The Hohokam Indians were the earliest inhabitants of the area where the vast city of Phoenix now stretches across the southwestern desert. Nineteenth century settlers rebuilt the ancient canals abandoned by the Hohokam and optimistically gave the city its name: Phoenix, the fabled desert bird that lives for hundreds of years and then rises from its own ashes to live again. Their optimism seems to have been matched by the reality of modern Phoenix, which built on ancient ruins, has become one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. Although its population numbered less than 100,000 in 1950, by 2012 it was nearly 1.5 million. The past few decades of meteoric growth have also brought phenomenal new diversity to this area. Beyond the city’s sun-drenched, suburban sameness lies a Phoenix of rich and diverse religious traditions.
Like other U.S. cities, the religious and cultural diversity of Phoenix is multilayered. New immigration has brought Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs from South Asia, each community with its own internal diversity. There are over thirty-five synagogues and Jewish organizations and an estimated Muslim population of over 10,000 in the Phoenix metropolitan area. That number includes many Euro and African American converts, as well as Latinos and people of North African, Middle Eastern and South Asian origin. At one mosque alone, seventy-five different countries are represented when the congregation gathers to pray.
The Buddhist community of Phoenix is also quite diverse. The Arizona Buddhist Temple, the oldest Jodo Shinshu community in the area, now has second- and third-generation Japanese-American membership. There are also predominantly Euro American groups, a Vietnamese Buddhist congregation just down the block from a Mormon church, and, in nearby Waddell, a center for Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian Buddhists known as Wat Promkunaram of Arizona.
During the summer of 1991, tragedy struck Wat Promkunaram. Nine people, including six Thai Buddhist monks, were murdered at the temple which is located twenty-five miles west of Phoenix. It remains the largest mass slaying in the state’s modern history. The tragedy received significant coverage in the national press and also stimulated much debate locally. While the murders were eventually traced to two individuals, one of whom was a disturbed Thai-American teenager, many found the response of the Phoenix community unsettling. Did the brutal murders stem from a climate of racial and religious intolerance? Was the local community’s meager response itself a reflection of prejudice? Three weeks after the murders, E.J. Montini wrote in The Arizona Republic, “[T]here’s been no great outpouring of community grief. No fear. No outrage… Most of the nine people murdered at the Buddhist temple had names we can’t pronounce and belonged to a religion we don’t understand… They lived here, as Americans. Then they died here, as foreigners.” The community of Wat Promkunaram has done its best to recover and still serves as an important center of worship for a diverse body of local Buddhists.
The Sikh community of Arizona has also known tragedy. Just days after September 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed outside of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, a suburb twenty miles east of Phoenix. Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh, was shot by Frank Roque, who wanted to “kill a Muslm” in retaliation for the terrorist attacks. In May 2003, Avtar Singh Chiera, a truckdriver, was shot in Phoenix as he waited for his son to pick him up after his shift. The attack was labeled a hate crime by police. In response, the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART) met with local and state law enforcement, elected offices, and leaders from the Sikh, Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Jewish communities to collaborate on ways to stem further attacks.
In recent years, interfaith organizers in Phoenix have taken up many contentious issues of local and national import, including immigration. According to a 2006 report by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 55 percent of Phoenix residents considered immigration to be a “very big” problem for the local community, compared to 21 percent of Americans nationally. The Arizona Interfaith Network, a coalition of over 170 member congregations, schools, unions, and other organizations, has rejected the controversial SB1070, anti-immigration legislation passed by the Arizona legislature in 2010 that, among other controversial aspects, gave law enforcement officials the authority to question an individual’s citizenship status on the basis of “reasonable suspicion.” The Arizona Interfaith Network and its partners continue to call for comprehensive federal immigration reform, citing a “covenantal understanding of community” found in the U.S. Constitution and America’s heritage as “uniting immigrants from many nations” for the common good.
In 2007, the Phoenix-based Arizona Interfaith Movement petitioned the Arizona State Legislature to approve a license plate design that included the words: “Live the Golden Rule.” The initiative was successful and interest in the plate continues to grows, perhaps a sign of renewed hope for those like E.J. Montini who wish for Phoenix an increased understanding and engagement across lines of religious difference.