City Profile: Seattle, WA (2012)

Seattle is known for its stunning landscape, nationally renowned coffee culture, and the “Seattle Sound” of grunge bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana. The religious diversity of Greater Seattle in the twenty-first century is simply astonishing. It is home to more than a few dozen Buddhist centers, frequented by old and new Chinese and Japanese immigrants, by more recent Korean and Thai immigrants, and by Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian refugees. “First generation” American convert Buddhists have also been active builders of the extensive new Buddhist Seattle. In addition to its many mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical churches, there are Orthodox churches of every rite—Antiochian, Greek, Russian, Coptic, and Serbian. There are several Protestant churches with largely Samoan congregations; there are Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Latino churches. Seattle is also one of the most vital centers of Sephardic Judaism in the United States. Its Muslim population is growing, as is the number of Hindus and Sikhs who have now made their home in the area. Seattle is proud of its multiculturalism, and many regard its new religious landscape as a natural outgrowth of recent patterns of immigration. However, a brief look at Seattle’s history reveals a far more complex story.

The totem poles of Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle stand as striking reminders of the long history and continued presence of Native American peoples in this area. The first public statue in the city was that of Chief Sealth, leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes and the city’s namesake. The statue depicts Chief Sealth welcoming a landing party of Europeans in 1851. Today the legacy of that welcome is a bitter one for many native peoples. In 1854 when the U.S. government offered to buy this land and provide a reservation for Sealth and his people, Chief Sealth made an eloquent plea for respect for his people and their traditions; his words have become one of the most famous pieces of Native American oratory, although the authenticity of its various versions is a matter of considerable scholarly dispute. Chief Sealth is buried on Suquamish reservation lands, across the Straits from Seattle, beyond Bainbridge Island.

Today, it is estimated that Seattle is home to more than 12,000 Native Americans (with many more in the metro area) from over thirty tribal affiliations, including the Duwamish, who have been seeking a reinstatement of federal recognition since 2001. A network of Indian organizations works to strengthen Native American identity, provide services and sponsor community events such as the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation which hosts each July the SEAFAIR Indian Days Powwow, drawing over 10,0000 spectators from across the United States and Canada.

Newcomers from Asia and the Pacific began arriving in the Puget Sound area more than 150 years ago. The demand for cheap labor first brought Native Hawaiians to Washington territory in the early 1800s, although most returned home after fulfilling their contracts. The first immigrant laborers to settle in the area were Chinese who came to work on the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the mid-1800s. The first Japanese immigrants came in 1879, and Sikhs from the Punjab followed in the early 1900s. Each of these groups encountered great discrimination in the Washington territory. In one instance, in 1885, 300 armed residents of Tacoma forced 700 Chinese onto wagons, left them at the edge of town, and then burned down the Tacoma Chinatown. In 1907, the Sikhs, called “Hindoos,” working in Bellingham fled in the middle of the night from a mob of angry and violent lumber workers. In the early 1940s, Japanese Americans lost their homes and businesses when they were forcibly “relocated” to internment camps in Minidoka, Idaho.

The Seattle area also has a history of offering refuge to newcomers. Russian, Polish, and German Jews fleeing anti-Semitism settled in Seattle in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the late 1970s, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and tribal people from the Golden Triangle began putting down new roots here. The city has become so diverse that the downtown areas called Chinatown, Manilatown, and Japantown have now merged. The area is now called the “Chinatown/International District.” There, the newest immigrant groups have settled and started small businesses side-by-side with their predecessors. Their many languages and cultures are vividly displayed in the District’s summer festival at Hing Hay Park where Japanese Taiko drumming mingles with Vietnamese music, Laotian, Cambodian, Filipino and Thai folk dancing, Chinese drill teams, Asian American Jazz Bands, and traditional Hmong needlework is on display.

Interfaith efforts in Seattle reflect the city’s long history of bringing diverse groups together. The Faith Action Network (FAN) is but one recent example, advocating for “a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world” with a network more than sixty congregations strong. Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry is also a key player in interfaith efforts, seeking to prepare theological school students for a religiously diverse world by hosting annual interfaith retreats and by engaging with the wider interfaith efforts in the city. Today, Greater Seattle gives students ample opportunity to consider how the City of Goodwill will live into its nickname given its growing multireligious reality.


Directory of Religious Centers in Seattle

The Pluralism Project is no longer updating its directory of religious centers outside of Boston, but you can find an archive of the Seattle directory here.