As Sikh congregation makes progress on temple, neighbors wonder

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Did You Know?

Sikhism is a progressive religion that emerged in northern India roughly 500 years ago as a reaction against the rigid and repressive caste system. It is the fifth-largest religion in the world, with 25 million practitioners, mostly in Punjab India.

An estimated 750,000 Sikhs live in the United States — where they are often mistaken for Muslims because of the turbans they traditionally wear. Sikhs are not Muslims.

To learn more: Contact the Sikh congregation spokesman Pawneet Sethi: 503-970-3287

Depending on whom you ask, the main thing still missing from the golden Sikh temple that’s risen in northeast Vancouver is either interior finishing or neighborhood outreach.

At 21,000 square feet, “It will be the second-largest gurdwara (temple) in the state,” after the one in Burien, spokesman Pawneet Sethi said.

The Columbian asked for a tour of the stunning construction site on Northeast 20th Street, and walked through last Friday with several members of the board of the Guru Ram Dass Sahib Gurdwara. There’s a towering foyer, full of natural light, where people will be able to gather for weddings and other community festivals; there’s a spacious central meeting room, just as full of natural light, where prayer services and meditation will take place; there are smaller first-floor rooms for offices, storage, restrooms, a ladies’ “powder room” and a library where archives, books and artifacts can be kept — and of course there’s a “shoe room,” where all will remove shoes before heading inside. That’s a Sikh tradition.

Downstairs is an equally large community dining room and kitchen, called a langar, where vegetarian meals will be shared — and everyone, members and visitors alike, will be welcome. Traditionally, everyone sits on the floor in complete equality, according to group vice president Kamal Bains. “King or beggar, you all sit down together,” Bains said.

But, seating will also be available for those whose knees need it. The whole building is wheelchair-accessible and includes an elevator.

The kitchen could get enlisted in the effort to feed the hungry and homeless in Vancouver, Sethi speculated. “Sikhs believe in social and political rights for all, and the social rights include access to food,” he said.

Just outside the dining room are several ground-floor patios that might get used for playgrounds, basketball hoops or other recreation for children, Sethi said.

Upstairs are accommodations for three priests who will live on-site. And just above the upstairs, atop the roof, a dome and what’s called a palki — a decorative canopy — was just installed last Friday morning by crane.

The gold-hued building now towers above the surrounding residential neighborhood. But neighbors remain puzzled.

Crawling along

“Communication has been nil,” said Jaime Manriquez, chairman of the Landover-Sharmel Neighborhood Association for nearly a decade. That’s about how long it’s been since the leadership of the Guru Ram Dass group, which meets in a cramped facility on O Street, in the Rose Village neighborhood, purchased the shuttered Landover Athletic Club building on Northeast 20th Street and started working to transform it into a new home for their congregation.

The saga since then has become long and twisted. A lawsuit filed against the group’s leadership, in 2008, claimed the $835,000 property purchase was too expensive and not authorized by the congregation, but the lawsuit was dismissed. In 2012, just when the slow-moving, congregation-funded remodel project was nearly complete, a fire broke out and destroyed everything.

The cause was never determined, but the shocked Sikh community was relieved when federal investigators determined that it wasn’t arson.

Since then, the Landover project has crawled along — driven entirely by personal donations from what its leaders describe as a small congregation of no more than 200 families. It’s gone from a remodel to a total rebuild; the price tag has rocketed from about $1.2 million to something like $4 million, said Sarabeet Teja, president of the temple. Barrier Construction, a Sikh-owned company in Burien, is the general contractor.

Meanwhile, some local Sikhs bought separate property and launched a temple on St. John’s Boulevard in 2013. While they declined to characterize that as a split in the congregation, they acknowledged that frustration and uncertainty about the Landover project was their motivation.

Out of reach

The last he’d heard, Manriquez said, the project was supposed to finish up about two years ago. Since then, “We haven’t heard anything at all. They haven’t been communicative at all and they’re going really slow.”

It’s not just construction updates he’s after, he said; maintenance and security at the generally quiet construction site have been lax. Grass was overgrown, Manriquez said, and there were gaps in the fence surrounding the property for a long time; one section of fence was even flattened by a car. Manriquez said he called to report all that and “never got a response,” he said. “No one came (to fix the fence) for almost a year.”

Despite which, Manriquez said that he’s not aware of neighbors who dislike the building — or Sikhs — because of any cultural bias. Some aren’t thrilled about the gold color, he said. But, he said, “The main thing has been upkeep and communication. We’ve gotten no information.”

When The Columbian mentioned this during the tour, the Sikhs acknowledged that they haven’t reached out. “We need to have coffee or tea with the neighbors,” Sethi told his colleagues. “I honestly think they need to be invited.” The group said they would do so.

When construction finally will be finished has literally been the “million-dollar question” for years, Teja said. But he and Bains both predicted that the work is months away from completion. They’re hoping to invite the public to a grand opening in the spring.

“If everything lines up,” Sethi cautioned. “It’s in the hands of the Almighty.”