Wichita, Kansas, 150 miles in any direction from the next major metropolitan area, may seem like an unlikely place to see the new religious landscape of America. Yet this center of trade and industry has a rich legacy of cultivating religious, ethnic, and racial diversity and cooperation. Although long inhabited by the Wichita tribe, the Spanish conquistador Coronado mapped the region in 1541 during his hunt for the fabled Quivira (“the Lost City of Gold”). French and German immigrants arrived in the region in the 1850s. By the 1880s, the small community of sod homes had become the largest city on the Plains and launching point of the Chisholm Trail, a major transit (and later railroad) route that stretched all the way to the Rio Grande.
Jewish families of German and Austrian origin arrived in the region with the cattle boom between 1860 and 1880. One of the city’s earliest Jewish settlers, Leopold Hays, arrived in 1869 to trade in buffalo hides and later made a name for himself in the saddle business. Both of the city’s synagogues were founded during the 1930s, along with the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation. A Jesuit missionary by the name of Father Paul Ponziglione brought Catholicism to the region and St. Aloysius, the city’s first church, was founded in 1874. Catholics remain a small but vibrant community today.
During the twentieth century, farming as well as milling and rail industries attracted high numbers of Chinese immigrants from the East Coast to Wichita. Today, Buddhist centers, at first Chinese but now also Vietnamese and Zen, dot the landscape of Greater Wichita. By the 1950s, the city’s air industry was flourishing and Wichita became home to McConnell US Air Force Base. As industries became more global, so did Wichita. No longer a dusty “cowtown,” Wichita’s religious landscape became even more complex as Bahá’ís, Hindus, and Muslims began making their home in “the Air Capital of the World.”
The city’s Muslim community began forming during the 1970s, establishing the first Islamic center in 1976. Since that time, the community that would become Masjid Al-Noor expanded from meeting in a small house to now hosting a full time Islamic school and community center. With more than 100 students, the school, Annoor, began an expansion project in 2010 with the intention of adding a high school.
More recently, the Hindu community in Wichita has begun to put down roots in the city. The Hindu Temple of Greater Wichita enjoyed an all-day celebration at its groundbreaking on June 16, 2002. They received a warm welcome from their neighbors; Wichita’s mayor even declared the day “Hindu Temple Day.” According to the Temple’s senior priest, Srimaan U Ve Sriraman Kadambi, the community feels “truly blessed to have a wonderful temple in Wichita.”
Interfaith cooperation has long been a part of the fabric of the city. Wichita Inter-faith Ministries, an ecumenical aid society, was founded in 1885. By the 1930s, this initiative would include Jewish and Catholic leaders. Together, the city’s religious communities launched anti-Nazi and anti-famine projects in the 1940s, founded refugee resettlement projects in the 1950s, and began tackling the issue of homelessness in Wichita during the 1970s. Today, Inter-faith Ministries includes among its supporters Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim representatives.
When trouble does arise in Wichita, Wichita’s interfaith relationships have proven essential. In 2011 when an arsonist attacked the Islamic Association of Mid-Kansas, Muslims received many offers of support, time, money, and space from non-Muslim faith communities. As staff member Donna Sibaai, told Wichita’s KWCH News: “Many of us got personal emails, people just wanting to know what they could do to help, offering their spaces even for worship. We had several churches offer space for worship for our Friday prayers, it was amazing.”
Rising from the mixed grass prairie, Wichita is a patchwork of religiously diverse communities and interfaith cooperation, stitched together by a commitment to create a vibrant civic life and place that all can call home.