Tucked between Cross Creek Blvd. and the entrance to Cory Lake Isles on Morris Bridge Rd., the Sikh Gurdwara of Tampa Bay temple, which typically goes about its business in relative anonymity, has become a haven for the hungry.
Every Sunday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., almost since the Covid-19 pandemic began, hundreds of families happily receive aluminum, plastic and styrofoam containers filled with hot meals — rice, soups, pastas, curries, veggie burgers and even burritos.
What started as a mission to help a few has quickly evolved into a mission feeding hundreds.
“When the pandemic started in mid-March, we had to shut down our temples like all the churches, and we were wondering how we could do something to lift the spirits of our congregation,” says Harpartap Singh, one of the temple’s volunteers.
The congregants turned to the temple’s langar, the community kitchen of a Gurdwara, which serves meals free of charge to everyone, regardless of religion, gender or ethnicity. “One of the primary things in our religion is that everybody is treated equal,” Singh says.
The Gurdwara expanded the concept, and reached out beyond its congregation.
The members hung banners and posted invitations on social media. On March 18, it began — volunteers made 300 meals, although Singh says they were only expecting 15, or maybe 30 people. The plan was to take whatever was left over to Feeding Tampa Bay, part of the Feeding America network, which provides food to thousands of families that need it.
However, that Sunday, the crowd was overwhelming. More than 250 meals were served.
“And we haven’t stopped since,” Singh says.
Now, the Sikh Gurdwara of Tampa Bay, which has been at its Morris Bridge location for 27 years, serves nearly 800 meals every Sunday. And, that number continues to grow.
On the Sunday before we went to press, the main course was split pea curry, prepared as usual by three chefs that Singh says are all excellent. Main courses are typically accompanied by bottled water, fruit, chips and salad.
Singh says the “humbling experience” of feeding the hungry has moved his congregation, and inspired the group to do more.
“Barely a week goes by that we don’t stand there and cry with somebody,” Singh says. “They tell us it is the best meal they have had all week, and tell us stories about how some of their family members have died and there was nothing they could do. We have fed people who are living in their cars.”
The hot meals are just part of the Sikh outreach.
Volunteers take food all over Tampa Bay, seeking out the homeless and the needy. At one location, under a bridge in the Mango area, Singh says that 70-80 homeless people now wait for the Gurdwara volunteers to arrive with the food on Sundays. Whether it’s in the downtown areas of Tampa, St. Petersburg or Clearwater, a handful of loyal volunteers fan out to find people on the street to distribute an additional 200-300 meals.
The Gurdwara members provide groceries for roughly 50 families. They have fed and paid the rent for international students at USF who have lost their jobs and cannot return home. They deliver food to an orphanage in Wesley Chapel that cares for autistic children, as well as first responders and those on the front lines of the Covid-19 battle.
The volunteer list at the temple is 400 strong. Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, who has visited the Sunday food drive multiple times, says he will be giving the group a City Council commendation in the coming weeks.
“What they do is incredible,” he says. “They are good people.”
Most of the expenses are paid by the congregation, which is comprised of many doctors, engineers and business owners throughout the Tampa Bay area. Some sponsors also have stepped forward. In all, Singh says the Gurdwara has been responsible for distributing roughly 19,000 food packages and $60,000 worth of dry groceries since the pandemic began.
He says the congregation sees some of the real impacts of the Covid-19 battle up close on a weekly basis.
The pain is real. The Gurdwara has enough food to last through February of 2021, and its members have no intention of stopping even if the pandemic passes. They are even looking into becoming a farmshare conduit.
“Even though this is a great country, there are so many people who need help,” Singh says. “It has truly touched us and lifted our spirits, and that’s what any religion is about. We are blessed to be able to do this.”
The Sikh Gurdwara is located at 15302 Morris Bridge Rd. in Thonotosassa. For more information about the Gurdwara and its food drive, visit TampaGurdwara.com, search for Tampa Gurdwara on Facebook or call (813) 599-1557.