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Canada A Labor Of Love In Northeast Edmonton


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Sikh temple a labour of love in northeast Edmonton

Construction carries on 22 years after it started as volunteers continue to expand the Guru Nanaksar Gurdwara


EDMONTON - Weather-worn sheets of plywood shield a makeshift cement plant in back corner behind the Guru Nanaksar Gurdwara.

It says everything about this hands-on labour of love still growing as it enters its third decade in the northeast corner of Edmonton. The Sikh temple has been built with the coins and small bills dropped in the prayer room collection box, and with volunteer labour from as far away as England and India. University students spend their summers laying tile. They don’t hire contractors.

“It’s love, that’s what it is,” said Sehejpal Athwal, a 24-year-old customer sales rep for HSBC from England. He’s spending most of his 11-day vacation visiting his brother and volunteering on-site last week.

They come because they work beside their Baba Ji, or religious leader, he said. “They give us love, we love them and they teach us to love one another. You all learn to love and become one. It makes a better world.”

The dome of the temple now towers 10 storeys above the surrounding fields, but though they started in 1989, the Sikhs are not done building. Construction started on a new north wing designed to house a language school. Community leaders also have plans for a student residence, and perhaps a funeral home and a seniors residence, on the 36-hectare site.

But even though the spot is alone in the middle of a field off Manning Drive, it’s the centre of a fast-growing Punjabi community in the north end. A crowd of more than 1,000 is expected to drive out for the full-moon celebrations Tuesday night, and more than 2,000 for the fireworks on Oct. 26 marking Diwali, the festival of lights.

The hub of this community is tucked in the back, in a kitchen where 80-year-old hands roll the corn roti, strip mint leaves and wash spinach. Especially on weekends and full-moon days, the big main floor kitchen, with its six gas burners and pots the size of wine barrels, will be a hive of busy activity.

The Sikh community celebrates every full moon to remember their founder, Guru Nanak Devji, who was born on a full-moon day in 1469. He founded the Sikh religion to counter the strict focus on caste in the Hindu religion at the time, and started the practice of eating together.

“Anyone from any cast or religion, no matter how poor or rich, everybody sat together and had langar, which is food,” said Jas Sekhon, a retired small-business owner who volunteers in the kitchen at least once a week.

“He was trying to bring equality,” she said. “They can never stop anyone from coming in to have langar here.”

The Guru Nanaksar Gurdwara is the largest of four temples in Edmonton serving a community of about 12,000 Sikhs. It’s the only one that has food seven days a week, Sekhon said.

The temple opens at 3 a.m., when the first priest comes in to start reading from the holy book in the upstairs prayer room. The first kitchen volunteers come in at 5:30 to prepare breakfast. Others arrive later to make lunch and keep food available through the day. They serve community members, construction volunteers, school groups and anyone who stops in to learn about the Sikh faith, said Zora Grewal, vice-president of the Edmonton branch.

The dining hall is a 10,000-square-foot room with a floor made of marble and granite, all salvaged from demolished Edmonton-area buildings, donated or bought from sale bins no one else wanted. The second floor holds a carpeted prayer room, where volunteers take turns reading the scriptures. On a full-moon day, both these rooms will be full as worshippers pray, then come downstairs to eat, talk and work, then return upstairs to pray again.

“You should come here, if you come only for an hour. The atmosphere is so energizing you find strength here,” Sekhon said. “I love it here. I find so much peace.”


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