In Richmond, history is a source of pride. In 1786, the state legislature of Virginia passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, an act commemorated nearly two hundred years later with the founding of the First Freedom Center. The Center’s mission now includes an imperative to advance “the fundamental human rights of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.” Given Richmond’s new multireligious reality, this charge is now more critical than ever.
During the American Civil War, Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy, a role that is commemorated along Monument Avenue. Larger-than-life statues of Confederate leaders line the European-style boulevard that runs through the Museum District. In the mid-1990s controversy erupted when a statue of the renowned African American tennis player and activist, Arthur Ashe, was erected. Some saw the decision as an insult to Ashe, whose likeness would be next to that of General Robert E. Lee while others saw the new addition as an affront to the history of the Confederacy.
Although Richmond has struggled with issues of race, these tensions did not surface in the wake of September 11, 2001. Whereas many South Asian and Middle Eastern communities across the nation experienced violent backlash in the days following the attacks, Richmonders chose to respond differently. Bon Air United Methodist Church sent flowers to the Islamic Center of Virginia. This simple gesture grew into an interfaith initiative, the Interfaith Trialogues, which annually bring together for conversation the Methodist congregation, the Islamic center, and a local synagogue, Congregation Or Ami. In 2011, the Trialogue expanded to include local Presbyterian and Catholic communities.
Richmond’s skyline indicates a historically large Christian presence—church steeples as often as skyscrapers dot the landscape; however, more recent immigrant groups have begun making their mark on the city. In addition to the Islamic Center of Richmond, the city is home to over fifteen masajid and Islamic organizations, including the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs. A 2009 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that over 3,000 Muslims gathered in nearby Henrico to celebrate Eid al-Adha, a celebration that has in recent years moved to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, with organizers adding an additional service to accommodate the crowds.
The Hindu community also gathers annually at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Since 1982, they have organized a Festival of India for residents to enjoy Indian culture, food, and music. The event’s sponsor, the Hindu Center of Richmond, is a temple located just north of the Islamic Center in the suburb of Glen Allen. The temple is a hub of community activity, offering pujas and classes to learn Hindi and Marathi, as well as yoga and music.
The Sikh Association of Central Virginia was founded in 1984. Today, two gurdwaras serve the community in Richmond, one to the south in Chesterfield and another to the west of Bon Air. While the Hindu temple and Sikh gurdwaras in Richmond are not geographic neighbors, the communities are brought together online through RichmondIndia.us, an informational web resource founded to meet the Indian community’s religious, cultural, and social needs.
Other groups organize themselves by tradition instead of by culture. Richmond is home to the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha which was founded in 1986 as a Pure Land temple. Over time, Ekoji has begun hosting several Buddhist groups from the Soto Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, and Meditative Inquiry traditions, resulting in a pan-Buddhist coalition.
In 2013, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy celebrated thirty years of amplifying the voices of the region’s religious communities through grassroots organizing and lobbying, tackling issues such as stewardship of creation, immigration, poverty, hunger, at-risk youth, and healthcare. The Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond also has a long history in the city, with roots in Christian women’s social service organization in the early 1900s. Today, the Interfaith Council is comprised of members from Bahá’í, Buddhist, Eckankar, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Jewish, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist, Unity, and Zoroastrian traditions in addition to Catholic, Mormon, and Protestant.
From the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to the Capital of the Confederacy to a new multi-religious, multi-ethnic state capital, Richmond’s history is long and storied. As the city continues to grow, its increasingly diverse population will no doubt find new ways of sharing those stories and creating new ones.
Church steeples just as often as skyscrapers penetrate the sky over Richmond, a reminder that the city has been—and continues to be—shaped by diverse “Christianities.” Richmond is simultaneously a symbol of old Southern charm and a city with new religious diversity. As Richmond approaches the 200th anniversary of the Civil War, it appears to draw from both its past and present to decide how such a defining moment in its history will be remembered. Today, “The River City” is now home to eight mosques, six Buddhist temples, two Sikh gurdwaras, three Pagan communities and three Hindu temples.
Locals report that the city’s diversity, its size (relatively small at just over 204,000 people), and its culture of southern hospitality have created a positive interreligious atmosphere. The Interfaith Trialogues, annual conversations between a local synagogue, church, and mosque, exemplifies the spirit of welcoming the neighbor. Education is also a key feature of Richmond’s interfaith infrastructure. The Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, the Richmond Peace Education Center, and the Interfaith Reconciliation Center at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church take seriously the charge of educating people about different faiths.
Promising Practices and Leadership Profiles
Promising Practice: Moving from Diversity to Pluralism by Getting to Know Our Neighbors
Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy
Promising Practice: Amplifying Interfaith Voices to Inspire Political Change
Directory of Religious Centers in Richmond
The Pluralism Project is no longer updating its directory of religious centers outside of Boston, but you can find an archive of the Richmond directory here.