City Profile: San Diego, CA (2012)

San Diego, a sprawling southern California city with seventy miles of coastline and a well known “surf and turf” culture, has a long history of religious diversity. The city was founded in 1769 as the first Catholic mission in California, Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcalá. Just over seventy-five years later, 500 Mormons trekked from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego to offer military support to the American army during the Mexican War. Their march—one of the longest in U.S. military history—is commemorated in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, located on Juan Street. ...

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City Profile: Salt Lake City, UT (2012)

“This is the right place,” Brigham Young said in 1847 when he and a small band of Mormon pioneers arrived at the edge of the Great Salt Lake. After three failed attempts to establish a religious community, the Latter Day Saints founded Salt Lake City as a “New Zion.” Here, they would finally be free to practice their faith, free of the violent harrassment they endured in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Although slightly more than half of Salt Lake City’s nearly 1.1 million people identify as Mormon today, the Church continues to take steps to ensure that this emphasis on religious freedom...

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City Profile: Richmond, VA (2012)

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...

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City Profile: Phoenix, AZ (2012)

The Hohokam Indians were the earliest inhabitants of the area where the vast city of Phoenix now stretches across the southwestern desert. Nineteenth century settlers rebuilt the ancient canals abandoned by the Hohokam and optimistically gave the city its name: Phoenix, the fabled desert bird that lives for hundreds of years and then rises from its own ashes to live again. Their optimism seems to have been matched by the reality of modern Phoenix, which built on ancient ruins, has become one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. Although its population numbered less than 100,000 in...

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City Profile: Philadelphia, PA (2012)

Philadelphia’s long-standing encouragement of religious freedom is rooted in the religious commitment of William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder. In 1681 Penn, a Quaker, founded Pennsylvania as a haven for religious diversity in the colonies. “The king of the country where I live has given unto me a great province,” he wrote to the Lenape Nation in 1681, “but I desire to enjoy it with your friends, else what would the great God say to us, who has made us not to devour and destroy one another, but live soberly and kindly together in the world?” The First and Second Continental Congresses...

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City Profile: Omaha, NE (2012)

Omaha is a small city in the center of the Great Plains, the largest metropolitan area in the state of Nebraska. A city of 419,000 in a state of less than two million, Omaha is notable not only for its size but also for its diversity. While African Americans form the largest minority group in Omaha, Latino residents are increasing at a rate of 174 percent annually. Omaha’s Asian population has grown by almost 90 percent since 1990 while immigrants from Africa are steadily increasing as refugees from Sudan make their way to this crossroads on the prairie. The religious landscape of Omaha...

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City Profile: New York, NY (2012)

New York City is perhaps the only city in the world where one can find a kosher Indian vegetarian restaurant run by Hindus and a halal Chinese restaurant run by Buddhists. The religious and ethnic diversity of the city’s five boroughs is a far cry from the former 17th-century Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam where the only permitted form of public worship was Dutch Reformed Christianity. Under the Dutch, brutal suppression of local native peoples was accompanied by religious persecution of many immigrants, including the flogging of Quakers, imprisonment of Lutherans, and restriction of...

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City Profile: Milwaukee, WI (2012)

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...

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City Profile: Louisville, KY (2012)

When heavyweight boxing champion and Louisville native Muhammad Ali became a Muslim in 1964 there was not a single mosque in his hometown. Located at the northern cusp of the Bible Belt, the city is known for Louisville Slugger baseball bats and its large Evangelical churches. Yet, for nearly twenty years, the Festival of Faiths has also put Derby City on the map. The Festival—a week-long celebration of the nation’s religious diversity—is also a celebration of Louisville’s own growing diversity.

Today, Greater Louisville is home to twelve Islamic centers and mosques, in...

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City Profile: Los Angeles, CA (2012)

Los Angeles is truly a cosmopolis—a world city. Its many ethnic and religious communities are so large that each one has a vibrant life of its own. Sprawling today over nearly five hundred square miles, Los Angeles got its start in 1771 as a small Spanish mission village. It was named El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, “The Town of our Lady, Queen of the Angels”: its early residents called it “El Pueblo.” In 1850, when California achieved statehood, this town was over 85 percent Spanish-speaking and Mexican. Even today, Latinos constitute the largest ethnic group in the...

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City Profile: Las Vegas, NV (2012)

The lights of Las Vegas glitter for miles along a stretch of highway, an oasis in the vast Mojave Desert, just east of Death Valley. In the nineteenth century, the city—its name Spanish for “the meadows”—became a beacon for Mormon settlers headed west between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. As the nineteenth century wore on, gold rushes and the Transcontinental Railroad brought people from all over the world to the American Southwest; Las Vegas’ rail, mining, and dam industries boomed. By the early 1900s, this desert oasis was home to thriving immigrant communities, especially...

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City Profile: Kansas City, MO and KS (2012)

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...

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City Profile: Jacksonville, FL (2012)

In Jacksonville, Florida, one interfaith leader explains, religion is like the sugar in sweet tea: “It permeates every aspect of life. … I can’t think of much that isn’t touched by religion in one way or another.” The city is predominantly, often presumptively, Christian. Jacksonville is home to the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention; First Baptist Church occupies eleven blocks of the city’s downtown, right next to City Hall. Until 2010, the City Council’s chaplain offered Christian prayers to open each meeting.

The Jewish community has a small but historic...

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City Profile: Houston, TX (2012)

Houston, once a small oil and rail yard town, is America’s second fastest growing city, covering an area slightly smaller than Massachusetts but bigger than New Jersey. The city is also one where no single ethnic group claims more than 33 percent of the population. Although diversity can sometimes be a source of tension, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has reported a steady increase over recent decades in the positive ratings area residents give different ethnic groups.[1] In 2013, a local newspaper headline read “Houston Losing Bible Belt Bragging Rights,” acknowledging that, while Christian congregations abound, the diversity of Houston’s religious landscape is keeping apace with the city’s rapid expansion.

Since 1996 the Houston Zoroastrian Center in Southwest Houston has served the city’s Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian Zarathushtis. The Center is home to the nation’s first Zoroastrian Sunday School and a library that serves as a repository for historical and scholarly information about the tradition. Annually, the public is invited to attend a Jashne Sadeh fire celebration as part of the Center’s efforts to educate the broader Houston community about Zoroastrianism.

Houston is home to the largest Muslim population in Texas and one of the largest in the South overall.[2] For over a decade, Houston’s mayor has partnered with the city’s diverse Muslim groups and cultural organizations to host an annual iftar dinner during the month of Ramadan. Counted among the city’s numerous and diverse Muslim communities is the Ismaili Principal Jamatkhana (“House of Prayer”) and Centre, which serves as the headquarters for a quarter million Shia Ismaili Muslims living in the United States.

Though the Jewish community in Houston can trace its roots back to the mid-nineteenth century, the city has only recently reached critical mass. The Orthodox Union declared Houston a destination city and identified it as the first “Affordable Orthodox Living” community.[3] According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, as of 2011, the Houston area was home to 23 different Jewish congregations.

Houston’s Hindu community is also sizable. The area’s largest temple, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, is located in South Houston, just a short drive from the Ismaili Principal Jamatkhana. Founded in 2004, it took craftsmen sixteen months and 1.3 million volunteer hours to carve by hand the white marble and limestone temple. Before a small mandir was established in 1988, Swaminaryan devotees in the Houston area met in each other’s homes to hold weekly religious gatherings. Today, the smaller mandir still stands and is now part of the new temple complex, which also includes a monastery and an interactive museum where visitors can explore the history and beliefs of Hinduism.

“We are home to an incredible variety of people with different backgrounds and of different faiths. In order to have a successful future, we have to know how to work with and for each other,” remarked then-Mayor Annise Parker in an interview with The Houston Chronicle. While the City has done much to promote and celebrate the diversity of its residents, it has also been criticized for infringing upon the religious freedom of some. In 2014, some interfaith groups and Christian organizations, both local and national, expressed disapproval at the City’s plan to issue subpoenas for the sermons of five local pastors. The pastors had been vocal about their disapproval of a proposed human rights ordinance in Houston that aimed to ban discrimination of LGBT people [4] Soon after Parker met with concerned parties, the subpoenas were withdrawn.[5]

In 2015, the Houston Chronicle reported that Houston has 37 of the state’s 207 mega-churches.[6] Lakewood Church, founded by Joel and Victoria Osteen, is just off of Route 59, where traffic can be backed up for miles on a Sunday morning. Some might be surprised to learn, just a short drive west, members of Houston Oasis, a community of self-described “freethinkers,” also gathers on Sunday mornings. Founded in 2012, Houston Oasis meets at the Norris Conference Center and is part of a growing number of Humanist groups forming across the United States.

Interfaith initiatives in Houston have shaped, and are being shaped, by national and international efforts. Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, a hub for interfaith activity in the city, organizes popular bi-annual “Dinner Dialogues” which have been replicated in other cities and states. Near a business park just off Bellfort Avenue, the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue, part of the global Gülen Movement, is currently building the Houston Peace Garden where visitors will be able to visit replicas of a synagogue, church, and mosque. The Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University engages the campus and Houston communities in inter- and intra-faith conversations. The Rothko Chapel, founded over 40 years ago as a space for all in the heart of the city’s museum district, features the work of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.

“No city more clearly exemplifies the trends that are rapidly refashioning the social and political landscape of all urban America,” writes the Kinder Institute at Rice, whose Kinder Houston Area Survey findings were the subject of a 2012 documentary by founding director, Dr. Stephen Klineberg.[7] The film’s title—Interesting Times—is apt for a city “where the American future is going to be worked out” in light of the nation’s new multiethnic and multireligious reality.[8]


Promising Practices and Leadership Profiles

Dinner Dialogues
Promising Practice: Breaking Bread and Making Neighbors in Houston and Beyond


Research Reports

Embodying Ethics, Performing Pluralism: Volunteerism Among Ismailis in Houston, TX (2003)

Gujarati Hindu Temples in Metropolitan Houston (2007)

Houston Oasis: A New Model for Non-Faith Based Communities (2013)


Directory of Religious Centers in Houston

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


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