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Seattle Betsuin Becomes Latest BCA Temple Hit by Arson

Nihon Shogakko Fire in 1923 Killed 10 Children in Sacramento; Cleveland, Gardena, San Diego, Spokane Also Victimized

The Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple became the latest in a series of BCA temples hit by arson fires, including a racially motivated blaze that killed 10 schoolchildren at the Sacramento Betsuin in 1923.

In 1943, while many of its Sangha members were incarcerated in the Poston mass detention camp in Arizona, vandals broke into the San Diego Buddhist Church (now the Buddhist Temple of San Diego) and set fire, causing extensive damage to the Hondo and Onaijin areas on the second floor. 

In 1966, the Cleveland Buddhist Temple was firebombed. The Gardena Buddhist Church (GBC) was devastated by three arson fires beginning in 1980, and the Spokane Buddhist Temple was reduced to ashes in 1992. 

There have also been several incidents involving destructive fires, most notably the accidental fire on March 13, 1957, that burned down the Arizona Buddhist Temple.

Until the Arizona temple was rebuilt, services were held at a barrack from the Gila River mass detention camp that was moved to the temple grounds in Phoenix. The new temple was dedicated on Oct. 1, 1961.

In the case of the New Year’s Eve fire at the Seattle Betsuin, Waylon Williams, 42, of Richland, Washington, was charged Jan. 4 with first-degree reckless burning, second-degree burglary and residential burglary, according to the charging documents filed by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. He was arraigned on Jan. 17 in King County Courthouse. His bail was set at $40,000. 

Police did not refer to the fire as a hate crime investigation, according to the prosecuting attorney’s office. However, the case could be reviewed if police find information to support a possible hate crime.

The fire, which was related to a flare-up on Jan. 2, destroyed thousands of historical documents in the basement that date back to the temple’s inception in 1901. 

The Seattle Betsuin will remain closed, pending the assessment of the smoke and fire damage. The White River Buddhist Temple and the Tacoma Buddhist Temple will host services, as well as memorials and funerals, in the interim. Tacoma will host the Dharma School until the Seattle Betsuin reopens. 

Sacramento’s Deadly Fire

The string of arson fires striking BCA temples and churches date back to 1923 with the Nihon Shogakko fire (Japanese mission school fire), a racially motivated blaze that killed 10 children at the dormitory of a Buddhist boarding school at the Sacramento Buddhist Church (now the Buddhist Church of Sacramento). The school, which was established in 1903, continues to this day at the temple as the renamed Sakura Gakuen Japanese Language School.

The Sacramento arson destroyed the temple, classroom and dormitory, which was never rebuilt. The temple building was replaced on May 21, 1925, and a classroom building was purchased in May 1927. The YBA Hall next to the temple was dedicated on Aug. 28, 1937.

Fortunato Valencia Padilla admitted to committing the arson after he was arrested in July 1923. He confessed to at least 25 other fires throughout California, 13 of which were committed against Japanese households and Japanese-owned properties, mostly in Fresno. 

Padilla was indicted on first-degree murder charges for the Sacramento school fire on Sept. 1, 1923, and found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated at Folsom State Prison and San Quentin State Prison. He died in 1970.

San Diego Hit During WWII

After Executive Order 9066 authorized the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast on Feb. 19, 1942, the San Diego Buddhist Church was turned into a storage facility for the personal belongings of its Sangha members. 

On March 24, 1942, before the church was vacated and families were uprooted from their homes, the property was leased to the National Youth Association (NYA). The NYA erected barracks on the parking lot that were used as dormitories for defense workers. 

While in the mass detention camp at Poston, Arizona, temple leaders later learned that the NYA did not renew its lease, which allowed the church to sit vacant from Oct. 31, 1942. 

At 6:30 p.m., on Jan. 19, 1943, vandals broke into the church and set fire to cover up the theft of the Sangha members’ personal belongings. Extensive damage occurred in the Hondo and Onaijin areas, where most of the personal items were being stored. 

The United Service Organizations (USO) signed a lease agreement on Aug. 1, 1943, to occupy the church building and returned the property to the Sangha in July 1947.

Active participation at the church did not resume until 1948. Work to repair the Onaijin did not occur until 1950, when Rev. Tetsuro Kashima led the effort. A minister’s residence was completed in 1953, and an altar was erected and dedicated in July 1954. A groundbreaking for an annex building, including classrooms and a social hall, was held on Nov. 11, 1962, and the facility was dedicated in 1964.

Cleveland Firebombed

In Cleveland, the temple at E. 81st Street was repeatedly vandalized during the Hough Uprising from July 18-23, 1966, in the predominantly African American community of Hough. The uprising resulted in four African Americans being killed and 50 people being injured. There were 275 arrests and numerous incidents of arson and firebombings. 

At first, Cleveland city officials blamed Black nationalist and community groups for causing the uprising, but historians and others dismiss those claims today. The causes of the Hough Uprising were primarily racism, poverty and segregation.

On Aug. 20, 1966, the temple was firebombed, and the Sangha held services in their homes in the interim. A nationwide appeal went out to the BCA and members nationwide responded with donations that helped finance the construction of a new temple. In May 1970, the new Cleveland Buddhist Temple was completed at E. 214th Street and Euclid Avenue.

3 Arsons in Gardena

The Gardena Buddhist Church was the victim of three arson fires over the span of 19 months, beginning on July 12, 1980, when an arsonist set fire to the church, destroying the Hondo and Onaijin. The fire forced the church’s board to decide whether to hold Obon that year in August. In the end, the Obon was held amid the smell of damp burnt wood as Bon Odori dancers performed on the street in Gardena.

Following the first arson, services were held — in the church parking lot. And for months after that, services were moved to the social hall, where a makeshift temple was constructed.

On Nov. 20, 1981, the Gardena Buddhist Church was victimized by a second arson fire, when church reconstruction was about 70% complete. 

There was a third small fire in the church’s basement on Feb. 12, 1982, but it caused little damage.

In July 1982, John Alden Stieber walked into the Gardena Police Department and confessed to the fires and other church fires, according to the 2001 Gardena Buddhist Church’s book of the GBC’s first 75 years.

The GBC’s Hondo was dedicated on Aug. 22, 1982. A tea room was dedicated on Nov. 13, 1983, and a youth room was dedicated on Nov. 3, 1985.

Spokane Temple Destroyed

A decade later — on April 23, 1992 — two 10-year-old boys set fire to a cardboard box on the back porch of the Spokane Buddhist Temple, destroying the church.

The original Onaijin shrine was rescued by firefighters and remains in use at the rebuilt temple, which was dedicated on Oct. 1, 1994. 

Contributing to this article were: BCA’s “A Legacy of the First 100 Years” book; Wikipedia; Buddhist Temple of San Diego’s 50th anniversary book; Cleveland Historical; Gardena Buddhist Church archives; The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington; the Spokane Buddhist Temple website; and Harvard University’s Pluralism Project Archive.



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