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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Storefront church
A famous Jersey City laundromat, spiritual cousin to the storefront churches described by Lisa Bellan-Boyer.

Project finds Hindus in New Jersey, Buddhists in Montana

Pluralism Project looks at changing religious demographics

By Ken Gewertz
Harvard News Office

With fewer than a million people dispersed over nearly 150,000 square miles, Montana is one of the most rural and thinly populated states in the country.

It is hardly the kind of place where one expects to find a high degree of religious diversity. And yet, during a summer of research for the Pluralism Project, that is exactly what Scott Hyslop discovered.

In addition to traditional Christian sects, Montana hosts 13 Buddhist Sanghas, representing 10 different traditions of Buddhism.

All the major towns are home to Baha'i communities, whose presence in the state dates from 1899. John Wilcott, "The Cowboy Baha'i," settled in Montana in 1910. There are Muslim centers in Bozeman and Missoula, a wide variety of Native American religions, and a flourishing group of Pagans and Wiccans who recently tried to counter suspicious attitudes on the part of Christians by organizing Pagan Pride Day.

"Montana is very large, and there aren't very many people, so generally people are left alone to do their own thing," said Hyslop, a student at Montana State University. "But in the towns, interfaith groups are starting to develop. I found an unexpected wealth of religious diversity in Montana."

Hyslop was one of a dozen researchers presenting their findings Oct. 15 at the Pluralism Project's Fall Research Conference, "Religious Pluralism in America." Founded in 1991 by Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, the Pluralism Project has been engaged in mapping the country's growing religious diversity and sharing that knowledge in the form of publications, a CD-ROM, and outreach efforts to schools.

The project, which is currently funded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, seeks to document and better understand the changing contours of American religious demography, to study the ways in which religions of Asia and the Middle East are adapting to their new environment, and how American society is adapting to this growing religious diversity.

Jenn Ortegren, Branden Grimmet, and Christina Wright
Researchers presented their findings at the Pluralism Project's fall research conference, 'Religious Pluralism in America.' Listening to presentations from the back row are Jenn Ortegren (from left), Branden Grimmet, and Christina Wright.

An influx of new immigrants that began in 1965 when U.S. immigration laws were liberalized has changed our society in ways that contradict traditional assumptions about the correlation of religion and geography.

As Eck said in her keynote address at the International Conference on Religious Pluralism in Democratic Societies, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in August 2002, "The map of the world in which we live cannot be color-coded as to its Christian, Muslim, Hindu identity, but each part of the world is marbled with the colors and textures of the whole. People of different religious traditions live together all over the world - as majorities in one place, as minorities in another."

In addition to Hyslop's picture of Buddhists, Baha'is, and Pagans finding room to spread out in Montana's big sky country, the researchers presented portraits of Hindu communities in suburban New Jersey, Telugu associations in Wisconsin, Hmong refugee communities in California, Ismailis in Houston, and Sufis in New York City.

Some of the researchers illustrated their talks with startling and often humorous stories about the ways in which the neighborhoods they studied had changed or had met the challenges that change inevitably brings.

Joseph Laycock, a student at Harvard Divinity School, reported on religious diversity in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He reported that the neighborhood in which he grew up had been largely Catholic and Jewish, but that it had undergone demographic changes in recent years. One example of such change, Laycock said, was that his parents had moved out of their house and leased it to a group of Muslim graduate students.

Some time afterward, Laycock participated in a conference to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue. He met a Muslim student there who invited him to come to dinner.

"He sent me an e-mail with his address, and I was surprised to find that it was my house. I came to dinner and there I was, sitting in the living room where we had had Christmas every year, only now it was furnished with prayer rugs."

Laycock said that in Austin, whose population tends to be highly educated, there has been a high degree of tolerance for diverse cultures and faiths. In other communities, the transition has not gone so smoothly.

Jane Yager, a Harvard Divinity School student, described how the ethnic press of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, dealt with an outbreak of hate speech in the wake of 9/11.

Over the past 15 years, Bay Ridge, which had been largely Italian and Jewish, has become home to the largest Arab community in New York, a group comprising both Muslims and Christians. After years of relative harmony, a rash of violently anti-Arab messages began to appear on the community's Internet message board.

The Arab community's leading paper, Arabica, took the lead in responding to these verbal attacks, calling upon the city's Arabs to speak out. The Arab community responded, condemning hatred and violence, and asserting its identity as a legitimate part of the city's social fabric.

"And then a surprising thing happened," said Yager. "The people who had posted anti-Arab messages began a dialogue, and some even apologized."

Across the Hudson River in Jersey City, Lisa Bellan-Boyer, of New York University and the Newark Museum, studied the vibrant group of storefront churches, mosques, temples, and other religious centers that animate the streets of this working-class community. She described and showed color slides of Islamic centers inhabiting former furniture stores and mattress outlets, a Baha'i center in a former tailor shop, a building housing the city's large Coptic community, a Pentecostal sandwich shop called "The Bread of Heaven," and a spiritually oriented Laundromat called Sluggo's, famous for its celebration of African-American Christian identity.

"The way these groups have exercised creativity and ingenuity on a shoestring is a wonderful testament to the imagination and determination of the community," Bellan-Boyer said.

Related stories:

  • Sharing Common Ground

  • Religion Course Touches a Nerve






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