Conversations on Faith: Sikhs and the City

This essay is part of our ongoing series, Conversations on Faith, where we invite Strong Towns members to discuss faith and religion in the context of this movement. Today, contributing writer, Johnny Sanphillippo shares some observations on the Sikh community.

I’m the least spiritual person I’ve ever met. But I’m fascinated by how religious groups can be a dynamic force in the success or failure of cities. Sikhs are particularly interesting to me. The faith emerged in the Indian subcontinent in the 15th century, but they’re neither Hindu nor Muslim.

The gorgeous architecture, art, and music associated with Sikh Gurdwaras (Temples) are less interesting to me than the way Sikhs incorporate public service into their worship. The Langar (communal kitchen) directly feeds people in need every day. There’s something about comfortably middle class people preparing meals for the larger community that’s transformative for everyone involved. Service to the community and service to God go hand in hand.

The Langar is vertically integrated. Bulk ingredients are procured from Sikh farmers and supplied by Sikh distributors. All the elements of the community are folded in on each other in self reinforcing feedback loops. Sikhs have a reputation for pragmatism, social justice, and collective prosperity. There’s virtually no unemployment within the group. If a job is needed work will be found somehow.

The act of physically helping to feed people as part of Sikh culture accomplishes many goals, not all of them strictly spiritual. India has a great deal of crushing poverty. It’s one thing to be poor, hungry, idle, and isolated. But the same level of poverty is more bearable with a full belly while engaged in constructive work within a larger supportive group.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Sikhs prosper more than many other people within the same geographic and economic environment. People who disengage from their surroundings and retreat from the world may avoid strangers and some unpleasantness. But they also cut off intimacies and connections that come in handy, particularly in hard times.  Neither raw commerce nor government bureaucracies can ever deliver the same quality results as a close-knit subculture. 

If you're a person of faith (or interested in religion in general)) and a Strong Towns member, we'd like to hear your story. Please get in touch with Communications Specialist, Rachel Quednau, if you're interested.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)

More Conversations on Faith