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Laotian Buddhist community rebuilding destroyed temple in Westminster

by Austin Briggs, The Denver Post, Feb 18 2016

Efforts to rebuild the fire ravaged Lao Buddhist temple in Westminster are ongoing but have been hampered by lack of funds.

WESTMINSTER, CO (USA) -- Sunnie Gist watched in horror the night her Buddhist congregation's temple burned down in Westminster, taking with it many sacred artifacts — some more than 1,000 years old.

<< Oudomphone Xaynourath, left, head monk, and Savang Inthamanivong, right, elder monk, sit in front of a shrine in their temporary home at the Lao Buddhist Temple on Feb. 12, 2016, in Westminster. (Anya Semenoff, Your Hub)

Lacking any construction experience, a group of dedicated volunteers has pushed forward in the rebuilding effort. It's been slow going and the larger community — once estimated at roughly 3,000 members — has drifted apart, Gist said.

Meetings are held on site in a white banquet tent that has to be taken down regularly per city regulations, hindering many of the religious rites and festivities that occur in a temple.

"As the rebuilding has taken longer and longer, "It's heartbreaking — people came from all over Colorado to use the temple," said Gist, who has spearheaded reconstruction efforts. "It was built by many of our family members who first came here from Laos a generation ago and made this our home."

It's been a trying four years for the Laotian Buddhist community since the December 2011 electrical fire engulfed their temple at 108th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard.

Lacking any construction experience, a group of dedicated volunteers has pushed forward in the rebuilding effort. It's been slow going and the larger community — once estimated at roughly 3,000 members — has drifted apart, Gist said.

Meetings are held on site in a white banquet tent that has to be taken down regularly per city regulations, hindering many of the religious rites and festivities that occur in a temple.

"As the rebuilding has taken longer and longer, the community is kind of shifting and losing hope in a way," she added. "My personal opinion, having been with the project since the beginning, is, we're not doing that bad."

Insurance covered just a small fraction of the estimated $2 million reconstruction. Since the beginning, temple volunteers have worked tirelessly, finding local contractors and other businesses to donate time, expertise or materials.

To cut down on labor costs, temple members have taken to swinging a hammer and doing as much of the physical construction as possible.

"It's been very hard for us, everyone has full-time jobs and we're doing this on our own time," said Pat Panpradith. "To demand time or donations goes against Buddhist teachings."

Surrounded by vacant land with an unfettered view of the Rocky Mountains, a basement covered in a concrete floor has been built, and dozens of items ranging from flags to vehicle-sized statues of Buddha dot the 6-acre property.

Lead designer Emmy Thammasine visited Laos for the first time three years ago for inspiration on temple design. He said there will be a three-tiered, curved red roof and a wraparound deck to enjoy the sun setting behind the mountains.

"In Laos, daily life revolves around the temple," Thammasine said. "Many of us who grew up in the United States, this is our only connection to Laos. I can't imagine future generations not having that temple."

Shortly after the fire, head monk Ounkham Vuennasack died of cancer, his final words imploring the community to rebuild at all costs.

This final wish has helped keep the community optimistic.

Speaking through a translator, head monk Oudomphong Xaynourat said the temple will be for all community members, regardless of religion.

"It's OK to come and see how we're living and what we've been through," Xaynourat said. "We want people to know not to worry about messing up because of cultural or religious reasons."

Westminster has supported the group in the annual Dragon Boat Festival at Sloan's Lake and has worked closely with congregants during reconstruction, said Mayor Herb Atchison.

"They lost so much," Atchison said. "Most of us can trace our roots from immigrants, and the Lao community is part of the melting pot here in Westminster. It's extremely important for us to have that diversity, and we're certainly anxious for them to get that built."

Members say they're hoping Phase I of the project — the temple itself — will be finished within a year.



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