night falls bleakly at the cor-ner of St. Clair and Old Weston Road. At the Coffee Time, grizzled men slouch over their ashtrays and peer into the darkness. Across the street, an enormous crucifix reiterates in hissing neon the threadbare mantra "Jesus saves."
Whatever is being saved must be hoarded against a rainy day, for the church is locked and dark.
Just around the corner, though, it feels like Christmas at the Sri Guru Singh Sahba Temple. This first impression is easily accounted for by the garlands and twinkling lights with which the hall is hung.
Nonetheless, when I slip through the front door I feel like an intruder. Although I know it's Sikh tradition to offer food and hospitality to strangers 24 hours a day, I find it hard to believe that I'm included in the category of eligible strangers. Perhaps I'm not poor enough, or hungry or sincere enough. Or maybe I'm not Sikh enough.
I've lived in Asia, and I know that when non-Asians gather there they often do not welcome locals. Many bars and restaurants in Seoul patronized by westerners have "No Koreans allowed" signs at the door. It seems psychologically consistent that I'll be snubbed on exactly the same grounds.
And as I stand there awkwardly, I'm approached by a burly Sikh in a turban and a football jacket. But his "Can I help you?" is not a rhetorical preamble to my ejection. It's delivered with a good-natured, quizzical smile.
When I explain that I've come to experience the famous Sikh hospitality, he lights up. Perhaps he wonders if I'm somehow joking, but he's determined to play his part. "OK," he smiles, "come with me. My name is Jarwinder."
I'm instructed to take off my shoes and given a triangle of fabric to cover my head in the dining area. I'm taken to wash my hands, then led to a pile of trays and cutlery. Finally, I'm taken to the front of the hall, where a woman is washing dishes. Several stainless steel pots on the counter each contain a different dish.
I'm served some dal, some aloo gobi, chapatis and a spoonful of pickled cauliflower. "Hot," my guide warns, pointing at the dal. But I'm not about to turn up my nose.
My guide and I sit cross-legged against the wall. The hall is very nearly empty. A few older men in traditional clothes and impressive beards sit against the opposite wall. The hypnotic rhythm of Indian music tumbles from unseen speakers. Children are sweeping the floor. The woman brings me a cup of water.
But my guide is agitated. Soon he leaps to his feet and smiles apologetically. "My English is not very good," he explains in good English as he hurries away. But he returns a moment later with another, who shakes my hand, introduces himself as Suresh and sits down beside me as Jarwinder takes his leave.
Suresh has the deliberate speech of an engineer, which he is, and the patient eyes of a monk. He does not wear the traditional Sikh head-covering and has no beard. "I am Hindu," he explains, "but I volunteer here because I like to help."
Perhaps I look puzzled, because he continues. "There is only one God. Religions are only different streams leading to the same ocean." He explains that the Sikh faith is an offshoot of Hinduism and that there is really no reason why he should not offer his time here rather than somewhere else. So much for fanaticism and dogmatic intransigence. Volunteering seems the most natural thing in the world to him.
By now I have finished my food, which was quite good -- perhaps not the best Indian food I've ever eaten, but certainly not the worst. Impressed, I ask why the temple goes out of its way to accommodate strangers.
He puts one hand on his abdomen and turns his eyes to the ceiling. "It is impossible to think about God when you are thinking about your stomach," he explains with a laugh. "Besides, our religions teach us to share. In my faith, we are not to eat until we have shared something, even if we only feed the birds. I believe the Bible says the same thing."
When I observe that while this is true, I've never come across a church open 24 hours a day to feed and house strangers, he smiles gently. "This is what we do. The Golden Temple in Amritsar has four doors to symbolize that people are welcome from everywhere." So it's not just the garlands and lights that make me think of Christmas. It's the peace on earth, goodwill toward everyone.
Eventually, Suresh has to return to his volunteering. But first a trio of ragas, or temple singers, visiting from India, come over to say hello. No doubt they wonder what I'm doing here, but I'm glad I've come. Suresh invites me back on Sunday.
When I return, the temple is busier. The hall smells of Indian cooking, of ghee and curry. Parents watch knots of children. But Suresh isn't there. He's not well, I'm told. Then I'm invited in for a cup of tea. The woman from my last visit smiles and begins urging me to eat in the international vocabulary of gestures, fingertips to mouth. But I decline.
I return to my familiar spot on the floor, returning hellos. The tea appears, then small honey cakes. A small crisis develops when I realize that I can't eat them without scattering crumbs on the floor, but a teenager senses my panic and delivers some napkins. I'm surprised by the perfectly logical fact that he speaks English without an accent.
Then a small man, barefoot, in traditional garb, heads toward me across the floor. He smiles, hands me a mobile phone and sits down beside me. On the phone is Suresh, who apologizes for his absence. He then tells me that the man who has handed me the phone is the temple priest.
Manjinder Singh is smiling at me benignly, perhaps even playfully, curious, I guess, as to what I'm doing here. Naturally, I don't want to keep him waiting. When I get off the phone and hand it to him, it turns out that he doesn't really speak English. But Harjinder Badial, brother of the observant young man who provided me with napkins, arrives to translate. He's young and slender and, in his black jeans, offers a study in contrast with the priest, who looks much like the portraits of bearded Sikh gurus that encircle the hall.
The musings of priests seldom include anything new. They impress not with their novelty but their earnestness and otherworldliness. And if this priest finds anything remarkable in his own discourse, he doesn't show it. He explains, "As long as they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, anyone is welcome." This is not announced as a solemn vow or a claim to saintliness, but as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
When I find myself back in the street, outside the Coffee Time, I feel that I've been away. And I realize then why I enjoy the temple so much. People travel not only to gaze at the exotic, but to see other, often better, ways of doing things.
The temple-goers seem foreign to me not because they dress differently, or because they worship an unfamiliar god, but because I'm not accustomed to being treated like this. To be given something -- not out of compulsion or venality, but simply because a stranger wants to share -- is to experience something so far out of the ordinary that you feel you must be somewhere else.