NORTH EDGEFIELD BAPTIST CHURCH stands in a residential neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. The church looks much the same as it did when it was first constructed in 1892: stained glass windows, crosses, and other icons of Christian faith still decorate the worship hall. On the altar in front of the old baptismal tank, however, rests a six-foot brass Buddha brought from Thailand-an arresting symbol of new contributions being made to American religious pluralism by ethnic Asian communities.
The church was purchased for $87,000 in 1981 by Dr. U Win Myint, a professor of mathematics at Tennessee State University. Myint came to the United States in 1954 from Burma, earning college and postgraduate degrees in engineering. Although raised in a Theravada Buddhist family, he became an active member in a number of Methodist, Baptist, and Unitarian congregations during his first years in America. Always remaining a “Buddhist in the heart,” Myint explained that the Christian congregations helped alleviate his feelings of alienation from his new surroundings.
The violence and civil conflicts that wracked Southeast Asia in the seventies provided Myint with a community of his own religious heritage. Displaced soldiers and their families-nearly two thousand unskilled and uneducated refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-were resettled in Nashville. To help promote economic self-sufficiency among the refugees, in 1975 Myint founded the International Market, a restaurant that serves authentic Southeast Asian food and provides jobs for many refugees.
Hoping to help provide a source of spiritual guidance as well, Myint embarked on an even more ambitious venture six years later, purchasing the North Edgefield Baptist Church and converting it into Nashville’s first Theravada Buddhist temple. The original goals of The Buddhist Temple were lofty: Myint hoped that monks from Southeast Asia would take up residence in the old church and eventually establish a monastery. More important, he envisioned the temple as an international Asian cultural center with two educational goals: to preserve the integrity of the refugees’Buddhist heritage while providing educational services designed to help them become integrated into American society.
Unforeseen difficulties, however, have challenged Myint and the Nashville temple. In accordance with Myint’s original plan, nearly thirty monks were sent to Nashville by the Sasana Council in Thailand during the early eighties. It soon became apparent, however, that the monks had their own agenda distinct from the dual educational goals of the temple; instead of applying their teachings toward helping the refugee community, the monks sought to transform the temple into a sectarian monastery for members of the Dhammayuttika sect of Theravada Buddhism. Myint believed that a sectarian Thai monastery would compromise the temple’s multicultural and ecumenical charter and create strife among the various refugee groups. After a year of turmoil, the Thai monks were dismissed. “We were afraid that the international nature of the temple would be lost,” Myint explained. “There were hard feelings in the minds of some of the Thai Buddhist monks.”
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