Since its founding in 1630, the city of Boston has been profoundly shaped by the religious communities that call it home. While the Freedom Trail commemorates many of the city’s earliest Christian influences, including Christ Church in the City of Boston (the famed “Old North Church” of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”), the city’s religious landscape is much more diverse today. Nearly fifty Islamic centers, almost forty Hindu temples, over ninety Buddhist groups, six gurdwaras, and small but vital communities of Jains, Zoroastrians, the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and practitioners of Afro-Caribbean traditions make their home in Greater Beantown.
Catholic immigrants began streaming into the city as the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s devastated their homeland. Around the same time, Ohabei Shalom (“Lovers of Peace”), the first Jewish congregation in Massachusetts and the second in the nation, was formed. Although a temple was not built until 1851, historical records indicate a Jewish presence in Boston since the mid-seventeenth century. Today, these communities continue to thrive in Greater Boston. As of 2000, 48 percent of Bostonians identified themselves as Catholic, making the diocese one of the largest in the world. By 2004, over 100 Jewish organizations and synagogues were serving the city’s vibrant Jewish community which is comprised of nearly 200,000 people.
Following federal immigration reform in 1965, many immigrants were attracted to Boston for its leadership in the higher education, bio-tech, and health care sectors. Hindu temples range from purpose-built South Asian style mandirs such as Sri Lakshmi Temple in Ashland to adapted-use spaces such as Braj Mandir, a temple in Holbrook that makes its home in a renovated Friendly’s restaurant.
While immigration patterns of recent decades have brought Muslims to Boston from all over the world, many of the city’s first Muslims were descendants of slaves who understood their religion to be part of their African heritage. During the latter part of the twentieth century, Boston became a fertile site for the Nation of Islam. Today, over 50,000 Muslims call Boston home. The largest Islamic center in the area is the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, which houses a mosque, school, café, and community center built of Bostonian red brick in traditional Islamic architecture style, an intentional blend of elements familiar to both the neighborhood and the Muslim community.
The events of September 11, 2001 are often credited with sparking increased interfaith work in the United States, but interfaith initiatives have been part of the religious landscape of Boston for decades. Many describe Boston as a laboratory for this kind of work, the result of an ethnically and religiously diverse community within a small urban setting that boasts over forty-five interfaith organizations. With numerous academic centers in which to test and monitor interfaith projects, Boston offers an ideal backdrop. As one interfaith leader noted, “there is no central grid… It is multi-nodal, organic, shifting, no central locus or loci of activity, power and relationship.”
Greater Boston’s wealth of academic institutions also play a significant role in shaping the religious landscape and interfaith infrastructure far beyond any one campus. The Humanist Hub, an effort spearheaded by the Harvard Humanist community, promotes the establishment of Humanist centers across America. Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College offer an institutional partnership on a shared campus in Newton. There, faculty members come together to teach with an interfaith perspective and students may choose to enter an Interfaith and Leadership Certificate Program. The Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School offers a wide range of programming to explore diverse religions across the globe and provides significant academic opportunities for scholars and students. Since 1993, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College has been an innovative leader in multi-faith campus chaplaincy.
Significant efforts have been made in greater Boston to inspire local youth to get involved in interfaith work. Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries’ Interfaith Youth Initiative summer program and Sharon’s Youth LEAD promote youth empowerment and offer leadership trainings centered on diversity and religious dialogue. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization is a coalition of over 100 congregations organized to advocate for social issues such as health care reform and debt relief. Partnership in the wake of tragedy is yet another way in which Bostonians promote and model cooperation. “A Service Rooted in the Sikh Tradition,” held at Trinity Church in Copley Square in the wake of the August 2012 shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was sponsored by area Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh groups and drew over 1,500 people from the metro area. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, a crowd of nearly 2,000 gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for an interfaith service that concluded with remarks from President Barack Obama who told the city: “You will run again.” Today, Greater Boston is a reflection of a new multireligious America and it is clear that any trail charted through the city would reflect that reality, both in landscape and, at its best, in optimism.