City Profile: Twin Cities, MN (2012)

Religious Diversity

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, once defined by Protestant and largely northern European immigrants, are now embodying the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-religious America. While the legacy of nineteenth century immigration (mostly from Ireland, Germany, and Sweden) remains visible, recent decades have brought new waves of immigrants hailing from places as diverse as Laos, Somalia, and Burma. These men and women have brought with them Islam, Buddhism, indigenous traditions, and great ethnic diversity to Christian churches around the city.

Although the religious diversity of the Twin Cities has grown exponentially in recent decades, minority religious communities have been an influential part of the cities’ history for quite some time. In the early 1900s a significant Jewish population took root in Minneapolis-St. Paul, particularly in the neighborhood of St. Louis Park. Founded in 1878, Temple Israel was the first synagogue in the Twin Cities. Today, the Temple is one of the ten largest Jewish congregations in the United States.

Since the mid-1970s, Minneapolis-St. Paul has become home to one of the largest populations of Hmong and Hmong-American residents outside of Southeast Asia. Recent years have seen an increasing number of Karen families emigrating from Burma and Thailand. Both the Hmong and Karen communities practice a wide variety of religious traditions, drawing largely on Christian, Buddhist, and shamanistic backgrounds. In 1992, the Twin Cities’ Hmong community proudly claimed the country’s first Hmong priest, ordained to serve the growing number of Hmong Catholics. Hmong Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church’s Swahili-speaking ministry in St. Paul are examples of the Cities’ new ethnic diversity within their largest Protestant denomination. Lutherans make up 50 percent of Protestants in the metro area and comprise nearly 15 percent of the Cities’ total population.

The number of Muslims living in Minneapolis-St.Paul has skyrocketed in the last twenty years. This is due, in large part, to immigration from East African nations, especially in the wake of the Somali Civil War. Although a few Muslim families made their home in Minneapolis in the early 1900s, it was in the late 1960s that immigrant students founded the Muslim Students Association, an organization that today has chapters around the country. By 1969, the Islamic Center of Minnesota was born. Today, the Cities boast a rich network of Muslim organizations that includes educational institutions and community engagement organizations developed to meet the needs of the growing community. These include the first private Islamic school in the state, Al-Amal, the Islamic Civic Society of America (formerly Dar Al-Hijrah), and the Islamic Resource Group.

After nearly four decades of worshiping in homes and repurposed church buildings, the Hindu community completed a 43,000 square foot temple in the suburb of Maple Grove. Dedicated in 2006, the Hindu Temple of Minnesota currently hosts the Jain Center of Minnesota, an organization that dates to 1989. A small Sikh community, the Sikh Society of Minnesota, gathers in the suburb of Bloomington. In 2011, the Sikh Society of Minnesota joined the Hindu Temple of Minnesota in hosting a free weekly health clinic in partnership with Sewa-Asian Indian Family Wellness, a non-profit that meets the needs of the Cities’ “vulnerable and underserved population from Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Tibet, Trinidad, Gayana, and the Caribbean diaspora.”

There are over thirty Buddhist centers in the Twin Cities metro area, yet another reflection of the impact of immigration on the diversity of the Cities’ religious landscape. These include the Tibetan Buddhist Gyoto Wheel of Dharma Monastery in Minneapolis and the Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, a Soto Zen Buddhist center founded in 1972.

The Wiccan Church of Minnesota (WiCoM) can trace its unbroken lineage of leadership back four decades. Atheists, secular and religious humanist organizations also dot the landscape of the Twin Cities. The Circle of Reason is one such organization that works to bring people together (non-religious or religious) who share a commitment to the principle that “reason will transform the world.”

In 2012, Bahá’ís of Minneapolis celebrated the centennial anniversary of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to the Twin Cities. Like many of their neighbors, the Baha’i community is actively involved in interfaith efforts in the Cities such as the Day of Interfaith Youth Service hosted annually by the St. Paul Area Council of Churches. Interfaith efforts in the Cities address such issues as refugee resettlement, economic disparity between immigrant and native-born populations, and Islamophobia. One interfaith program’s title is apt not only for the reality of the Twin Cities today but also for its aspiration: Minnesotans Standing Together.

Interfaith Infrastructure

Minneapolis and St. Paul share a history that is deeply shaped by Scandinavian, German, and Irish immigrants and a culture profoundly influenced by Protestant Christianity. Given this milieu, the Twin Cities with a combined population of 667,000 may seem an unlikely home for a global community. But in an era of increased globalization, the Twin Cities have become a microcosm of a diverse religious America. Local public schools regularly send home communication in four languages—Somali, Hmong, Spanish, and English. Anyone who thinks of “A Prairie Home Companion” when the Twin Cities come to mind may be surprised to learn that Minneapolis-St. Paul is home to over thirty mosques, eleven Hindu temples, and one of the ten largest synagogues in the United States.

In many ways, the Twin Cities’ interfaith infrastructure defies easy classification. There are a number of campus-based initiatives—both institutional and student-driven—in addition to umbrella organizations such as Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul (formerly the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches) and Align, an interfaith collaboration of 17 Minneapolis churches, synagogues, and mosques and community members working together to address homelessness and poverty. Interfaith efforts spearheaded by individuals such as Dr. Frank Burton, of Circle of Reason and the Secular Bible Study, also contribute to the richness of the city’s interfaith landscape.

Promising Practices and Leadership Profiles

Align Minneapolis (Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness)

Interfaith Youth Connection (Formerly Interfaith Youth Leadership Coalition)

Islamic Resource Group

Secular Bible Study / Circle of Reason

Leadership Profile: The Reverend Tom Duke

Research Reports

Muslims and Lutherans in the Twin Cities Conference (2002)

Twin Cities' Responses to September 11 Attacks (2002)

Directory of Religious Centers in Twin Cities

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