9-15 October 2015 #779

The house of god

A place of worship in New York’s Little Nepal becomes a symbol of religious tolerance
Dambar K Shrestha in New York


Till four years ago, the St Matthew Lutheran Church in Jackson Heights, New York used to cater to the neighbourhood’s Christian community. But this area of Brooklyn has seen a sizeable influx of Nepali immigrants in the past decades and has come to be known as Little Nepal.

New York’s Sherpas and other Buddhists needed a temple of their own, and started looking around for property. They spotted an ad in the Internet saying a church was for sale and immediately called to inquire. 

The location and size of a 70-year-old brick church with tile roof seemed ideal. The price quoted was $1.25 million and the Nepalis managed to raise $800,000 from the estimated 5,000 Sherpas living in the New York area. The rest of the money they borrowed from other Nepalis. 

Today, a shiny bronze figure of the Buddha sits below where there used to be a crucifix and altar. Instead of a cross on the roof, the former church is festooned with colourful prayer flags that flutter in the New York autumn breeze.

“When we first came to look at this building, we immediately liked its brick construction, and wondered how we could convert a building with a cross into a gumba,” recalled Dawa Jangbu Sherpa of the United Sherpa Association. “But we had to spend some money on changing the furniture and fixtures which had carved Christian motifs on them.”

The local municipality did not initially give permission for the church to be sold, and agreed only after they were convinced that the church was moving elsewhere because they needed more space. That is how the building had not only a change of ownership, but also a change of religion.

Says Dawa: “We had thought that there may be opposition from the Christians living in Jackson Heights if we removed the cross and crucifixes, so we waited. We had experience from Nepal that religion could be a sensitive issue.”

So for a few months, a Buddhist place of worship was located in a building with a cross. However, the contractors renovating the church convinced them no one would have any problems, and Dawa remembers heaving a sigh of relief. 

The renovations alone cost another $150,000 and today there are prayer ceremonies in the temple every Sunday. There are also researchers working on Buddhist cultural and religious studies who make it their base. The basement, Sherpa Kidung Hall, can accommodate 200 people, and can be rented out for public functions. 

“We don’t discriminate against anyone, we don’t say this is exclusive for our religion only, and this temple is a living example of religious co-existence,” says Dawa. Indeed, on a recent Sunday the prayer room was filled with Sherpa women in traditional dress, Nepalis of various ethnicities and American Buddhists.

Fittingly, the day four years ago that the Buddha figure was consecrated and the Jackson Heights Gumba inaugurated happened to be Christmas.

Ningma Pakhrin contributed to the reporting.

Read Also:

Nepal in New York, Kashish D Shrestha

Nepal in America