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 presence in the city, dating back to the late 1800s. Today, the two largest synagogues are the 2,000-member Congregation Ahavath Chesed, a Reform community known as “The Temple,” and the similarly-sized Conservative Jacksonville Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue; in addition, four Chabad-Lubavitch centers are located across the sprawling metro area. The Temple’s Senior Rabbi Joshua Lief, notes: “I think there is an assumption that everyone in town is a Christian. The reality is, 98 percent of the time, that’s a good guess.” Yet Rabbi Lief is quick to note that there is a high level of acceptance in the larger community.
While Jacksonville is the biggest city by area in the United States, it retains a friendly Southern, small town feel. Locals jokingly refer to the area as “South Georgia,” perhaps because it shares more with the Bible Belt than Boca Raton. A port city on the northern coast of Florida, Jacksonville boasts a stunning array of bridges and waterways, pristine beaches and marshlands. The port brings industry as well as a significant military presence. For many in the sprawling city of Jacksonville, “diversity” continues to be understood primarily in terms of race. The city—which according to the 2010 census was 60.9 percent White, 29.5 percent African American, and 4.1 percent Asian—has long struggled with issues of inclusion and discrimination. Jacksonville was known to be a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and integration was slow, with divisions along race lines persisting in clubs and schools well into the 1970s.
Broader religious diversity is relatively new to Jacksonville, with the Bahá’í Center established in the late 1980s, the Hindu Temple in the early 1990s, and the Sikh Gurdwara in 2011. The Buddhist presence includes two ornate Cambodian Temples, two Tibetan Buddhist Centers, a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, and a Zen Center. The two main sites for Muslim prayer and gathering in Jacksonville are the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida, a landmark mosque with a dome and minaret, and the predominantly African-American Jacksonville Masjid of Al-Islam.
The Muslim community in Jacksonville has faced unique challenges: in 2002, Rev. Jerry Vines of First Baptist Church infamously referred to the Prophet Mohammed as “a demon-possessed pedophile”; in 2008, a local pastor posted messages such as “God Loves You, Allah Hates” on the sign in front of his church. In 2010, the nomination of a Muslim college professor to a city committee led to acrimonious opposition, as well as steadfast support from interfaith and civic leaders. Although Dr. Parvez Ahmed was appointed, days later the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida was targeted in a pipe-bomb attack.
Within hours of the attack on the Islamic Center, clergy from across the city issued a statement condemning the act. Many of these efforts were led by Jacksonville’s largest interfaith organization, OneJax. In addition to formal interfaith activities, the city’s interfaith fabric is also strengthened by relational activities at the community level. After the nomination controversy, the Pastor from Riverside Presbyterian Church invited Dr. Ahmed to co-teach an adult Sunday School course on Islam. An annual pulpit swap forges new connections between communities, such as the African American congregation at Hendricks Baptist Church and the Reform Jewish community of Ahavath Chesed. While Jacksonville has faced considerable challenges related to racial and religious diversity, interfaith leaders are optimistic for the future: in an historic election in 2011, the city elected its first African American mayor, and an innovative partnership between OneJax and the University of North Florida is expected to enhance and expand interfaith efforts in the years to come.