WORTHINGTON - Living in harmony with their fellow Buddhists, as well as with their co-workers and neighbors, is important to members of the Lao Temple Siri Buddharam.

That Worthington temple, or “Wat” (pronounced “vaat”), as its members commonly refer to it, has grown not only in size but also in members since its rural location slightly northwest of town was officially established in 2004.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements there since 2004,” said Saksady “Scotty” Xaisongkham, who was recently elected to his second four-year term as president of the Lao Temple.

“There is a paved parking lot, a garage and the temple for services,” he proudly listed.

“About 150 people attend our regular monthly services.”

Those attendees are not only from the greater Worthington area - Xaisongkham himself resides in Magnolia - but also from Sioux Falls, S.D., Jackson, Mountain Lake, Sibley, Iowa, and other surrounding communities.

“At our services we pray and do traditional activities,” said Xaisongkham. “Some people go to the temple every weekend, and some do their own private worship at home.”

The desire to have a Buddhist temple much closer than, say, the Twin Cities, was the initial driver of the Worthington temple’s development.

“It was a long way to go to Minneapolis,” recalled Xaisongkham, “and hard when we needed a monk to do ceremonies.”

Today, two Buddhist monks - Phone Naboutsy and Thongphane Thammavong - live at the Lao Temple, making it convenient for the temple’s members to both worship and have necessary religious ceremonies performed.

“There was an older monk living there for some time, but he went to Laos for a visit and died while he was there,” explained Xaisongkham.

“If we have a big celebration and need more monks, they sometimes come from the Sioux City temple, or from Rockford, Ill., or Kansas.”

Location, location, location

Xaisongkham and the Lao Temple’s advisory board chairman, Bounlome Soumetho of Worthington, are delighted that time has helped the general populace become more accepting of their location and religion.

“Everything is absolutely wonderful now,” said Soumetho, who nevertheless remembers what a tremendous effort it took for the temple to gain the proper permits and zoning approval for its current site.

“Our location has worked out well,” he assured. “We, our neighbors and the county planning and zoning department understand each other very well.”

Wayne Smith, the Nobles County Environmental Services Director, concurred.

“Back when the Lao Temple started, they came through a long permitting process with Nobles County,” Smith said. “Ordinances were changed to allow churches as a use in an agricultural area.”

The Lao Temple’s leaders proved true to their words, and were compliant and cooperative in meeting all the stipulations laid out for them.

“One of the conditions on their permits is that when they have particularly large celebrations four times a year, they have to notify our office and the law enforcement center just so we are aware there will be a lot more cars coming and going,” said Smith.

“When it was first discussed, there was talk there might be thousands of people coming at times, but it’s turned out to be more like hundreds,” he continued.

“They’re very good to work with,” Smith said of the Lao Temple representatives.

“Whenever they’re thinking about adding on or changing something, they make sure it’s approved and permitted, and they ask for our ideas about best procedures.

“They’re very passionate about their Lao Temple and what they can provide for their children and families there.”

That’s because family, and a preservation of their Laotian culture, is vital to Lao Temple congregants.

Hard working and family-oriented

Soumetho first came to the United States in 1979 and has lived in Worthington since 1991. He and his wife, Massa, raised their five daughters here; all of them are Worthington High School graduates and have moved on to higher education.

“Worthington is a very good place to live, and our kids all have very strong wings,” Soumetho smiled.

Soumetho has been a local business owner who counts former Worthington Mayor Robert J. Demuth as a good friend.

“We trust each other and share ideas,” Soumetho said of Demuth, adding that Demuth “served very well for our city.”

Soumetho is now a nine-year employee of Bedford Industries. Xaisongkham, meanwhile, is married to Chansay; their four children are Luverne High School graduates. Their eldest daughter is close to finishing medical school, among other achievements the Xaisongkham children have notched.

Xaisongkham is a spry 57-year-old who came to the U.S. under the sponsorship of a Baptist family from Minot, N.D., in 1980. He is a long-time JBS employee and, in addition to his job and work with the Lao Temple, serves as one of five vice presidents for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1161.

Both Xaisongkham and Soumetho sing the praises of the strong backing the Lao Temple receives from the UFCW 1161, as well as from JBS.

“JBS gives the temple a cash donation every year and donates meat for our events,” said Xaisongkham, while Soumetho noted, “The UFCW and Mike Potter have been very supportive.”

Bonding in sorrow, joy

Last weekend provided clear evidence of the bonds of unity the Lao Temple shares with its extended family of members.

Xaisongkham’s 70-year-old sister, Vandy Chanthalangsy, formerly of Mountain Lake, died about three months ago.

Following Buddhist tradition, a celebration of her life was held 100 days following her passing.

Family and fellow Buddhists from Sioux City, Rochester, Fargo, Florida and even Hawaii came to pay their last respects and take joy in the gift of her life.

“She had stage 4 colon cancer,” shared Tiffany Chanthalangsy of Rochester, the deceased’s daughter. “The temple here was a real blessing for us, and for her as well.”

A service took place early Saturday morning at the temple, followed by a jubilant but reverent celebration that night at the Brewster American Legion Hall.

Xaisongkham estimated at least 500 people attended to share with the family between 6 p.m. and midnight Saturday. A Laotian band from Minneapolis had many in the crowd on their feet, dancing, and an overflowing array of ethnic food tempted the attendees to share in the delicious abundance.

“She has been cremated,” Xaisongkham said of his late sister, “and her daughter, Tiffany, will take her ashes to Laos in April. Tiffany’s father died a year earlier.”

But buoyed by the presence of so many sympathetic friends and family members, Tiffany, with her husband Saeng by her side, appeared calm and peaceful.

Lessons learned

Xaisongkham’s two sons, C.J. and B.G., happily relate what the Buddhist faith and the Lao Temple with which their father is so involved have meant to them.

“It’s good to be together,” said B.G. at the celebration in honor of his aunt’s life. B.G. is a well-spoken 22-year-old man who is a machine operator at Pace Manufacturing in Sioux Falls.

“Yes, we lost somebody close to us, but it’s good to be together and to celebrate that she was a part of our lives.

“I’m definitely proud of my father,” B.G. continued. “He taught me to do whatever it takes to help people out, and that inspires me - that’s what I want to do, too.

“He taught me a lot of things, and I try to live up to them.”

B.G.’s older brother agreed.

“Dad always told us, ‘Every religion is a good religion,’” said C.J., who works in Sioux Falls while attending college. “Our religion is really about the culture - it’s about respect, loyalty and honesty, about honoring and respecting others no matter what.”

That perspective matches the view Smith, as a Nobles County administrator, holds of Xaisongkham, Soumetho and other Lao Temple leaders with whom he has worked over the years.

“It’s a real treat to deal with them,” said Smith. “They’re very generous, welcoming people - so polite and wonderful.

“They are fine people who treat everyone well, and that’s very refreshing.”

Lao New Year, summer plans

Like all other Minnesotans, the Lao Temple members look forward to the warmer days when they can gather in the great outdoors to grill, watch their children play and mark important cultural dates together.

“We will celebrate the Lao New Year on May 2 at the Brewster Legion Hall,” detailed Xaisongkham. “April 15 is the actual date, but May 2 will be when we celebrate the start of the new year.”

Xaisongkham said free food, along with traditional Lao music, will be part of the festivities, to which he welcomes all interested comers.

Another large event is planned for July 12.

“We will have a concert at the temple, there will be outdoor games, and people will come from all over,” said Xaisongkham. “We do this every year.”

Shared Soumetho, “Our temple is very, very popular.

“It is absolutely a comfortable place to worship and be happy, and our teachings are similar to those of Christian Sunday schools - to be moral, honest, to respect and understand others and to work for more peace.

“Our temple helps us maintain the heritage and culture of our homeland, and to maintain these beliefs that we want to pass on to the younger generation.”