“Thriving” is the word one scholar used to describe the religious diversity of Cleveland. Recent decades have brought immigrants willing to invest “their money in temples, churches, cathedrals, synagogues,” challenging any notion of Northeastern Ohio as “beige and rusting.” Although Cleveland’s population has decreased—the city is half the size it was in 1920 when it ranked it fifth largest in the nation—the religious diversity of the Rock and Roll Capital of the World has increased significantly.
New immigration has caused exponential growth among the city’s Muslim population, a community that reflects the city’s vibrant diversity. The Islamic Center of Cleveland, now located in the suburb of Parma, attracts Arab, Indian, and Pakistani immigrants as well African Americans and Euro American converts, among others. In the early twenty-first century, the Mohammad Rasulallah Islamic Society began meeting in an old brick house on Detroit Avenue, the former home of the Islamic Center of Cleveland. The Islamic Society, neighbor to a halal meat market and Middle Eastern import store, became known for its multi-ethnic congregation. This diversity was caused, in no small part, by the Cleveland Catholic Diocese’s resettlement of African and Russian refugees, many of whom were Muslim.
While new immigration has played a significant role in the growth of Cleveland’s Muslim population, the city’s first mosque was established in 1937 by Al Hajj Imam Wali Akram, an African American. Religious leaders like Iman Wali Akram and his grandson, Imam Abbas, have for decades played an important role in a city whose population is predominately African American. They are accompanied by civic leaders like Carl B. Stokes who in 1967 became the first African American to become mayor of a major U.S. city.
In 1943 and 1944, Japanese Americans discharged from internment camps resettled in Cleveland and formed the city’s first organized Buddhist community. This spurred the establishment of the Cleveland Buddhist Temple, the Zen Shin Sangha, and the Cleveland Young Buddhist Association. Just over four decades later, immigrants from Vietnam founded Chua Vien-Quang, today one among many of the city’s Buddhist temples.
Permanent Hindu and Sikh communities also formed in the region during this time. The area’s first Hindu temple, Shiva Vishnu Temple, was established in 1989 in the southern suburb of Parma. The Temple’s founding came after several years of meeting at Cleveland State University and after an attempt in 1985 to purchase property in North Royalton, Ohio, a plan that was abandoned due to negative reactions from the wider community. Today, Shiva Vishu Temple attracts Hindus from across Northeastern Ohio, including Akron and Canton.
Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Gurdwara is located in Bedford and the Guru Nanak Foundation makes its home in nearby Richfield, a suburb between Cleveland and Akron. Founded in 1974, Guru Nank Foundation is the oldest Sikh presence in the state. In August 2012, community members, clergy, and elected officials packed the gurdwara in support of the Sikh community after the tragic shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Speakers included Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor and Senator Sherrod Brown who reflected on his own visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and his encounters with Sikhism as a religion of peace.
While the Association of Religion Data Archives reports that Evangelical Christian groups saw the greatest percentage of increase in Cleveland during the last decade of the twentieth century, it is also clear that sizable immigrant Christian communities are continuing to make their home in the Forest City. Members of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, many of whom fled the Soviet Union after World War II, began worshipping in a renovated garage in the early 1950s. St. Sergius of Radonezh, also located in the southwestern suburb of Parma, has been a part of the religious landscape since the early 1970s.
Cleveland’s vibrant interfaith infrastructure—nearly thirty organizations in all—is further evidence that the city is a kaleidoscope of interreligious engagement. A colorful mural hangs at Case Western Reserve as a testimony to this environment. The mural is a creative partnership between Building Bridges and several religious communities with artist and Building Bridges founder Katherine Chilcote at the helm. The women and men of many nationalities working together along the same flowing river is both a celebration of where Cleveland has been and a hope for where it is going, a future that is far from monochromatic.