Buddhist organization renovating former Methodist church in Newton's Upper Falls

By Christine Laubenstein, Wicked Local Newton, Jul 28, 2009

Newton. MA (USA) -- An international Buddhist organization that provides disaster relief, medical care and education across the world is renovating the former Methodist church in Upper Falls.

Taiwan-based Tzu Chi Foundation purchased the Summer Street building in 2006. It hopes to use it as a meeting place and worship center for its Boston area members, volunteers and community residents.

The organization has had a Boston branch since 1993, but was previously based out of members’ homes.

“We want to have an office, recruit a lot of students, and train them so they can be successful in life,” said Jiuan Fatt Ng, who is in charge of recruiting and volunteer activities for the Boston area.

The Boston branch of the organization has over 200 volunteers and about 900 members. Many volunteers are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Boston University, said Jennifer Ying, a secretary for the organization.

Volunteers learn the four principals of the 43-year-old Tzu Chi Foundation, which come from the Buddhist religion. They are culture, community service and disaster relief, education, and taking care of the sick.

“The focus is to try to eliminate suffering, and to reach out to people who are suffering,” Ng said, noting that volunteers often benefit psychologically from the projects as well.

The organization’s Boston branch, which is also headed by Director Sean Chen, runs on donations from volunteers and members. Donations include money and items like bookshelves and water bottles.

“The donations we get locally we try to use locally,” Ng said.

Boston area volunteers take care of nearby residents who are sick, collect money for disaster victims worldwide, and respond to regional disasters.

For example, the organization helped out after the September, 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, and provided resources to victims of tornadoes in New Hampshire last year.

Volunteers also hold workshops on recycling, have a Chinese New Year event, and help out at retirement homes.

Additionally, the organization conducts free healthcare clinics in Quincy, donates food to a food bank in Dorchester, and runs a Chinese school in Bedford on weekends.

Eventually the organization hopes to move the school, which teaches Chinese in addition to Buddhist aphorisms, to the Newton location.

Internationally the organization, which has about 10 million members worldwide, provides disaster relief to such countries as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Its track record helps it get into countries early on.

“The Red Cross couldn’t even go there,” Ng said of Myanmar after it suffered from a disastrous cyclone last year.

So far about half of the Summer Street building in Newton has been renovated. An office and small worship area are open for use.

The organization is in the process of renovating the building’s biggest room into a large worship area. The work is extensive due to the poor quality of the floor and other structural elements of the building, which dates to 1826.

“Once the hall is finished we will have lots of social events there, like tea party events that promote recycling,” Ng said.

Renovations should be completed later this year.

The organization is not allowed to renovate the exterior of the building, as it is considered historic. It can do routine maintenance work on the outside of the building, however.

According to Ng and Chen, the First United Methodist Church gave the Tzu Chi Foundation a discounted price on the building. The church wanted to ensure it was used for a similar purpose to what it was founded for.

The Boston branch of the Tzu Chi Foundation is one of seven cities in the United States that have a building owned by the organization.

The remaining fifty-some U.S. offices are rented buildings, or in members’ homes. Cheng Yang, the organization’s master, decides which locations would benefit most from their own building.

The Newton office is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week, and longer hours on the weekend. Its phone number is 617-762-0569.