Nestled between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains, along the Spokane River in the rolling foothills of Eastern Washington, the city of Spokane has emerged as a confluence of diverse peoples and cultures. The Spokane Tribe (translated “Children of the Sun”) remain the region’s longest established residents. Many tribal members were relocated to reservation lands when, in 1881, the city of Spokane was founded well within their ancestral territory around the Spokane River Falls. Christian and Jewish communities sprang up in the mid-nineteenth century with the gold and silver booms, although the city’s population soon stagnated by the early twentieth century. However, as the century wore on, Spokane became a regional hub for the mercantile, entertainment, and pharmacy industries; by the 1950s, a diverse religious landscape was emerging.
The Spokane Buddhist Church conducted its first service in 1945. In 1965 when more space was needed, the community relocated to a former Baptist Church on Perry Street, closer to downtown. When the church was destroyed by arson fire in 1992, a new building was built within two years and a shrine rescued from the original building was installed. Today, the Buddhist community of Spokane is diverse and includes Zen and Tibetan groups as well as Sravasti Abbey, a monastic community that is “inspired and grateful to be among the first generation of Buddhist monastics trained, ordained, and practicing in the United States.”
The Islamic Center of Spokane was founded in 1979 and today welcomes Muslim immigrants from over thirty-two countries, including Argentina, Croatia, Senegal, and Japan. Located in the eastern suburb of Spokane Valley, the community’s hospitality extends to non-Muslims, too, as the Islamic Center seeks to “cherish the bonds of friendship and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in the community.”
Further east, an orange Nishan Sahib flag flies outside a former Baptist church. The Sikh community bought the small, whitewashed church in 2003 and transformed it into a gurdwara to meet the needs of their growing community. Members of Spokane’s Sikh community actively promote interfaith understanding in the region by educating others about their tradition. In May 2012, members of the gurdwara participated in the Compassionate Interfaith Society’s “Turban Day: Unwrapping Sikhism” at Eastern Washington University, an event that gave students an opportunity to ask questions and try on a dastaar, or turban.
To the north, the South Asian Cultural Association has since the 1990s sought to support a growing number of immigrants from India by promoting the “rich cultural heritage of South Asia.” Annually, the Hindu community of Spokane gathers at a downtown Comfort Inn to celebrate the festival of Diwali. A Spokane Cricket Club was formed in 2009, further developing the South Asian community’s ties to the Inland Northwest.
The Spokane Tribe is “planning new ways of honoring” their ties to their ancestral land through their multimillion dollar STEP program. The initiative includes efforts to preserve local wetlands and the building of a new cultural center to “highlight the importance of preserving the diverse heritage” of their people and a program which give youth the opportunity to learn the Salish language from their elders.
Today, the “Lilac City” is growing through new initiatives and conversations. Spokane’s growing religious diversity has prompted interfaith efforts in the region. The Fig Tree is an independent journal that began in 1984 as a way of “covering and connecting the faith and nonprofit communities of the Inland NW (Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho).” Other initiatives include Friends of Compassion, an interfaith civic engagement organization, Revolutionary Spirituality, an activist radio program featuring interfaith dialogue, and the Spokane Interfaith Council.
The city’s motto, “Near Nature, Near Perfect,” emphasizes the physical beauty of the region but also residents’ relationship to it. As one student noted, Spokane has an urban center but “true heart of the community is the outdoors.” The Spokane River Falls continue to be an orienting point around which much of the city’s life revolves. As new communities come to Spokane and nascent interfaith efforts continue to grow, their presence no doubt will add important streams to the existing momentum of an increasingly diverse religious landscape.