Some local Sikhs open new site

Frustrated following fire, group raises funds, purchases former funeral home

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Guru Ramdass Gurudwara (O Street)

Gurudwara Sahib Vancouver

Cramped worship and parking space, and little progress toward a long-planned temple, have prompted some members of Vancouver's Sikh community to pool their funds and open a facility of their own.

The new Gurudwara Sahib Vancouver building, at 4700 N.E. St. Johns Blvd., was the Evergreen Staples Funeral Chapel for years; after that it was briefly Serendipity's Event Center. Because the place was designed for big gatherings, it required little remodeling to become a Sikh temple, according to business manager Jagjit "Jack" Prehar Singh. (Jagjit goes by "Jack"; Singh is a religious surname taken by many Sikh men.)

Jack Prehar didn't characterize what's happened to local Sikhs as a split. He said the main motivation for the new building is the continued inadequacy of the old one. That's a former church at 3600 O St., in the Rose Village neighborhood, which became the Guru Ramdass Sikh Gurudwara (temple) in 2001. The building's main meeting hall is too small for its 200 member families, Prehar said, and its tiny parking lot sends members scouring the neighborhood for someplace to put their cars. Neighbors who don't appreciate the parked cars have been known to block their street frontage with orange cones.

All of which started leaders of the Guru Ramdass Gurudwara raising funds and aiming for a new home years ago. They settled on the shuttered Landover-Sharmel Athletic Club at 13400 N.E. 20th St., not far from Evergreen High School. The athletic club had gone out of business in 2007, leaving behind a 17,000-square-foot building on 2.5 acres. The Sikhs bought the property for $835,000 in 2008.

But some members of the Sikh group protested the purchase, claiming it was made by a self-appointed management group without the whole group's consent. A lawsuit was filed in October 2008 by some members of the group — who made some nasty and personal allegations regarding threats and intimidation — but it was dropped within months.

Slow progress was made toward a remodel of the Landover-Sharmel Athletic Club — until almost exactly one year ago, when a late-night fire that's been blamed on wiring destroyed the project. Federal officials investigated, as they always do when a fire hits a church, but found no evidence of arson. When The Columbian visited the site this month, the land had been cleared of fire debris — but that's the only sign of change since last spring.

Except for this: a lawsuit was filed against the Guru Ramdass Sikh Community on July 1 of this year by Pacific Contractors Group of Redmond, which was doing the construction work. The lawsuit claims that the Sikh group has failed to pay at least $27,900 for work and taxes, and also that the Sikh group's insurer has refused to cover at least $22,600 in claims for PCG's tools, materials and personal property that were destroyed in the fire.

Pacific Contractors "has sent GRD Sikh multiple notices about the amounts owed for fire losses and contract amounts due," the lawsuit, filed on July 1, says. "GRD Sikh has not responded to any of these notices."

Contacted by phone, Pawneet Sethi of the Guru Ramdass group had no comment about the lawsuit, nor about the new temple. But he said his group has finalized new plans for a building at the Landover-Sharmel site, and is waiting for approval from city planners.

One year after the fire, he said, the group is still awaiting insurance reimbursement. It continues to meet at the O Street temple. Other leaders of the Guru Ramdass group did not return The Columbian's calls.

Move-in ready

Too little has happened since the fire, Prehar said, and too many questions linger. "We don't know the future of the burned-down building," he said. "God only knows what will happen."

In the meantime, he said, it wasn't hard to raise the additional money to acquire the building on St. Johns, which was move-in ready. It only required new carpeting and some new accoutrements, he said. According to county property records, the 6,250-square-foot building was sold on June 26 for $460,000 to Jagjit and Ashwinder K. Prehar. Jagjit Prehar is the owner of Jaks Continental Transport, a trucking company.

He said the new facility will offer prayer services twice each day. "Anybody can come," he said. "We believe that God is one and all human beings are equal." It will also offer Punjabi-language classes and studies of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.

"Some of the members have moved here" while others are sticking with O Street, Prehar said. Attendance at the St. Johns building is small but growing, he said.

Sikhism is a progressive religion that emerged in northern India roughly 500 year ago, as a reaction against the rigid and repressive caste system. It is the fifth-largest religion in the world.