From early on, Kansas City signaled a “land of opportunity” for travelers in search of a fresh start. Beginning in the 1830s, the growing settlement at the convergence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers became the first stop for many Mormons trekking along the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails. Over the next century, Kansas City became a hub of African American culture and music as well as home to a sizable Jewish community. Today, the City of Fountains is bubbling with energy as new immigrants add to the complexity of the region’s religious diversity.
The first synagogue in Kansas City, Congregation Keneseth Israel, was established in 1878 by Russian and Polish immigrants and merged with Congregation Beth Shalom in the early twentieth century. Today, the community has moved to the Kansas side of the river while its former synagogue, located at 3400 The Paseo, has become a charter school and the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A site for a Mormon temple was dedicated in the 1830s, but that dream was postponed when anti-Mormon sentiment flared in the following decades. Nearly two centuries later, in 2010, ground was broken for a temple just off of Interstate 435 in North Kansas City. The temple was dedicated in 2012. In addition to Mormons, the region is home to a vibrant and diverse group of Catholic and Protestant communities. The Catholic Diocese of Kansas City gained high profile support for its “Forward in Faith” education initiative when the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt, Jr. donated 3 million dollars to the campaign whose counts among its public faces former Kansas City Royals player Mike Sweeney. The International House of Prayer, a nondenominational ministry with a staff of 1,000, has attracted national attenton with its practice of continuous worship which it began in May 1999.
In the post-World War II era, Metro Kansas City saw new communities arrive looking for their own “land of opportunity.” The first Buddhist temple and India Association were founded in 1965. Throughout the 1970s, Muslims in Kansas City worshipped alongside the Mennonites in a shared Grange Hall. Toward the end of the decade, the first Sikh gurdwara was built. In 1991, after nearly a decade of planning, the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City opened its doors in Shawnee, Kansas, a western suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. The increasing number of Hindu and Jains in the region prompted the temple to further expand its facilities in 2008.
While long seen as a place of opportunity, Kansas City is also no stranger to controversy. During the Civil War, the city was torn apart by rival Union and Confederate allegiances. A century later, the evening news reported violence and race riots in response to the Civil Rights Movement. The city’s new religious diversity has also brought tensions over immigration to the fore. In 2007, the Bitterman Family Confections candy shop decided to open a prayer room for its employees, many of whom are Muslim. While met with praise from some, the gesture encountered no small amount of resistance. That same year, Kansas City International Airport faced opposition when it decided to build footbaths for Muslim taxicab drivers to use during their shifts. And even more recently, attempts by Kansas City’s Laotian community to build a Buddhist temple has been thwarted by alleged zoning violations.
In 2012, a Jackson County jury awarded Susann Bashir 5 million dollars in a religious discrimination case against her former employer, AT&T. Bashir, an American convert to Islam, sued the company after her boss pulled off her hijab and numerous reports of heckling from her co-workers went unheard. Kansas City, Missouri is also the county seat of Jackson County which, in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, assembed a multifaith task force commissioned to complete a year-long survey of religious communities in a five-county metro region to gauge experiences of discrimination. The task force issued a 77-page recommendation report and was chaired by the Reverend Vern Barnet, founder of the Center for Religious Experience and Study.
The interfaith infrastructure of the Welcoming City is as diverse as it is thriving with interfaith efforts taking the form of campus organizations, chaplaincy initiatives, a metro interfaith council, and several social service programs. As a visible sign of the region’s celebration of diversity, interfaith leaders have collected water from around the world—from over one hundred bodies of water in all—and blended them with the waters of the Kansas City’s fountains. These mingled waters are then used on ceremonial occassions. Barnet, a veteran Kansas City interfaith activist, summed up his experience with the city. While embarking on a taxing journey in Japan, Barnet recalls a moment of clarity when he asked himself: “Why am I looking for the sacred in Japan—surely I can find it in Kansas City!”
Kansas City—long well known for barbeque and jazz—is also home to rich religious and cultural diversity in a metropolitan area of two million people. The historic 18th & Vine Jazz District grew out of the segregation era. Its largely African American population (now about 31 percent of the city’s 460,000 residents) inspired a recent renaissance that features tourist attractions like the American Jazz Museum, the Black Archives of Mid-America, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Kansas City’s evolving landscape boasts a vibrant urban life. Grand new cultural structures by international architects Moshe Safdie and Steven Holl sit beside historic landmarks like the Country Club Plaza and the Garment District. Across the metropolitan area, residents work in innovative ways through the arts, education and social services to achieve a multi-religious and multi-cultural vision: “The Welcoming City.”
The Greater Kansas City Area’s interfaith landscape stretches from Missouri into Kansas, and includes more than twenty organizations dedicated to improving inter-religious understanding. Yet Kansas City’s encounter with religious difference has not been without challenges, including a recent zoning controversy over a Laotian Buddhist Temple. Lama Chuck Stanford, a local Buddhist leader and Treasurer of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council (GKCIC) describes the opposition that emerged as “very disheartening.” He continues, “There was such vitriol, anger, and prejudice.” Lama Stanford, a Missouri native with more than twenty years of interfaith involvements, acknowledges, “We still have a lot of work to do.” Yet he remains hopeful for “The Welcoming City,” and its future, adding: “There are so many dedicated people.”
Promising Practices and Leadership Profiles
“The Hindu and the Cowboy…and other Kansas City Stories”
Promising Practice: Using Theater to Encounter the Religious ‘Other’
Directory of Religious Centers in Kansas City
The Pluralism Project is no longer updating its directory of religious centers outside of Boston, but you can find an archive of the Kansas City directory here.