Like houses of worship all around New York City, the Sikh temple on 97th avenue in Queens was closed in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no service, no washing, no head covering, no offerings.

But one element of the Sikh temple continued.

The gurdwara’s kitchen stayed open to serve meals to the city’s essential workers and members of the Black Lives Matter movement. At a time when many people did not have access to meals, the kitchen was open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Such a kitchen operation, run by Sikh volunteers, is known as langar.

Japneet Singh, a Sikh activist and community member of District 28 in Queens, estimates that 100,000 meals were distributed from March 2020 to March 2021.

In Fall 2020, the congregation resumed prayer within the halls of the temple, known as a gurdwara, but with a new accessory: masks. They were largely hesitant to participate in langar so instead bowed in the Darbar Sahib prayer hall and left—forgoing an integral part of the faith’s routine.

Their skepticism came from evidence. In January 2021, the Richmond Hill section of Queens had one of the highest COVID-19 positivity rates across the city. This rate lingered. The community saw spiked rates because it is made up of an immigrant population with a large proportion of essential workers.

Singh, who ran for City Council in 2021, lost the primary election. Democratic opponent, Adrienne Adams, resumed her incumbency. According to Singh, no one from the city government came to the gurdwara to inform the community or train them on the health protocols to undertake during this time. Pamphlets were provided by the city but were not translated for the community that understands Punjabi, Hindi or Urdu, he said. Community members took to using the gurdwara as a site for distributing personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer.

The neighborhood was without a vaccine or testing facility until community leaders advocated for them. When they were unable to get them from the city, they reached out to third parties. Mobile vaccination vans, also offering testing, were set up outside the gurdwara in 2021.

Today, as COVID-19 positivity rates stabilize across the city, the vaccine vans are a less common sight. On Sundays, the day when Sikhs are off from work and find the time to worship en masse, they walk past a desk in the corner of the gurdwara, where two city employees sit, offering COVID resources like literature for the community.

Worshipers today will also notice a small, black webcam propped tall on a stand before the priests. The Sikh Cultural Society has over 7,500 followers on its Facebook page and uploads its prayer sessions to the page. The page’s photo gallery is also packed with images displaying the day’s holy scripture, hukam.

These technological innovations were started prior to the pandemic, at the suggestion of the head Granthi, or ceremonial protector of the Sikh holy book, to meet the needs of the community. At one point, WhatsApp Messenger, which is popular among the South Asian community, was used to deliver the daily hukam, but Facebook provides a larger reach.

Today, Singh, who is running for election in State Senate District 17, notices more food pantries popping up across the city. He recalls the efforts he witnessed from his community and is hopeful about the next stage.

“Humanity is a beautiful thing,” he said. “We can climb out of the hardest of hard.”