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London's Homeless Line Up For Free Meals From Mobile Sikh Kitchen

ARUN RATH, HOST:

A tradition from the Sikh faith has expanded beyond the temple walls and into the streets of London. It's called langar. Surinder Singh Purewal is a senior member of the largest Sikh temple outside of India. It's in the London suburb of Southall.

SURINDER SINGH PUREWAL: Everybody is welcome to the free kitchen, which is what we call langar, where they are served a free meal.

RATH: The Sikh temple or gurdwara isn't like its counterparts in the world's other big religions. The gurdwara is actually nondenominational. Anybody can come to worship whatever they want. Atheists can just go and hang out. The langar is for anyone who wants to eat.

But it's not like that's common knowledge, so generally it's all Sikhs eating the free meal at the gurdwara. Now, several years ago, after the economy took a hit, Indian students going to school in London started coming out to the suburbs for the langar.

PUREWAL: Because they were going to colleges, there were other students from other nationalities who started to come with them. And then obviously the word got around, and the other people started to come.

RATH: And as word spread that everyone was welcome, the meal service there grew and grew.

PUREWAL: It's about 5000 a day, and at the weekend, it's about 10,000.

RATH: That's when Randeep Singh, a young member of the temple, got an idea.

RANDEEP SINGH: Sikh temples - although in our local Asian areas there's quite a few of them dotted around - but if you go into central London, there's no Sikh temple. So how do we help the people that can't get to the temples? We then decided to take our work into the wider audience - into central London - and to feed the masses.

RATH: Randeep Singh now runs the homeless project for a group called the Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team - SWAT. Think of this as langar meets food truck. SWAT vans head out to the neediest areas of London as mobile kitchens and the people they're now feeding are entirely non-Sikh.

SINGH: We deal with about 350 - sometimes to 450 - every Sunday night, every Thursday. And we're planning to start going out every day.

RATH: Back at the temple, a big Sikh congregation keeps the donation box full. But SWAT doesn't have a donation box or a congregation as such. Still, Singh says the offerings keep coming in.

SINGH: We're very blessed. I truly believe that God sends everything through his different ways that he does it. We don't advertise our service. We don't really shout about what we do. But we do get noticed, because I see the van everywhere. They see people dropping clothes to us and then somebody else will ask what these close are for. And we tell them.

RATH: And their charity is becoming an essential part of day-to-day living for a growing number of London's poor.

SINGH: I had a lady that came to me and said I had my last 10 pounds, and I had to decide whether I'm going to buy food with it or am I going to buy a token for my electricity. And she said I bought the electricity because I knew you guys are going to be here to feed me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: That's Randeep Singh. He runs the homeless project for the Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.