I used to entertain “back in the day.” Nothing huge – but I loved having friends over, cooking a big meal. From my parents, I learned that the best hospitality consisted of serving more than enough food so that no guest would have to worry about how much they might eat – you never know how hungry people might be (legacy of their two childhoods lived in poverty). I remember platters heaped with food when company came and hors d’oeuvres arranged to please the eye.
Since then, I’ve travelled a little and visited places where hospitality – even to strangers — was lavish beyond all my experience. Then, this October, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I saw hospitality as a spiritual practice.
It was my first Parliament. The first Parliament was held in Chicago as part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Religious leaders from many faiths, from far and wide, from India, Japan, and other countries, as well as the presence of women clergy (largely the doing of the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Unitarian minister who’d helped many women serve in the ministry) made for an event that changed the face of religion in the United States by introducing real spiritual breadth to our country.
The Second Parliament didn’t take place until the centennial in 1993. It was hosted in Chicago – but I hadn’t yet moved here for school. Since then, it’s been in Cape Town, Sydney, and Barcelona.
This time, it was in Salt Lake City, US. I knew I had to go. About 10,000 other people had the same idea. As I took my seat on the plane out, I was delighted to find my friend from the Sikh Gurdwara in Palatine, Dr. Balwant Hansra, in the same row. He told me that the Sikh community from all over was contributing lunch every day to everyone at the Parliament. It was a level of hospitality I’ve never seen before. It’s called Langar – a vegetarian feast that the Sikh community offers every day in their gurdwaras. Langar equalizes people – no distinction is made between male, female, rich, poor. The food is vegetarian – so that all can eat without being set apart.
Every day, hundreds of Sikhs cooked and served delicious food: sag paneer, jasmine rice, curried vegetables, dal, salad, fruit, mango lassi, desserts. Thousands moved through fast-moving lines, removing shoes, covering heads, cleaning hands, and being ushered to a seat (either at a table or on the floor). Then men, women, children walked by bringing serving after serving after serving until you were full. It made a lie out of the adage that there are no free lunches. It was entirely free. On the last day, as we finished eating, the youngest server I’d seen came by. He might have been six years old. Latex gloves on his hands, he was passing out nan, a delicious bread. He looked at us with deep, warm eyes, face just peering over the table top and asked if we wanted nan and, when we said “no, thank you,” he asked if we were sure. Then, with a smile, he walked to the next people along the table. It was then, that I really got that I wasn’t watching people serve a meal – I was watching a spiritual practice. That little boy was learning to practice the art of hospitality. Making every single person feel welcome.
The food was served in shining stainless steel buckets and not on colorful platters, not to please the eye, but to warm the heart – and it was even more nourishing and delicious because it was served, ladle after ladle, with the most inspiring love.
There were many remarkable moments at the Parliament – but Langar and the generous hearts of the Sikh community was remarkably nourishing.