San Diego, a sprawling southern California city with seventy miles of coastline and a well known “surf and turf” culture, has a long history of religious diversity. The city was founded in 1769 as the first Catholic mission in California, Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcalá. Just over seventy-five years later, 500 Mormons trekked from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego to offer military support to the American army during the Mexican War. Their march—one of the longest in U.S. military history—is commemorated in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, located on Juan Street. Recently, economic opportunities, picturesque beaches, and the presence of prestigious colleges and universities have contributed to the region’s exponential expansion, bringing immigrants in record number to “America’s Finest City.” This influx led one activist to describe San Diego’s interfaith scene as “a cocoon… ready to burst forth.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of the most populous religious communities in San Diego today, along with Evangelical Christians and Catholics. Mt. Soledad, just north of San Diego, has for decades been a site for sunrise Easter services and for controversy. A large metal cross was erected on public land in the 1950s and since the 1990s become part of a war memorial at Mt. Soledad. Legal battles over the constitutionality of the cross have continued since the late 1980s. In 2012, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision in Trunk v. City of San Diego (2011) which ruled the cross’ placement unconstitutional.
Jewish and Buddhist communities have long had a presence in San Diego. In 1861, Congregation Beth Israel was founded and remains the city’s largest synagogue, today boasting nearly 4,000 members. The Buddhist Temple of San Diego was founded in 1926, a temple with ties to the Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism in Japan. During World War II when the Japanese American community was barred from San Diego, the Temple was ransacked and lit afire. Today, it is a member of the Buddhist Churches of America and remains the oldest and largest—but no longer the only—temple in the city. Since the 1960s, many Buddhist temples have been established to accomodate the growing number of Asian and Asian American residents. The Buddhist landscape of San Diego now includes dozens of temples and organizations, many of which serve practitioners of a particular ethnicity, including Cambodian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese.
The Islamic Center of San Diego is the largest mosque in the city and offers opportunities for youth like the Summer Tarbiyah Program for high school students and Muslim Girl Scout troops. The website Sandiegomuslims.com provides a calendar of events and database of Muslim owned businesses and since 2001 has acted as an online hub to connect Muslims of San Diego.
Two of the city’s main Sikh organizations were founded in the 1990s: the Sikh Society of San Diego in 1994 and the Sikh Foundation of San Diego, located in nearby Poway, in 1998. Sikhs, like Gagandeep Kaur, are actively involved in interfaith efforts in San Diego. Kaur was drawn to interfaith work post-9/11 and is a member of the San Diego District Attorney’s Interfaith Advisory Board.
It was also during the 1990s and the first Gulf War that several interfaith initiatives sprang up in San Diego out of concern for “antipathy…aimed at the Muslim community,” according to one interfaith leader. Post-9/11 experiences of discrimination led to further interfaith efforts, prompting Sikhs and Hindus to join in greater numbers as well. One of earliest interfaith initiatives in the city, Interfaith Community Services was founded in 1982 and brings together over 350 faith centers to provide food, shelter and housing, employment, and veterans’ services, among others.
While conversations about the role of religion in public life are ongoing in the city, it seems likely that the next few decades will be characterized not by controversy but by cooperation as neighbors continue to educate one another in an increasingly multireligious San Diego.