By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER
The last two years have seen a rise in acts of vandalism against Asian American temples and churches, both in the L.A. area and nation.
In November 2020, six Vietnamese and Thai Buddhist temples in Orange County were vandalized. Three in Garden Grove, two in Santa Ana and one in Westminster were all hit with spray paint.
Among them was Huong Tich Temple, a Thai Vietnamese temple in Santa Ana. The vandal sprayed 15 of the temple’s stone Buddha and Bodhisattva statues with black spray paint — including the word “JESUS” written down the back of one statue.
In April 2021 and again in November, a person started fires in Konko Church in Boyle Heights.
On Nov. 27, 2022, five people attacked a monk at Wat Lao Buddhist Temple in South Nashville, Tennessee. After knocking the monk to the ground, the intruders held him down and then stole $4,000 from the temple, AsAmNews reported.
A week before, nine people entered a Buddhist temple in North Texas, asking a monk to engage in prayer. While some distracted the monk, others broke into rooms in the temple, stealing a total of $38,000, according to NBC News.
Such acts are painful because religious institutions serve as community centers, said Russell Jeung, professor of race and religion at San Francisco State University. “They’re the hubs of our communities; they’re the home for a lot of immigrants — so to have them attacked really symbolizes something larger.” Compared to incidents targeting individuals, violence against religious institutions is an “attack on our communities’ sense of belonging,” Jeung said.
For the perpetrators of attacks, Asian American houses of worship often become symbols of a particular racial or ethnic group — and symbols of threat to the country’s foundation, said Duncan Ryuken Williams, professor of religion and East Asian languages and cultures at USC and an ordained Buddhist priest in the Soto Zen tradition.
“The rise of white Christian nationalism focuses attention on groups that are perceived as outsiders and threats,” Jeung said. Religious sites are particularly marked as different — with temples, statues, and Buddhas often perceived as non-American.
In response to the increase of anti-Asian discrimination in 2020, Jeung co-founded Stop AAPI Hate to document such incidents. Over the past few years, Jeung has interviewed Asian American religious leaders about the increase in attacks on their institutions.
The list of attacks is long. In 2016, a person vandalized a Korean church in Buena Park. Swastikas and the words “my honor” in German were spray-painted on the True Light Christian Church, The Orange County Register reported.
In April 2020, a white man walked into Wat Lao Santitham, a Lao temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and smashed three Buddha statues with a hammer. The damage was estimated at $10,000 for what the perpetrator referred to as “false idols,” 5 News reported.
In August 2021, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Long Island, New York was vandalized with the phrases “this aint ya trap sandn—-ers” and “Trump 2024 Make America Great Again!,” a press release stated. (Sand + the n-word is a slur against Muslims and people of Arab, North African, Afghan and Pakistani background.)
“Given the bigotry and backlash the Sikh community has experienced in the past, it is impossible not to feel pain in this moment,” the gurdwara said in a statement. “But we also draw inspiration from how we have always responded to incidents of hate with resilience and the Sikh spirit of chardi kala (relentless optimism). If the intent of this vandalism was to sow fear, we instead hope that it will help raise Sikh awareness and bring our diverse Nassau County community closer together.”
“No community deserves to feel unsafe in their house of worship,” said Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney Giselle Klapper in a statement.
The vandalism occurred days before the ninth anniversary of the Oak Creek mass shooting in Wisconsin — when on Aug. 5, 2012 a man with ties to white supremacist neo-Nazi groups entered a gurdwara and killed six Sikhs and injured several others.
Like the Long Island gurdwara, resilience has marked many of the responses from Asian American religious institutions, Jeung said. He urged people to explore the ways institutions have responded transformationally to attacks, and to shift the conversation away from one of victimhood.
In response to vandalism at Higashi Honganji, a Japanese Pure Land Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, Rev. Noriaki Ito said the community rallied to raise money to restore damages.
The vandalism occurred in February 2021, when a man jumped the temple’s fence and set fire to two lanterns, ripped another two from their foundation, and smashed a glass window. “It was a shock to all of us,” Ito said.
The temple used the donations to install a new indoor alarm system, set up cameras around the facility and put in a new, higher fence. Higashi Honganji also houses a preschool, which is now monitored by a security guard. “It’s so unfortunate that we have to do these things,” Ito said. At the same time, he feels the protections are necessary to keep the temple community safe.
Ito spoke of Japan, where temple gates stay open until closing hours. “They’re always welcoming. Anyone could come in. That’s the kind of temple I’d like to maintain,” he said. Ito hopes to maybe open up Higashi Honganji again in the future.
A few small break-ins have occurred since the temple opened its Little Tokyo location in 1976 – but nothing to the same degree of damage. And this time, the incident occurred during a time when other nearby community gathering places were also being vandalized.
In 2021, Orange County tracked hate crimes against an array of ethnic and racial groups, finding 5.6% of hate crimes in public occurred at a religious site — and were split between verbal harassment, harassment, and hoax calls or hate mail.
In March 2021, vandals entered International Full Gospel Fellowship, a Chinese church in Seattle, writing “F–k China” and “You will pay” in the church parking lot, the news outlet Resonate reported. The messages were written in hay or straw, creating letters that were multiple feet tall and visible from far away. A similar message was also left in the nearby Grace Chinese Lutheran Church.
As the year wore on, vandalism continued to upset Asian American places of worship. In July 2021, a Vietnamese-owned church in Calgary, Canada was set on fire, CBC News reported. “I feel sad. We are … from Vietnam, refugees,” said the church’s pastor, Thai Nguyen, via CBC News. “We come here looking for a new life, with a new church here. We think that we are in [a] good country … but I think that we have to be more careful.”
Finally, in August 2021, one of the oldest Japanese American churches in the Sacramento area was vandalized, CBS News reported. A suspect broke in, smashing a sign.
As 2022 rolled around, a former manse in Huntington Beach was set on fire. The building was part of Wintersburg Village, a century-old Japanese settlement that community members have long been working to preserve, LAist reported.
The manse was a small building located adjacent to the former Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, where clergy and their families lived as they ministered to the parishioners, The Rafu Shimpo reported at the time. In 2014, Historic Wintersburg was named to the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
To add insult to injury, the property owner tore down the manse before an arson investigation could be conducted, and inexplicably tore down the adjacent building, which was not damaged in the fire. The Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force is seeking to save the remaining buildings.
After conducting interviews with religious leaders who have experienced racism directly during the pandemic, Jeung observed all had experienced trauma — from anger to pain and sadness. “But they’ve each used their religious traditions as a way to heal, and to move towards restorative justice,” he added. Instead of talk therapy, leaders used singing, chanting, meditation and prayer to deal with the trauma “as a means to empathize and forgive their perpetrators, and also take social action.” Leaders responded by educating their communities about their religions, and reaching out in solidarity with other groups.
Despite the rise in incidents, religious discrimination targeting AA&NH/PI communities is not new. Since the beginning of their history in the U.S., three primary stereotypes have been used to deem Asian Americans as “other,” Jeung said — one being that Asian immigrants are “heathen pagans who bring immoral ways to America’s Christian nation.”
The other main stereotypes that have persisted throughout history include perceiving Asian immigrants as cheap labor stealing jobs from white workers, as well as carriers of disease, he added.
The history of violence against Buddhists in the U.S. dates back to the 19th century, especially for Chinese Buddhists, said Williams. “Chinatowns got burnt out, temples got burnt out; mobs drove people out in cities and towns across the Western states” for trying to establish Buddhist temples and communities.
As Williams sees it, the history of violence has created a karmic cycle that continues into modern times. “How to take on the racial karma we inherit in our nation?” he asked. “How do we transform that karma? [The] pattern has to be broken.”
Williams has been active in healing efforts in the wake of anti-Asian violence. In May 2021 he coordinated May We Gather, a memorial service held 49 days after a man killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at three spas in the Atlanta area. In Buddhist tradition, a ceremony is held 49 days after a person’s passing.
May We Gather was held at Higashi Honganji in Little Tokyo. Through the event, Williams and several Buddhist leaders from around Southern California shared messages about how to respond to violence using Buddhist teachings.
As part of the ceremony, a lotus flower was created in the kinsugi style — a Japanese ceramic technique where cracks are repaired with lacquer and painted in gold instead of throwing broken pieces away. Williams views those cracks as symbols of the violence towards AA&NH/PI individuals and sites of worship.
“We want to acknowledge those fractures in our past and in our current society,” he said. “To come together as a community, to think through and act together, to give each other some strength from our traditions. If you heal the scar, it makes it stronger.”
For Williams, difficult conversations will be necessary for change to happen. Often, talking happens within a bubble — and no one’s thoughts are challenged. He believes in reaching out to people who are in prison for acts of violence against Asian communities — including those who are members of white Christian nationalist groups — to learn how they think and try to undermine their presumptions. “We need some insight into how to prevent this stuff from happening in the first place,” said Williams.
While such conversations have been held on a small scale, he hopes they can happen on a more systemic level in the future.
The resistance effort is not over. Williams and fellow religious leaders are currently planning a ceremony for the third anniversary of the Atlanta shootings, to be held in 2024. The ceremony will look at the historical background of Chinese American Buddhist temples vandalized and destroyed in the earliest decades of American Buddhism, when Chinese people first came to the U.S. The event will include a pilgrimage to highlight the long history of attacks on religious institutions.
The issue is probably not going away, Williams said. “When you have these attacks on a community, how can we come back stronger?”
Annakai Hayakawa Geshlider has covered aging, incarceration, and food justice for The Rafu Shimpo. She has written for the Pasadena Star News and Colton Courier.
This project was supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library