Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a city marked by the flourishing of diversity and by the challenge of persistent segregation. From a French trading post beginning in the 1670s to the city’s founding in the 1830s, Milwaukee’s early decades were dominated by German immigration. Although no longer the “most German city west of Berlin,” the lasting contributions of Milwaukee’s early residents are still visible: the city’s baseball team, the Brewers, play at a stadium named for one of Milwaukee’s oldest breweries. Today, annual festivals reflect and celebrate the many ethnic groups that have shaped Milwaukee’s history, including Irish, Polish, African, French, German, Arab, American Indian, among others. Church festivals—Greek, Armenian, Coptic, and Serbian—also reflect local ties to different immigrant communities. Although still largely Catholic, Greater Milwaukee’s changing demographics have dramatically shaped the city’s religious landscape.
Milwaukee has seen waves of immigration throughout its history. During the 1840s, a small number of Jews and African Americans began arriving and forming distinct neighborhoods in downtown Milwaukee. By the early 1900s, African Americans comprised much of Bronzeville, an area between Highland Boulevard and Walnut Street and 3rd and 12th Streets. The Jewish community, mostly of European and Russian descent, also lived in this vicinity during this time; as their numbers grew, many moved to Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, north and east of downtown. Thousands of African Americans from the South relocated to Milwaukee during the 1950s. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, 26 percent of Milwaukee County identified as Black. Latino immigrants, 14 percent of Milwaukee County in 2010, began arriving in the 1920s to take on industrial jobs during a labor shortage. Chinese immigrants started to arrive in Milwaukee around the turn of the twentieth century and, in more recent decades, the city has become home to the third largest Hmong-American community in the United States and to growing numbers of South Asian, Arab, and Burmese communities.
These waves of immigrants brought with them diverse religious traditions. Muslims began arriving in Milwaukee in sizable numbers during the 1950s, although a small number lived in the city before that time, according to the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. The ISM was founded in 1982 when the Islamic Foundation of Greater Milwaukee, Inc. purchased an old school building and converted into a mosque. Today, the city’s Muslim community includes Arabs, South Asians, and African Americans, among others. In recent decades, Vietnamese and Laotian immigrants have shaped the city’s Buddhist landscape, which also includes Zen and Shambhala centers. In 2013, growing numbers forced one Vietnamese congregation to move from its temple (also a converted school) to a former church in Wauwatosa, west of the city. Farther west, in the Pewaukee, just outside of Milwaukee County, sits the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin. Dedicated in 2000, the Temple serves Hindus from around the state.
Although small in number, Bahá’ís, Secular Humanists, and Sikhs are also making their mark on Milwaukee. The Bahá’í community in Milwaukee is over 100 years old, making it one of the oldest in the country. In recent years, several Secular Humanist groups have emerged, and like many other cities, organize mostly online. One group, Black Skeptics Milwaukee, seeks to diversify the kinds of voices attributed to the Black community, which is often publicly represented by religious leaders.
On August 5, 2012, the Sikh community of Milwaukee was thrust into international spotlight when a gunman—later found to have ties to a white supremacist organization—opened fire inside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, located in the nearby suburb of Oak Creek. The attack occurred during Sunday morning services and left six dead and four wounded. The attack at the Sikh Temple catalyzed interfaith outreach efforts to and among the Sikh community. Serve 2 Unite, for instance, was founded in the aftermath of the shooting and is led by Pardeep Kaleka, son of the slain Sikh Temple president, and Arnold Michaelis, former skinhead turned peace activist. Existing organizations like the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee also stepped up to show support and solidarity with the Sikh community. In 2013, the Interfaith Conference titled their annual luncheon series “Why We Fear the Other: Theological Reflections on Racism, Immigration and Roots of Prejudice.” The series sold out.
The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and other coalitions of religious communities emerged during the late 1960s and 1970s to address the city’s social issues and inequalities. During this era racial tensions in Milwaukee simmered as efforts to bring the civil rights movement to the city took hold. In 1967, a riot broke out. As Tom Heinan, current executive director of the Interfaith Conference, explained, religious leaders “found that when one religious leader spoke, the voice could be ignored, but when [it was] a whole group of major leaders speaking, that it got listened to.” For decades, these interfaith coalitions consisted primarily Jews and Christians with limited involvement of the Muslim community. This changed after 9/11 when the Islamic Society of Milwaukee became an official member of the Interfaith Conference.
Interfaith leaders and others acknowledge that segregation and tensions around race and ethnicity still plague the city. A 2013 study by Brown and Florida State Universities found Milwaukee tied Detroit as the most-segregated metropolitan area in the country; another study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that Wisconsin has the highest black male incarceration rate in the United States. Yet, interfaith responses persist to address these issues. One such example is the 11×15 campaign led by WISDOM, a statewide grassroots interfaith organization, which is working to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by 11,000 by 2015.
These grassroots efforts to address racial inequalities and violence are not easily conveyed on a map that highlights distinct communities within Milwaukee’s diverse religious landscape. However, efforts to bridge religious, ethnic, and racial lines are growing, emphasizing that no community exists in isolation. They represent a hopeful, positive trend not only for Milwaukee’s diverse present but also its future.
Promising Practices and Leadership Profiles
Serve 2 Unite
Promising Practice: Uniting to Defy Hate and Build Peace Through Creativity and Service
The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee
Promising Practice: Four Decades of Partnering for Change
Directory of Religious Centers in Milwaukee
The Pluralism Project is no longer updating its directory of religious centers outside of Boston, but you can find an archive of the Milwaukee directory here.