2004-04-24 05:36:29 UTC
The Dhamma Times, 24 April 2004
By Craig Gustafson
Associated Press, United States - Members of a local Buddhist organization
have dreams of building a large temple filled with 3,000 people in
For now, they'll settle for a 16-by-20-foot addition to a revamped
To make way for a growing Laotian community here, Nobles County officials
approved the use of the farmhouse as a makeshift Buddhist temple until a
more permanent location can be found. But neighbors say that farm country is
no place for a church, especially one that draws dozens of people to a rural
road occupied by the combines and grain-filled semis of local farmers.
The Buddhists insist there won't be a traffic problem because they only hold
large celebrations once or twice a year. Outside of those gatherings, only a
handful of members visit the temple each day.
Thi Synavone, the Buddhist organization's elected secretary, said the
Worthington community has been supportive and "open to diversity," although
she fears that race and religion may play at least a small part in the
"They're accepting of us to have a temple as long as it's not by them,"
Synavone said of critics. "Have it wherever you want, but not by us because
then we have to deal with it."
Farmers say they're only fearful of accidents on the temple's narrow, gravel
road when visitors face heavy equipment head-on.
"I don't care if you're a Lutheran, or a Catholic, or a Baptist, or whatever
you are. This is not a place for any church," said Joel Lorenz, who farms a
330-acre parcel around the temple site. "It's not based on religion, it's
based on the location. They have the right to worship however they want."
To address safety concerns, the Buddhists agreed to not park on roads and
limit large gatherings to 300 people.
In the end, the Laotians convinced Nobles County commissioners that the
temple wouldn't adversely affect farming operations.
"We just felt, you know, everybody has the right to worship," said Nobles
County Commissioner Diane Thier. "We all know this isn't the place for it,
but this is what they could afford. This is what they do own now. We want to
let them try it."
In fact, commissioners took the unusual step of changing an ordinance to
accommodate the Buddhist temple. In November, after rejecting the Laotian
group's first temple site within the city limits of Worthington, the county
tweaked the ordinance to allow churches to be built in its Agriculture
It's the first time in 30 years that the county has given its blessing to a
non-farm development in its coveted agriculture district, said Wayne Smith,
the county's director of environmental affairs. The district, which covers
98 percent of the county, or just about everything outside of its cities,
had been considered off-limits except to farming operations.
So why make a change now?
Commissioner Norm Gallagher said that Laotians have helped fill a void left
by southwestern Minnesota's dwindling population, and making room for them
to expand creates a win-win situation for Nobles County.
"We need the workers and they need the jobs, and they need a place to live,"
he said. "It behooves us to make it as consumer- and user-friendly as we
Laotians first began resettling in the United States, including Minnesota,
in the mid-1970s, as they fled Laos during the communist takeover. According
to U.S. Census data, the Asian population in Nobles County has more than
tripled since 1990, to 830 in 2000. Laotian leaders say they account for
about 600 of those.
Bounlome Soumetho, former president of the Buddhist organization, said he
and others worked diligently during the past year to smooth over any
acrimony with opposing farmers. Besides parking and capacity restrictions,
the Buddhists agreed to a two-year conditional-use permit with an annual
review and no loud music after 10 p.m.
Smith said of the Laotians: "They come in and they want to go through the
process. They pay their money. They show up at all the meetings. They've
been super to work with, answering all our questions - and some of them are
probably pretty stupid questions."
For Soumetho, it's simply the Buddhist way - leading a moral life, being
mindful and aware of one's actions and thoughts, and cultivating
"We trust our Buddha," Soumetho said. "We cannot leave him behind. The more
people that know about the temple, the better."
Founded about 2,500 years ago, Buddhism teaches that right thinking and
self-denial will enable the soul to reach nirvana.
The Laotians raised $40,000 to renovate the dilapidated farmhouse, which was
donated by a temple member. To make it a more hospitable gathering place,
volunteers put new siding on the house, rebuilt the kitchen, expanded the
living room, and hauled unsightly junk (including an old bus) from the yard.
Synavone concedes the farmhouse isn't an ideal location, but right now it's
the only thing within the growing organization's financial grasp. The group
plans to raise more money in the next few months to install a septic tank
and make the building handicapped-accessible.
"Without the support of the community the way that we've had, we wouldn't be
able to do all of this," Synavone said. "Because if they didn't want us to
have a temple out there, they could have made it hard for us. But we do have
really good people helping us out."