NEW YORK—On a frigid Wednesday evening in February, Hemant Wadwani parks his car in front of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. Volunteers who have been waiting rush to his aid, greeting him with the salutation Sai Ram and help him transfer boxes and trays of food out of his trunk and onto tables that have been set up on the sidewalk in front of the church.
They help themselves to latex gloves and quickly start arranging the food, plates and eating utensils. There is broccoli with carrots, rice mixed with vegetables, rice with black beans, steaming lentils in a stainless steel pot, cabbage mixed with potatoes, organic green salad drizzled with oil and vinegar, pasta with red sauce and bananas. The food, having been recently cooked, is warm and smells delicious. About 50 hungry people wait patiently in line.
This weekly meal for the homeless at the corner of 116th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., is organized by devotees of the Indian spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba, whose mission is to serve those in need.
Watch an audio slideshow about the weekly meal for the homeless:
(Interviews with Sai devotees Hemant Wadwani and Anna Correa.)
“The main mission of Sathya Sai Baba is service,” said Wadwani, who’s helped organize this event for the past 13 years, irrespective of weather. “Anytime we do service, it attracts people of all faiths. At Harlem we have Chris who is Christian, Gary who is Muslim and myself and Satya who are Hindu, all coming together to provide a nutritious, vegetarian meal.”
Many of the devotees are Indian, but Sathya Sai Baba’s teaching has spread widely in the U.S. throughout many different ethnic communities, which is reflected in the nationality of the volunteers and the variety of dishes served.
Sai devotees also feed the homeless in front of the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, located on First Avenue between 29th and 30th Street, every Saturday afternoon. The meal at this location was started by Sai followers Hugo Vasquez and his wife Victoria, immigrants from Columbia, about 12 years ago and regularly attracts 250 to 300 people each week.
To ensure he has adequate food, Vasquez parks his large van (donated by a Sai devotee) every Saturday morning in Queens and Sai volunteers bring him food cooked in Brooklyn, Long Island and Queens. Vasquez serves hot food, so his van is fully equipped with burners and serving dishes. About 10-12 volunteers show up weekly to organize, heat and serve the food. Anna Correa, originally from the Dominican Republic, has been volunteering in front of the Bellevue Men’s Shelter for three years and finds it very rewarding.
“I am just enjoying the opportunity to give to others a piece of what we have, because we have so much. Coming here a few hours a week is really nothing for me,” said Correa.
The food service begins with Vasquez reciting a Sanskrit verse that gives thanks to Brahma, the creator, and is followed by a prayer read in Spanish and English that encourages love for all beings. With a background of devotional Indian music played on a cassette deck, the homeless help themselves to a nourishing midday meal of bread, assorted vegetables, pasta, rice, steaming potato soup, juice and carrot cake. As soon as one dish is finished it is immediately replenished with another.
Srinivas Tangella and his 15 year-old-son Akilesh, originally from South India, have brought a rice dish and pasta.
“Today I made mixed vegetable with rice,” said Tangella. “It is made with peas, beans, carrots with a little masala, salt, and yellow powder.”
In addition to Harlem and Riverside, the Sai group actively feeds communities in the Bowery, at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church and conducts volunteer services at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island.
Wadwani says listening to the stories of people on the food line helps him understand the challenges they face. “It gives me a better idea, when I interact with policy makers, what the real problems are on the ground. And that’s what I think today’s generation of political leaders are missing, that component of human touch.”
I met Wadwani last summer at a Hindu American Seva (service) Charity conference at the White House, intended for Hindu’s to increase their civic engagement in this country through volunteerism and interfaith collaboration. Since last summer I have become one of Wadwani’s volunteers that cook, bring and serve food in Harlem. Although I am not a Sai devotee, I have been touched by the dedication and love of volunteers who reach out to so many indigent families in New York City, and by the gratitude shown by the disadvantaged in return.
Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.