Wichita, Kansas, 150 miles in any direction from the next major metropolitanA Metropolitan is the title given to a bishop, used especially in the Orthodox family of churches today. area, may seem like an unlikely place to see the new religious landscape of America. Yet this center of trade and industry has 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 synagoguesSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... were founded during the 1930s, along with the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation. A JesuitJesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1534 and given approval by Pope Paul III in 1540. The Society of Jesus was formed both to counter the influence of the Protestant Reformation and to ... missionary by the name of Father Paul Ponziglione brought Catholicism to the region and St. Aloysius, the city’s first churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., was founded in 1874. Catholics remain a small but vibrant community today.
During the twentieth century, farming as well as the 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 centerAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic... in 1976. Since that time, the community that would become MasjidMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit... 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 TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... 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 priestA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the..., 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 churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... offer space for worship for our Friday prayersPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not., 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.