Atlanta, Georgia, the “birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” commemorates the nation’s struggle for racial equality in an international World Peace Rose Garden. Here, bands of red and white roses interweave, symbolizing the bringing together of people across racial and ethnic lines. In a similar way, the roses symbolize the way a philosophy of nonviolence brought together two unlikely and geographically distant compatriots in their struggle for equal rights: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Today, the world seems much smaller and global friendships much more frequent as diverse communities of immigrants from India, Pakistan, Korea, and Vietnam have come to make their home in “the Buckle of the Bible Belt.”
It takes but a short drive down Buford Avenue to see Atlanta’s new multiethnic and multi-religious reality. Along the highway is Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc., one of over forty Buddhist communities in the metro area. Drepung Loseling has been a center for Tibetan Buddhist studies, practice, and culture in Atlanta since 1991. Today, its academic programs connect Emory University in Atlanta with Drepung Loseling’s parent monastery in India.
Botanicas and masjids line Buford Avenue, adding to the street’s global microcosm. Nearby, Masjid Abu Bakr serves approximately eight hundred Muslim families, many of whom live within a six-mile radius of the mosque. Another masjid, Al-Farooq Mosque, was established in 1980 by Pakistani and Arab immigrants, and is home to one of the few Islamic cemeteries in the country. Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, founded the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in 1958, the oldest of the city’s nearly three dozen mosques.
It was also in 1958 that Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (“The Temple”), was bombed, likely due to the fact that Rabbi Jacob Rothchild made public his ardent support of racial integration. Today, there are over twenty synagogues in metro Atlanta, including Congregation Or VeShalom whose members can trace their roots “from the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, North and South America, and even Atlanta!”
The Hindu community of Greater Atlanta is thriving, adding several new temples in recent decades. The Hindu Temple of Atlanta opened in the southern suburb of Riverdale in 1990 and is now one of over fifteen temples in the metro area. In 2007, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir opened in the northeastern suburb of Lilburn, a 27,000 square foot structure that sits on twenty-nine acres. Temple volunteer Ritesh Desai spoke of the mandir‘s opening to one NPR reporter: “Many of us have assimilated into the mainstream American culture. Yet the mainstream American culture does not know about India per se, or they might not have been to India. We’re bringing a little bit of India to you.”
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 81 percent of Georgians profess a belief in God and 38 percent identify as Evangelical Christian. Evangelist Billy Graham was no stranger to the city; over the course of several decades Atlanta was the site of at least three of his crusades. While Evangelical Christianity continues to shape Atlanta’s cultural milieu, the city is now home to a number of Atheist groups as well. One such group, Black Nonbelievers, Inc., is notable for its fellowship and service opportunities for African Americans, including at 2011 rally at the state house to honor international “Support an Atheist Day.”
Interfaith efforts in Atlanta are thriving and diverse. Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, Inc. (IAC, Inc.) is based in Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s largest airport and supports travelers of all faiths by providing assistance and a quiet place to pray or meditate in one of the airport’s three chapels. The Interfaith Community Initiatives (ICI) seeks to transform Atlanta into “a model city for interfaith appreciation and cooperation” and does so by hosting weekend “immersion” trips to local religious communities and programming for youth.
The World Peace Rose Garden stands directly in front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historical Site, a reminder both of the city’s commitment to new growth and to honoring its storied past. As industry and technology continues to attract the world to “the ATL,” the city’s religious diversity expands and makes its mark on Atlanta’s landscape and history.