Bowling Green, KY and The Nascent Stages of Religious Diversity (2013)

In 1979, the city of Bowling Green, Kentucky was designated a refugee resettlement site in the United States.  Since the initial beginnings of refugee resettlement, many diverse populations have established themselves and their cultures in the south central Kentucky area.  As these immigrant populations continue to grow, many form their own religious centers, while others struggle to maintain their religious traditions in a new context.  At this time, the immigrant religious communities who have formed a center in Bowling Green have done so on the geographic periphery of the city. This trend reflects what one practitioner described as an attitude of an “arm’s length’s tolerance” exhibited by the broader community toward these new neighbors.

Yet, the religious communities of Bowling Green, whether a newly established Buddhist monasteryA monastery is the residence of monks, or monastics; the term is commonly used in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Monasticism refers to the life of work, study, and discipline led by monks and nuns. or a 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 ... within the ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church. majority, reinforce shared cultural identities that may extend beyond religion. Religious communities provide a gathering space for people (often immigrant populations) with shared backgrounds, language, celebrations, and customs.  Many emphasize education, rituals, and knowledge as a means to pass on their cultures to their children.[1] As one study proposed, “religious institutions were among the most important resources that immigrant groups used to reproduce their ethno-religious identity in new surroundings and to help them adjust to the challenges of surviving in a demanding and often threatening environment.”[2] Even for those communities which are not necessarily comprised of immigrants the idea of shared values, experiences, and identity is of utmost importance. A member of  Am Shalom, the sole Jewish congregation in Bowling Green, describes: “that recognition, that immediate sense of being connected to somebody who has some sort of shared past with you. Even if it’s all in your head, there’s just that cultural reference. And that’s probably true of any immigrant.  So there’s some of that quality of being an immigrant, even in your own country.”

In 2001, Professors Larry Snyder and Thomas Russell, affiliates of the Harvard Pluralism Project, documented what they referred to as an “almost unperceptible transformation” occurring within the religious landscape of the “BibleThe Greek term biblia means the “books.” Bible is used in both the Jewish and Christian traditions to refer to the book which gathers together their sacred writings. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—a collection re... Belt” area.

In the 2001 report, little more than a store-front gathering space for a small but growing Muslim community and a small Jewish congregation were reported as existing in the Bowling Green region. Slightly more than a decade later, the transformation of the religious landscape is more apparent—if one is paying attention. Today, Bowling Green is uniquely emerging as a small but growing hub of religious diversity in a region historically known for its plethora of Christian 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 ....  The city is home to two Islamic centersAn 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..., two Buddhist monasteriesA monastery is the residence of monks, or monastics; the term is commonly used in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Monasticism refers to the life of work, study, and discipline led by monks and nuns., a small Jewish community, a growing Unitariana belief in one God that rejects the three persons of the Trinity that has much in common with the belief in the early Christian church about the superiority of God over Jesus and the Anti-Trinitarian writing that emerged during the Protestant Reformation... Universalist congregation, and an eclecticEclectic Pagans bring aspects of many spiritual paths together. Some Pagans pride themselves on the high degree of authority granted to each person to develop his or her own spiritual path. Hence, many practitioners adapt practices from a variety of Pagan... group that might be referred to as a community of “religious nonesMultivalent terms that often are used to describe people (or their worldview) who reject the practices, dogma, and creeds of established religious traditions. Some people, on the other hand, may identify as Humanist and also consider this either a belief ....”

Mark Mullins proposed a three-pronged life-cycle paradigm for understanding the development of immigrant religious communities.[3]  He simply referred to these stages of development as Stages 1, 2, and 3.  His schema offers an adequate way to frame the development of those immigrant communities (and the other non-Christian religious communities) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I submit that these religious communities are still in the nascent stages of development in the south central Kentucky region. Situated within the American religious marketplace and a predominantly conservative Protestant context, I propose that these religious communities can be categorized in Mullins’s first two stages. Furthermore, I submit that these two categories provide a foundation for understanding the lack of interfaith cooperation (which I fully expand in the subsequent sections of this report). I shall examine these two proposed phases individually, including the religious communities in the Bowling Green area that fall into the proposed taxonomy, and then list some of the characteristics of each. Additionally, the religious communities serve beyond religious purposes as “cultural warehouses” or those spaces “facilitating assimilation…and preserving ethnicity” for its members; and they are limited in their interfaith collaborations due to inchoate stages of development.[4]

The two Buddhist monasteries, Jewish congregation, and the community of “religious nones” can be categorized into Stage 1 of development. Stage 1 religious communities are characterized by membership predominately consisting of original immigrants, religious “services and activities [which] are naturally dominated by the language and clergyClergy are the body of ordained men (and in some cases women) who are authorized to perform the priestly, pastoral, or rabbinical duties of the community—as distinct from the laity whom they serve. from the old country.”[5]  The Buddhist communities, both of which formed in 2010, consist primarily of resettled refugees and are led by immigrant monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord.... The monasteries are located on the edge of city limits, in residential homes that are difficult to find unless one knows exactly where to explore. At one time, there was one monastery that served the entire Buddhist population of the Bowling Green area, but a split led to the formation of a three separate Buddhist monasteries. In 2013, one of the monasteries closed due to unknown reasons. The remaining two monasteries serve Cambodian and Burmese Buddhist communities, respectively. Both groups are numerically small (20-30 attendees), and the monasteries are difficult to contact, with no readily publicized phone number or contact email.

The group of “religious nones” consists of pagansThe term “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant “peasant” or “country dweller.” For many Pagans, the term suggests a life lived close to the land. Today, nature spirituality is an important thread in contemporary Paganism. Some Paga..., WiccansWicca is the name of one of the major streams of contemporary American Paganism. It is a form of religious witchcraft, sometimes simply called the Craft. Many Wiccans in America today call themselves “witches,” claiming the name under which women and ..., faith healers, Jews, atheists, as well as members of other religious identities.  There has been an intensified interest in the  “religious nones” in recent years.[6]  This research has found that many of the “religious nones” maintain religious beliefs but choose not to identify with an institutionalized or organized religious community.[7]  In Bowling Green, a group with these characteristics meets regularly but has no leadership, physical space, or online presence. I would classify this group to be also in Stage 1 and it may never develop any further. As one member suggested as much, noting that organization is antithetical to the values of the group.  While there is no established religious creed or dogma that guides the group, the community celebrates various religious holidays and incorporates multiple religious symbols into its gatherings. Whereas the Unitarian Universalist congregation attempts to synthesize diverse religious values or ideas, the community of religious nones feels no need to do so.

Members pride themselves on the group’s organic structure; some members feel that attempts at more organization might be counter to the group’s nonstructural history. Although numerically small (programs generally attract between 35-70 attendees), the group takes advantage of its inherent religious diversity. As one atheistMultivalent terms that often are used to describe people (or their worldview) who reject the practices, dogma, and creeds of established religious traditions. Some people, on the other hand, may identify as Humanist and also consider this either a belief ... member explained:

I have an appreciation for religion. A lot of people kind of think this is weird, but I believe religion is a good thing for society and community whereas other people say organized religion is the downfall of everything. You just have to have eternal spirituality and that’s what makes it.  But I happen to think that groups of people identifying under a certain sort of religion is a good idea.  It builds community. It creates some sort of faith in something.  So I like them all. Even though I don’t believe, I practice all of them.  So at an EquinoxThe equinoxes, which happen twice a year, are days when night and day are of equal duration. For many Pagans, these holidays signify balance. Although practices vary according to region and climate, many Pagans celebrate the birth of spring on March 21 (t... party, we also celebrate Rosh HashanahRosh Hashanah is the day of the Jewish New Year, falling on the first day of the autumn month of Tishri., PassoverPassover, or Pesah in Hebrew, is a major Jewish holiday, also called “the festival of unleavened bread.” During the eight days of the festival, Jews commemorate God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, eating only unleavened bre..., Easter and ChristmasChristmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Since the fourth century this observance has been held on December 25 in the Western church. – all of those things.

The Jewish community in Bowling Green, known as Am Shalom Congregation, is also relatively small. Formed in the late 1990s, the community today consists of 13 to 14 families and meets on High Holy DaysThe Jewish High Holidays are Rosh Hashanah (New Year Day), and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Both fall in the lunar month of Tishri, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and following ten days later with Yom Kippur. These days are called the “Days of Awe” be... in the basement of the PresbyterianPresbyterian is the general name for churches governed by elected presbyters or elders and refers especially to Reformed churches in Scotland and England that shaped Presbyterian churches worldwide. The church is distinguished both from those in which aut... Church of Bowling Green.  Low numbers and the lack of a local rabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... are constant challenges. Many Jewish people travel to 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 ... in Nashville, Tennessee where more established congregations provide instruction and education to the Jewish community in the I-65 corridor.

The Islamic and Unitarian Universalist communities are more established in terms of their visibility in Bowling Green and can be classified as being within Stage 2 of development. Communities within Stage 2 are characterized by having members that are both immigrants and native-born; starting the cultural assimilationAssimilation refers to the process of “making similar,” a process by which people lose their national, cultural, or even religious identity through absorption in the wider society. In the history of American immigration, it has usually meant the absor... process; possessing a bilingual religious leader; and beginning recruitment efforts.[8] The Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green was formed in 1961 with seven members. Today, the community has a full-time ministerMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). and a congregation of nearly 125 people. Weekly services and several small group meetings take place at a beautiful facility near the campus of Western Kentucky University which includes a worship space, educational rooms, and a fellowship hall.  Several staff, faculty, and students from the University are among its diverse members, which includes people claiming a range of religious identities.

The Muslim population of Bowling Green has grown rapidly since the 1990s when the region became a resettlement area for Bosnian refugees.

A recent article in the Bowling Green Daily News estimated the total number of Muslims in the area to be between 5,000- 6,000.[9]  The 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... of Bowling Green was founded in 2005 and sits on the edge of city limits.  Those who gather for Friday prayerPrayer 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. include immigrants from fifteen nationalities.  In 2011, another mosqueMasjid (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..., the Bosnian Islamic Center, was built along the perimeter of the city and includes a space for prayer and educational rooms. 

By focusing attention on the religious diversity in the Bowling Green area, a new understanding of the dominant conservative Protestant communities can also be garnered.  If the assessment of these religious communities as cultural warehouses is correct, then many of the conservative Protestant communities also can be understood as functioning in a similar fashion. Specifically, the conservative Protestant churches serve to pass on to future generations a uniquely American Southern identity composed of a particular language, religious beliefs, and practices.

The limited collaboration between faith communities in the area is directly related to Mullins’ development life-cycle hypothesis.  Since many of the religious communities discussed herein are in early phases of establishing themselves in the region, it is likely that much of the energy and focus of these communities is directed internally. The early phases of development simply preclude organizational attempts to collaborate.  At the same time, some individual members bridge the divide by attending more than one religious community.  For instance, a Jewish member might attend Am Shalom congregation on Friday or Saturday and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on Sunday.  Or a person might attend Bible study at a local Christian congregation and also being part of the “religious nones” group.

Although infrequent at this time, stories of interfaith cooperation in the Bowling Green, Kentucky area are not unheard of.  Reverend Peter Connelly, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, described his experience in the local ministerialMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). association when local Christian ministersMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). gathered around him to pray for his ministryMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). and his church.  The events of September 11, 2001 also provoked interfaith conversations.  Bryan Carson, a leader and member of Am Shalom, stated that he and other members of Am Shalom joined the imamImam means “leader,” particularly the person who leads the daily ritual prayer or, more broadly, to the one who serves as a leader of the community because of his religious learning. In Shi’i Islam, it refers to one of a succession of direct descend... of the Islamic Center and members of the Unitarian Universalist Church for a time of meditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo... and prayer at the Unitarian Universalist Church after the World Trade Center attacks.

The resettlement of refugees has been the impetus for the growth of religious diversity in the Bowling Green, Kentucky area. Most of these ethnic groups are still in the earliest stages of establishing and developing their religious communities while still bringing to the table cultural resources and knowledge. While interfaith cooperation is not mainstream in Bowling Green at present, the region would no doubt prove a worthwhile longitudinal case study for considering the challenges and opportunities of religious diversity in the American South. One possible future response to religious diversity in this region might be an increase in an enclave nature of the religious communities.  If a fear of “the Other” or an apathetic unawareness persists (or grows), then religiosity could develop into divisiveness or contentiousness.  However, an increased awareness of and education about religious diversity could become the connector for residents to create together a city where more organized interfaith efforts become mainstream.


[1] See R. Stephen Warner, “Religion and New (Post -1965) Immigrants: Some Principles Drawn From Field Research,” American Studies 41, no. 2/3 (2000): 267-286; Fenggang Yang and Helen Rose Ebaugh, “Transformations in New Immigrant Religions and Their Global Implications,” American Sociological Review 66 (2001): 269-288.

[2] Yang and Ebaugh, 269.

[3] Mark Mullins, “The Life-Cycle of Ethnic Churches in Sociological Perspective,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 14, no. 4 (1987): 321-334.

[4] Yang and Ebaugh., 270.

[5] Mullins, 323.

[6] See Baker, JosephIn the Christian tradition, Joseph is the earthly father of Jesus and husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. O. and Smith, Buster G. “None Too Simple, Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48, no. 4 (2009): 719-733, Hout, Michael and Claude S Fischer. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference, Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67, no. 2 (2002): 165-190, or Putnam, Robert D. and Campbell, DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... E. American Grace, How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2012.

[7] Baker, Joseph O. and Smith, Buster G. “The Nones, Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” Social Forces 87, no. 3 (2009): 1251-1263.

[8] Mullins, 324.

[9] Alex Mattingly, “Muslim Faith Grows in BG KY” Bowling Green Daily News, December 31, 2010.  Accessed at http://www.bgdailynews.com/features/muslim-faith-grows-in-bg/article_e5fb143e-5dcc-50e3-9ebb-eb78e13909df.html.