World Religions in Greater Boston

Boston's Religious History

Since its founding in 1630, the city of Boston has been profoundly shaped by the religious communities that call it home. While the Freedom Trail commemorates many of the city’s earliest Christian influences, including Christ Church in the City of Boston (the famed “Old North Church” of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”), the city’s religious landscape is much more diverse today. Nearly fifty Islamic centers, almost forty Hindu temples, over ninety Buddhist groups, six gurdwaras, and small but vital communities of Jains, Zoroastrians, the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and practitioners of Afro-Caribbean traditions make their home in Greater Boston.

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Catholic immigrants began streaming into the city as the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s devastated their homeland. Around the same time, Ohabei Shalom (“Lovers of Peace”), the first Jewish congregation in Massachusetts and the second in the nation, was formed. Although a temple was not built until 1851, historical records indicate a Jewish presence in Boston since the mid-seventeenth century. Today, these communities continue to thrive in Greater Boston. As of 2000, 48 percent of Bostonians identified themselves as Catholic, making the diocese one of the largest in the world. By 2004, over 100 Jewish organizations and synagogues were serving the city’s vibrant Jewish community which is comprised of nearly 200,000 people.

Following federal immigration reform in 1965, many immigrants were attracted to Boston for its leadership in the higher education, bio-tech, and health care sectors. Hindu temples range from purpose-built South Asian style mandirs such as Sri Lakshmi Temple in Ashland to adapted-use spaces such as Braj Mandir, a temple in Holbrook that makes its home in a renovated Friendly’s restaurant.

While immigration patterns of recent decades have brought Muslims to Boston from all over the world, many of the city’s first Muslims were descendants of slaves who understood their religion to be part of their African heritage. During the latter part of the twentieth century, Boston became a fertile site for the Nation of Islam. Today, over 50,000 Muslims call Boston home. The largest Islamic center in the area is the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, which houses a mosque, school, café, and community center built of Bostonian red brick in traditional Islamic architecture style, an intentional blend of elements familiar to both the neighborhood and the Muslim community.

The events of September 11, 2001 are often credited with sparking increased interfaith work in the United States, but interfaith initiatives have been part of the religious landscape of Boston for decades. Many describe Boston as a laboratory for this kind of work, the result of an ethnically and religiously diverse community within a small urban setting that boasts over forty-five interfaith organizations. With numerous academic centers in which to test and monitor interfaith projects, Boston offers an ideal backdrop. As one interfaith leader noted, “there is no central grid… It is multi-nodal, organic, shifting, no central locus or loci of activity, power and relationship.”

Greater Boston’s wealth of academic institutions also play a significant role in shaping the religious landscape and interfaith infrastructure far beyond any one campus. The Humanist Hub, an effort spearheaded by the Harvard Humanist community, promotes the establishment of Humanist centers across America. Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College offer an institutional partnership on a shared campus in Newton. There, faculty members come together to teach with an interfaith perspective and students may choose to enter an Interfaith and Leadership Certificate Program. The Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School offers a wide range of programming to explore diverse religions across the globe and provides significant academic opportunities for scholars and students. Since 1993, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College has been an innovative leader in multi-faith campus chaplaincy.

Significant efforts have been made in greater Boston to inspire local youth to get involved in interfaith work. Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries’ Interfaith Youth Initiative summer program and Sharon’s Youth LEAD promote youth empowerment and offer leadership trainings centered on diversity and religious dialogue. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization is a coalition of over 100 congregations organized to advocate for social issues such as health care reform and debt relief. Partnership in the wake of tragedy is yet another way in which Bostonians promote and model cooperation. “A Service Rooted in the Sikh Tradition,” held at Trinity Church in Copley Square in the wake of the August 2012 shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was sponsored by area Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh groups and drew over 1,500 people from the metro area. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, a crowd of nearly 2,000 gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for an interfaith service that concluded with remarks from President Barack Obama who told the city: “You will run again.” Today, Greater Boston is a reflection of a new multireligious America and it is clear that any trail charted through the city would reflect that reality, both in landscape and, at its best, in optimism.

About World Religions in Greater Boston (WRGB)

World Religions in Greater Boston (WRGB) is an orientation to diverse local faith communities. Its fifth edition was released online in 2009, making the resource more inclusive and comprehensive than ever before. By integrating extensive maps and directory listings, introductory materials on religious traditions, and new multimedia elements, World Religions in Greater Boston is designed to educate and engage. In 2016, World Religions in Greater Boston was fully integrated into the Landscape section of the Pluralism Project’s website, pluralism.org.

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Acknowledgements

Our sincere thanks to those who provided funding for World Religions in Greater Boston, including: the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; the Louisville Institute; the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation; and the Ford Foundation.

The fifth edition of this guide included the research and writing of interns in the summers of 2009 and 2007, as well as contributions by students and current senior staff. Each edition of World Religions in Boston builds on the work of previous researchers and contributors. The acknowledgments in the fourth edition includes a more extensive listing of key staff and students over the years. The 5th edition online version of World Religions in Greater Boston was designed by Sarabjot Kaur of Creative Stride, Inc. and was programmed by our Webmaster Ryan Overbey.

Finally, and most significantly, we would like to acknowledge the sustained and ongoing generosity of the religious communities of the Greater Boston area. Our sincere thanks to the countless individuals who have been our gracious hosts, learned teachers, and informed contributors. We also wish to recognize the leaders and members of interfaith organizations in Greater Boston who have provided us with both assistance and inspiration: you provide powerful examples of the value of education and engagement across the lines of difference.

History

From the beginning, Boston has been at the heart of the work of the Pluralism Project. In 1990, some 25 students joined Diana Eck for a course at Harvard University on “World Religions in New England.” By then, the increasing cultural diversity of the U.S. resulting from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had become noteworthy, but the religious dimension of that diversity often went unexamined. Each week, the class would divide into teams to visit religious communities in the Boston area and then meet to discuss what had been learned. From Sri Lakshmi Temple, located close to the starting point of the Boston Marathon, to New England’s first mosque, established in the shadows of the cranes of Quincy’s shipyards, we began to discover and document a religious landscape being transformed before our eyes. Out of this early research, the Pluralism Project was born; soon thereafter, the first edition of World Religions in Boston: A Guide to Communities and Resources was printed.

Based on our initial findings in Boston, we set out to investigate more broadly the changing religious landscape of other American cities, and to consider the implications of this more complex religious landscape for American public life. While this research led to the development of the CD-ROM On Common Ground: World Religions in America, the award-winning pluralism.org, and Diana Eck’s book A New Religious America, we also continued our study of Greater Boston. Here, in our own backyard, the religions of the world are in evidence. In Boston, we find innovative examples of interfaith engagement and challenging episodes of inter-religious conflict. Here, as elsewhere, it is clear that diversity alone does not constitute pluralism. Pluralism requires a degree of engagement with our diversity and the knowledge—both of others and of ourselves—that such engagement brings.

The next three editions of World Religions in Boston: A Guide to Communities and Resources were printed in the 1990s. By 1998, the first web version of World Religions in Boston was launched. In 2000, an updated and expanded guide was released as a complement to the International Institute of Boston’s photo exhibit on “Faithful Boston.” From 2000-2009, the interface remained largely unchanged; however, regular updates were made to the content of World Religions in Boston online.

The fifth edition, entitled World Religions in Greater Boston, was launched in the summer of 2009. This version included updated and expanded content, an elegant interface, and new maps and media elements. New content and regular updates will be ongoing. Rather than presenting a series of selective portraits of religious centers and communities, this version–and its directories and maps–aims to be more comprehensive.

Creating a more comprehensive resource raised the challenging question of how to define the outer limits of Greater Boston, an area that has expanded rapidly in recent decades, and that will only continue to grow. After much research into the range of definitions, we decided to use the Boston Globe’s subscription list of cities and towns of Greater Boston as a guide, supplemented by a list of Boston’s neighborhoods as found on Boston.gov. Centers outside of this geographic area may be found on our archive

While the 2009 version is not available as a printed guide, this interface provided for ease of printing selected materials. To augment the educational value of this resource, introductory essays about each tradition from On Common Ground: World Religions in America (originally published by Columbia University Press in 1997) have been integrated as links into World Religions in Greater Boston.

In the religious landscape of Greater Boston, the only constant is change. We invite you to contribute to this resource by adding a new center or indicating an update to a center listing. We hope you find World Religions in Greater Boston to be a valuable resource. If you have comments or questions, please email us at staff@pluralism.org.

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