Syracuse, New York has long been a site where diversity flourishes. For nearly a millennium, the region has been home to the Haudenosaunee (“People of the Long House”), a league of six Native American nations that is run by a consensus-based democratic government. At the turn of the nineteenth century, less than fifty years after the first Europeans founded a village on Onondaga Lake, Syracuse became a center of the American salt industry. Throughout that century and into the twentieth, the Erie Canal, and the railroad system transformed Syracuse from a small waterfront town to a bustling industrial city. During this time, the city’s Irish, Italian, and Jewish populations grew significantly, establishing nearly sixty Catholic congregations, dozens of Protestant churches, and a handful of synagogues. Temple Concord, founded in 1911, is the ninth-oldest synagogue in America.
During the early twentieth century, Syracuse’s industrial and scientific advancements brought jobs and education to the area through companies like General Motors, Chrysler, and General Electric. After World War II, Syracuse’s historic salt industry began to fail, the Erie Canal was replaced by the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the city’s factories and universities dwindled in size. During the 1950s and 1960s, the city saw a major demographic shift as African American families migrated to Syracuse’s declining manufacturing neighborhoods and farms and white residents left the city for newly forming suburbs.
Significant landmarks in Syracuse’s religious landscape mirror this shift. The People’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, now located on South Salina Street, has played a key role in the life of Syracuse’s African American population since the mid-nineteenth century. The community’s leadership was involved first with the Underground Railroad and then the Civil Rights Movement. Just two blocks south of the People’s AME Zion Church, the American Muslim Community Center makes its home, one of several Nation of Islam organizations located in southern Syracuse. The Islamic Society of Central New York is also nearby and an active participant in interfaith efforts in the city.
Since the 1970s, new immigration has also shaped the city’s religious landscape. Since the mid-1990s, the Hindu Mandir of Central New York has served the needs of the area’s growing Hindu community. Located at the northwest corner of Onondaga Lake, the temple and community center is dedicated to Sri Lakshmi and employs a full-time priest. Nearby, the Jain Center of New York has a presence in Liverpool. A Vietnamese Buddhist temple, Chua Di Lac, sits at the southeastern tip of Onondaga Lake, closer to downtown. The temple, one of several in Syracuse, annually attracts hundreds from around the Northeast for Le Vu Lan, Parents’ Day, a celebration that occurs each July. The Sikh community uses Syracuse’s close proximity to the Adirondack Mountains as an opportunity to host Khanda Camp, a summer camp for Sikh youth.
Today, the Emerald City is being shaped anew by its large refugee population. Fifty percent of immigrants living in Syracuse are refugees. These men, women, and children come from places like Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Burma, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Colombia, the Congo, and Ethiopia and many hope to find work in the city’s remaining factories.
Providing social services and stability for the region’s diverse population poses a distinct challenge for Syracuse, especially with 31 percent of the city’s residents living below the poverty line and 69.5 percent of adults living without a high school diploma. Although the charge is steep, many religious communities and interfaith organizers are stepping up to help. From the Elmwood Interfaith Food Pantry to the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, Syracuse residents are dedicating time and energy toward issues of poverty, housing, racism, public education, refugee resettlement, and childhood literacy. In 2003, following a federal raid on immigrant homes, Women Transcending Boundaries banded together to combat discrimination against Muslims in Syracuse; by 2009, they had raised nearly $9,000 to aid women and families in Central New York. InterFaith Works of Central New York founded the Center for New Americans Refugee Resettlement Program, which offers free English education, sewing and cooking workshops, personal finance education and counseling, citizenship classes, and food drives for incoming families.
While Syracuse’s economy has fallen on hard times in recent decades, the growing diversity of its residents continues to inspire churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, gurdwaras, and individuals to work together for the common good. This commitment to cooperation will no doubt be pivotal to improving Syracuse for future generations.