South Philadelphia: Vietnamese Community United in Prayer

A chanting voice flows out of the top floor windows of the Chua Bo De Buddhist Temple in South Philadelphia. A drum beat signals the followers to recite the mantra. Draped in plain blue robes, they crouch down on the floor and plant their heads in the red carpet. The smoky scent of incense wafts through the air. A bell rings and they rise, silently clasping their hands together for the next prayer.

On the top floor of the Vietnamese temple, the mood is solemn and heavy. Downstairs, it is chaos.

The children of the praying parents run through rooms and halls of the temple, dashing between tables, playing tag with each other, laughing and screaming, doing what kids do best.

Children playing downstairs at the temple.

Nghi Vo, a Vietnamese language teacher at the temple, is proud that the temple provides a space for Vietnamese kids to come together and socialize every week.

Vo, a refugee from Vietnam, teaches a Vietnamese class every Sunday to mostly American-born kids who are fluent only in English, not the first language of their parents.

“Not many of them see that if they know Vietnamese, they have a competitive advantage,” Vo said. He pointed to a sign posted on the wall over a small shrine. “They don’t realize they have to practice, even as they get older. It’s a huge improvement to see them read that sign.”

Vo said the classes serve to bridge the divide between Vietnamese parents and their children when it comes to communication. Many kids are unable to fully express their issues to their parents due to a language barrier.

Older men conversing downstairs after prayer.

From the outside, Chua Bo De temple has an intricate beauty, with a pagoda-style façade and clean, white statues overlooking the courtyard. On the inside, the temple seems on its surface to be disjointed, a place of two different worlds, two different lifestyles – the silent and the bombastic, the old and the young.

But through leaders like Vo, the temple is really bringing two generations closer together and fostering a community.

[vimeo 113740265]

-Text, images and video by Grace Nonnemaker and Joseph Gilbride.

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