relief said they have donated 5,000 kits across the country in the last three weeks, with volunteers quickly putting together hygiene products and non-perishable food for people in need. They are also providing financial aid. Khalsa Aid volunteers have delivered rations, including prescription medicines and groceries, to people in more than 600 locations. In one city alone, a Khalsa Aid team delivered rations to 65 international students in need. Khalsa Aid Canada’s national director, Jatinder Singh, said volunteers at his gurdwara in Victoria, British Columbia, are sewing cloth masks for essential workers and care homes in nearby communities.
Several charities and mosques have jointly called on the federal government for more support. “On one hand, the demand for services have increased, but the ability to deliver has decreased,” said Farooq, as fundraising activities have been directly affected by closures related to COVID-19.
The mosque closures have been personally difficult for Farooq. “I’ve been going to congregational prayers since I was a child; to suddenly not go, to not see my colleagues, it’s been challenging.”
As the month of Ramadan approaches, Saab feels nostalgic, as events and gatherings common to this time are cancelled. “The realisation that we might not be able to break fast together, in person, will be tough,” she said.
In Surrey, British Columbia, the annual Vaisakhi Parade has been cancelled. The biggest one outside India, last April it drew more than 500,000 people.
“We don’t really notice it, in our day-to-day lives,” said Sandhu, “but it’s in these moments that you gain a true understanding of how important these institutions are and the role they play.”