Kevin G. Andrade
CRANSTON – A saffron-robed monk, seated cross-legged in front of a hall in the Dhamagosnaram Buddhist temple, sang in Pali – a Buddhist liturgical language – as Ananda Neou and Yindy Duong placed plates of food and money in front of him Sunday morning.
The couple joined hands as the monk blessed the food for Pchum Ben – a 15-day celebration in honor of a person’s death history held annually by Cambodians.
But with the new coronavirus at large, the holidays have taken on a new urgency for the inhabitants of the region’s wats (Buddhist temples).
“We are all [worried] about the temple, ”said Neou. “If you don’t have any donations, how are you going to pay for your electricity, your wastewater? …. In the worst case, the temple closes.
“The monks themselves are afraid,” she continued. “They are losing donations that they would normally get.
Sokea Proem, a monk residing in Dhamagosnaram, supported this.
“We used to have a lot of ceremonies, like the funeral ceremony, the ceremony of gratitude that family members do for their parents or deceased ancestors,” where families donated money for services rendered to the wat, he said. “Since COVID hit, all of these ceremonies have been called off.
“We have basic needs, so it’s hitting hard. “
The festivities around the first major celebration of the year, the Cambodian New Year, were effectively called off after Governor Gina Raimondo imposed crowd control restrictions on the state in April.
Rhode Island’s Wat Thormikaram – the oldest ethnically Cambodian temple in the country – told the Journal at the time that they were worried about what their future held for them and had since seen a 50% drop in donations for the holy season.
“On the one hand, people aren’t really comfortable going into the temple and packing the place up like they used to,” said Samnang Becker, secretary of the wat in Providence’s West End.
According to the president of Dhamagosnaram, the temple has seen an 80% drop in donations for Pchum Ben, when they normally raise more than $ 30,000.
Phirum Ker, president of the wat, said that in January the temple had $ 30,000 in savings set aside for a building project that was instead used as emergency funds to pay bills and cover necessities. This account has only $ 1,000 left.
“When I look at the list and see the donations that people give, before I see $ 50, $ 70,” said Phirun Ker, president of Dhamagosnaram. “Right now I see $ 10, $ 20, because people don’t have a job. “
The most recent data on Central Rhode Island Cambodians for Southeast Asians in 2014, showed an unemployment rate of 13.5% for a community where 25% of people live in poverty.
Although there is no data available on the effects of COVID on community employment, Cambodian populations are clustered in zip codes that display the highest positivity rates in the state.
For example, ZIP 02909 – the postcode for Thormikaram in the West End of Providence – has a positive COVID rate of 5,952 cases per 100,000 population, the second highest in the RI according to Department of Health data.
Although Pchum Ben was the first major event in Dhamagosnaram since the start of the pandemic, attendance was still low, according to Dhamagosnaram Vice President Sarin Rath, with just under 100 attending Sunday’s celebration, more than the other days in 2020 but low compared to previous years.
“We also don’t want people to spend too much time in the temple,” he said, in order to minimize the time people spend in groups.
The temple also did a deep clean-up of the space before the celebrants arrived and said they would also do one after. They have also taken precautions to make sure people adhere to the COVID protocol.
“We put up posters at the entrance, requiring masks to enter,” Proem said. “Before we start our Dharma talk, we tell people to wear masks and keep their distance. “
Neou said she knew about the temple’s hardships and that this motivated her to make the Sunday celebration the first she is sponsoring.
She added that as long as people follow the rules and take the proper precautions, all should do their part to ensure Cambodian Buddhist traditions remain strong in the Ocean State.
“People are afraid and [many of] seniors don’t come because they are at high risk [for COVID-19], “she said.” For today, as long as everyone takes their social distances and puts on their masks, everything is fine.
“We want to carry on our tradition and our culture even though we grew up in America,” she added. “We want to perpetuate our parents, our grandparents, the traditions of our ancestors.