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 addition to two Islamic schools. Many of the region’s Muslims are refugees from Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia while others are highly educated immigrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and, still others, American-born. The congregation that gathers at the River Road Masjid is evidence of this diversity: here, worshippers represent more than seventy-five nationalities.
Louisville’s Buddhist community is also quite diverse. In 1990, Vietnamese immigrants established the Vietnamese Buddhist Association of Louisville. In the western suburb of St. Matthews, the Drepung Gomang Institute promotes Tibetan Buddhism while Soka Gakkai International, founded on the teachings of a thirteenth century Japanese priest, makes its home near Bellarmine University. Greater Louisville is now home to two Hindu temples and a Jain center. The Hindu Center of Kentucky, first incorporated in 1985, predated the residential neighborhood that now surrounds it. Today, the temple boasts an active youth group and Sunday morning Hindu School.
Louisville is less than a two hour drive from the Creation Museum, a ministry that has made national and international news for it’s stunning interactive exhibits that portray the earth as 6,000 years old and humans and dinosaurs co-existing in a world created in seven days, according to a literal translation of the Book of Genesis. When asked about the Creation Museum’s location, its founders cite the accessibility of the region as less than a day’s drive for over two-thirds of the nation’s population. The Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey is also telling for its placement: 46 percent of Kentuckians interpret scripture as “literally true, word for word,” 13 percent higher than the national average.
Opportunities for interfaith engagement happen at both the congregational and city-wide levels, emphasizing not only diversity but shared ethnic and/or historical roots. When the Roman Catholic Vietnamese community blessed its statue of the Virgin Mary, they invited the Vietnamese Buddhist community to celebrate the occasion. In 2008, the Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Louisville hosted a Hindu-Buddhist dialogue, emphasizing the shared Dharma traditions of the two faiths.
Although generally held in November, a special Festival of Faiths commenced in 2013 just after the running of the 139th Kentucky Derby in May. The special Festival was planned to welcome to Louisville again His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Festival programming honored his historic 1968 meeting with Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whose monastery, Gethsemane, is located just an hour south of Louisville. Both Merton and Gethsemane are well known for promoting interfaith conversation between Buddhist and Christian monastics. Had Merton lived to see Louisville today, he would have no doubt been pleased that his efforts helped plant the seeds for innovative interfaith engagement and an ongoing commitment to cooperation in an increasingly diverse region.