Thirty volunteers from the Torrance Jamatkhana (Greater Los Angeles Area) participated in an interfaith exploration and outreach event sponsored by the Sikh Center of Orange County and organized by the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board for the Western United States in January 2020. This was part of the Aging Gracefully Intergenerational program and Jamati members learned about the similarities between the Sikh and Ismaili communities – the shared ethics of volunteerism and service to the community, as well as of their focus on spirituality and equality. They assisted the Gurdwara’s (Sikh place of learning and worship) volunteers in serving breakfast and prasad to the congregation.

Dr. Gurpreet Singh Ahuja, a Pediatric Otolaryngologist, assembled the volunteers on the grounds of the Gurdwara and briefly discussed the tenets of the Sikh faith, and how volunteerism plays such a central role in Sikh practice. He spoke of the faith’s three main tenets: equality and sharing, earning an honest living, and meditation, with a specific focus on spirituality and mindfulness incorporated in everything one does.


The five symbols of Sikhism: Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kanga (a wooden comb), Kaccha - (cotton underwear,) Kirpan (steel sword).
The five symbols of Sikhism: Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kanga (a wooden comb), Kaccha - (cotton underwear,) Kirpan (steel sword).

What stands out as unique is the Sikh perspective on charity, “Sharing does not mean charity – charity marks superiority,” said Dr. Gurpreet. This element of equality that pervades through the Sikh practice was evident in observations at the Gurdwara. The turbans that are worn, explained by Dr. Gurpreet, were intended to bring equality to society. At the time it was introduced, the turban was solely worn by royalty and Guru Nanak, the founder of their faith, instituted the turban to demonstrate equality among humans. Dr. Gurpreet also noted that, in some cases, the names of Sikh followers are gender-neutral, giving the value of equality further depth.

One of the key expectations of a Sikh is that the Guru Khalsa Panth, the community of initiated Sikhs, serve society and this Seva has done much to benefit the community. They have established service through the Sikhlens Foundation, which collaborates with Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts in Orange, California. As a result of 9/11, Sikhlens inaugurated a film festival to increase awareness of Sikhs among mainstream Americans.

“9/11 pushed the Sikh faith outside of the walls of the Gurdwara,” said Sikh Center of Orange County’s leader, Mr. Bicky Ji Singh, the host of the late January event. To further extend their outreach, Sikhlens has placed a Sikh float in the annual Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, for the last six years. The increased awareness has demonstrably decreased targeting of members of the Sikh community in the United States since that fateful day in 2001, Mr. Singh indicated.

Another way that the Sikhs have brought their ethic of service to the community is through the langar, the community kitchen in the Gurdwara, where a free warm meal is served to all visitors, without distinction of religion, race, ethnicity, gender or economic status. The Sikhs have taken the langar outside of the center and now serve meals in other venues in the Southland. Mr. Ravi Singh, a Southern California Sikh, and his wife, Jacquie, have taken the community kitchen mobile, by operating the “Share a Meal” food truck on Skid Row in Los Angeles, feeding about 1,000 people a week.


The principles of Sikhism.
The principles of Sikhism.
Zeeshan Sultan

The level of service that the Sikhs have achieved sets an example for community outreach. Clearly, this was a significant takeaway from the Ismaili guests' visit to the Sikh Gurdwara - the demonstrative importance of service to the Sikhs and how their expression of service fully embodies their ethic of equality. The Ismaili guests came away learning about the Sikh tradition and recognizing that seva is common among the two faiths, reinforcing their own commitment to continue to volunteer.