WORTHINGTON - Families from across the tri-state area gathered at the Wat Lao Siri Buddharam Temple outside Worthington Sunday morning for the first of two Lao New Year celebrations this week.

Sunday’s event included a water festival, which gave temple members an opportunity to give spiritual blessings to support the kindness of their parents, teachers and ancestors who have died.

In addition to being sprinkled with water by one of the temple’s monks, attendees poured water on the land for Mother Earth.

“The water poured onto the land means a contribution to support the spiritual,” explained Bounlorm Soumetho, chairman of the advisory board for the Wat Lao Siri Buddharam Temple. “We’re still thinking about the spirit of our ancestors and the people we love.”

In Laos, the ceremony traditionally includes throwing water on each other with wishes for good luck and happiness.

“It’s too cold to do the water throwing here,” said OJ Thepmontry with a grin. He was one of more than 100 people taking part in Sunday’s celebration.

In the Lao culture, the water festival traditionally lasts three days, from April 15-18. Here, with work and school, they had a full day together on Sunday, and will celebrate again on Saturday evening to honor the Lao culture in ceremony, dance and food at the Brewster American Legion Hall. That event will begin at 6 p.m. and is open to the public. People are encouraged to attend and learn more about Lao heritage.

Keeping the Lao culture and heritage alive, maintaining Lao traditions and encouraging moral character are the three primary goals of Soumetho as the temple’s board chairman. He wants the temple to be a place that provides international culture.

The temple’s membership includes natives of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand and their families. Soumetho’s hope is that the teachings of Buddha can be spread to the younger generation so that they, too, will become involved in the temple.

“We want to support our young generation because they belong to us,” Soumetho said. “I would like to have our young generation who do not understand our own Lao language to please … pay more time to search and study our own culture.”

Soumetho said the older generation of Lao people don’t speak English, and the younger generation only speaks English. When grandparents gather with grandchildren, they give each other hugs - a gesture universal in any language - but are unable to communicate through speaking.

“We escaped Laos 39 years ago. (The young people) are missing part of the Laotian language, the Laotian schooling,” Soumetho said. “They come here, and they study only the English language.”

Soumetho encourages the youth of the Lao community to understand their culture and be proud of who they are.

“That’s what I’m expecting - our young generation getting stronger,” he said, adding that taking part in ceremonies at the temple can bring everyone together to show and share in the Lao culture.

“We come here not just to relax. We come here to study different nationalities’ culture and we come here to share our lovely place of the world,” he said.

Thepmontry said Sunday’s celebration was an opportunity for the Lao people to come together from every corner of the country. The rural Worthington temple welcomed people from South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa for the water blessing.

In addition to the temple, there is a home for the monks on the site, and plans are to construct four public restrooms in the future.

“We don’t know exactly when it’s going to be finished,” Soumetho said. “We depend on our membership and the young people. Since we started in 2004 until now, we’ve spent about a quarter million dollars - little by little - people donated.”

Mike Potter, who works closely with the Lao community as president of the UFCW Local 1161, said the temple is a testament to the heritage and traditions of the Lao people.

“We have people coming out here to gaze upon the beautiful art - to see the magnificent work - the handcrafted design and a lot of TLC has gone into this,” Potter said.

While the Lao New Year is traditionally a large celebration locally, it isn’t the largest among the temple’s members. In June, they will mark Boun Pra Veth, a celebration in which Buddha is honored for the sacrifices he made to the Lao people.