Collen Rost-Banik

Ms. Colleen Rost-Banik became a Pluralism Project in 2002 with her research on religious diversity and civil society in Maine. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School, Ms. Rost-Banik worked with the Maine Council of Churches to organize interfaith efforts in the Greater Portland area. It was during this time that she compiled research on religious diversity and interfaith initiatives in the state, as well as explore how civic instutions were responding to this increased diversity.

At the time of this research, Ms. Rost-Banik wrote:

Religious diversity can increasingly be found in the smallest and most unexpected pockets of America’s geographic and civic landscape. Maine is one such pocket. While the 2000 census ranked Maine as the whitest state in the nation, people are constantly amazed at the level of diversity that does exist in the state.

Much of Maine’s recent ethnic and religious diversity has come through the United States Refugee Resettlement Program. Catholic Charities Maine in both Portland and Lewiston is the major organization designated for refugee resettlement in Maine. Since 1975, Catholic Charities Maine has assisted in the resettlement process for over 5000 refugees from some 25 countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Near East, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and the former Soviet Republics, including Cambodia, India, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, and Russia (source: http://www.ccmaine.org). This program has considerably grown the cultural and religious diversity in Maine. In particular, Buddhists and Muslims from these countries have planted their roots, creating religious centers and participating in the civic, social and economic life of Maine.

Aside from refugees bringing their religious and cultural heritage with them, the Maine geographic landscape is also a draw for religious diversity. Maine’s beaches, mountains and rolling hills have helped give rise to a number of religious communities – from Baha’is who began the internationally known and visited Green Acre Baha’i School along the beautiful banks of the Piscataqua River; to the Buddhists, many of whom have moved to Maine from neighboring cities on the East Coast and started meditation groups in their homes so that they can practice in a more relaxed atmosphere; to the Pagans who have been supported in both solitary and community practice by the vast spaces of land and water all throughout Maine.

While religious diversity is on the rise all over the U.S., what makes Maine particularly unique is the level of interconnectedness among religious and civic institutions. Since there is such a small population in the state (latest estimate is 1.3 million), many people realize that in order to coexist and accomplish the goals needed to move Maine forward, all groups of people must be actively engaged in the public square. The state of Maine, which is quite large in landmass, is actually a small community with few degrees of separation among people. When resources are limited, and when a community understands that all its realms are interconnected, they realize they must work together for their collective well-being.

Maine’s service organizations, school systems and religious communities collaborate to make sure that the various needs of people are met. For instance, the Parent-Community Specialists, who are staff people in the Office of Multilingual and Multicultural Programs of the Portland Public School system, provide language interpretation. They are also in a unique position to combine their many personal talents and put them to use. One of the Parent-Community Specialists held the profession of a nurse in Cambodia. So while one of his responsibilities is to help with translation of school papers that go home to parents, he also finds himself being an interpreter (of both language and cultural beliefs) for health visits. This not only helps the patient who has Limited English Proficiency, but also is a major asset to the health care provider in making sure that the assessment and treatment plan for the Cambodian patient is accurate.

In another instance, when the Portland Muslim community struggled to find a space that was big enough and willing to host their Eid al-Adha prayer, a local public school opened up their gymnasium to the community. Some might contend that this blurs the line of separation between church and state. But in reality, the public school system is working to ensure that underrepresented communities have the same resources afforded to more privileged groups in the area.

This project sought to feature the varied religious landscape of Maine as well as to highlight how religious life is intertwined with the ethnic, social and civic realms of life. Ms. Rost-Banik continued:

While diversity in Maine exists and constantly expands, the population at large may not know about all the jewels that exist in our own backyard. People and organizations wishing to engage the wide range of people and communities in Maine might find some of the information from this research helpful in their efforts to encounter diversity in the nation’s ‘whitest state.’

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