Brokenhearted Sikhs await fire answers

Community has decisions to make after unfinished temple is destroyed

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Tragic accident, or racist hatred?

Either way, local Sikhs are reeling from the news that their temple-to-be, which would have been the largest Sikh temple in the region, burned to the ground early Oct. 12.

Sarabeet Teja, president of the Guru Ramdass Sikh Community, met Vancouver fire investigators at the site, the former Landover Athletic Club at 13400 N.E. 20th Street, on Thursday morning. They spent an hour going through blueprints and building plans in order to assist the investigation.

Officials had no comment and Teja told The Columbian the investigation is still under way. He's been told there probably won't be any news for weeks to come.

Clark County property records say the building and grounds combined were valued at $513,000. Teja said the property was insured.

"We are cooperating with the insurance company and they are working with the investigators too," he said. "We are in limbo."

Also looking into the matter are the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Federal involvement is standard procedure for any fire at a place of worship, according to Vancouver Fire Dept. spokesman Capt. Kevin Murray.

Teja said his community is assuming the best. "Everybody is hoping this is nothing like hatred, nothing like that," he said. "There is no reason to think it was anything like that."

But fearing the worst may be understandable for American Sikhs. Numerous crimes of hatred and harassment against turban-wearing Sikhs have been reported in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. In August of this year, a military veteran with a gun opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six.

New friends

Vancouver's Guru Ramdass Sikh Community responded with a public vigil at its current temple on "O" Street, which attracted people of many faiths. The vigil aimed to educate the community, establish cross-cultural connections and make something positive out of tragedy, organizers said.

Now, as local Sikhs struggle to absorb this latest blow -- without knowing its cause -- there have been many expressions of concern and goodwill from those same new friends, Teja said.

"People want to help, but with an investigation ongoing, there's nothing anybody can do yet," he said.

There are approximately 200 member families of the Guru Ramdass Sikh Community, and 700,000 Sikhs in the United States. While the turbans confuse some people, Sikhism is not Islam. Sikhism is an outgrowth of Hinduism that was founded in northern India in the 15th century.

The Landover Athletic Club was built in 1968 and closed up shop in 2007. The Guru Ramdass Sikh Community purchased the building in 2008, and has been working through fundraising and remodeling ever since.

Teja said his group reached out to sister Sikh communities and received generous contributions from as far away as Roseburg, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., he said.

The building's grand reopening, as the new Guru Ramdass Sikh Gurdwara (temple), was just months away.

Bittersweet birthday

Teja was looking forward to all that as he rose early on the morning of Oct. 12 at his home in Camas. He was also looking forward to a weekend of birthday festivities honoring his group's namesake and the fourth guru of Sikhdom: Guru Ram Dass. Three days of special services and prayers at "O" Street were planned, he said.

Those plans went up in smoke along with the construction project. Teja got the news at 5:30 a.m., with a text from a manager at one of the Chevron franchises he owns. His employee texted that he'd better check TV news: Wasn't that his new temple that had just burned down?

"It was shocking. I told my wife. I called a few other people." Then, he went to the scene, where he learned that the building was already considered a total loss.

Two construction workers from Seattle who were staying in the building overnight -- to protect their equipment, Teja said -- made it out OK.

The weekend's birthday festivities at "O" Street were abbreviated to a much more sober service on Sunday only, Teja said.

"We are in shock. It is heartbreaking," he said. "We don't know what to do now."


Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.