The faded outline of a cross on one of its outer brick walls is the only thing left that speaks to the previous evangelical church identity of the new Chua Tung Lam Vietnamese Buddhist Temple.
But inside, each week since Buddist monk Thay bought the building three months ago, the growing membership of the temple continues to work for the building's transformation. The young monk, who speaks limited English, said he moved to Wilmington from California because a friend here told him there was a significant Vietnamese Buddhist population in Southeast North Carolina interested in a temple.
Last week, a golden Buddha statue arrived from Vietnam to fill the front altar which is already decorated each week with fresh offerings of oranges, flowers, lotus lamps and smaller Buddha statues. Two side rooms in the sanctuary are dedicated as a meditation room for visiting master monks to the temple and one for an ancestor room where people can pray with the ashes of their recently deceased loved ones.
The building smells of burning incense and rise cooking in the kitchen.
The monk said the temple's members hope to host a grand opening in mid-January.
On clear Sundays, groups of men come early to the temple volunteering their time to dig plumbling lines to extend the temple and have space for a children's playground. Others were building wooden flower boxes. Inside, women wrapped egg rolls and scooped a sticky, yellow sweet bean mixture into cups for the lunch after worship. Eventually, Thay said he hopes to build a small room at the end of the temple where he will live and work at the temple.
Then at 11 a.m., the men and women dust themselves off, pull on light blue-grey smocks and kneel on yellow round cushions in front of short book stands on the floor of the worship space.
Member Han Van said the temple was a welcome sight in Wilmington for Buddhists who either didn't wish to travel or whose beliefs differed from those at Wat Carolina Buddhist Monastery in Bolivia.
“It surprised me. I never thought we'd have a temple in Wilmington,” Van said, adding he hoped the monk would teach martial arts and meditation classes for adults and children.
Van hopes the temple also can take care of one of his concerns as a first generation immigrant — continuing his language and culture with his children.
Right now, there are about 30 families coming each week from as far away as Jacksonville and Whiteville said fellow worshiper Vinny Nguyen, a local metaphysical healer.
Having the Buddhist temple in Wilmington is a “big help to the community,” he added, “because we learn all the nice things the Buddha taught like how to take care of the Earth.”