Published on Friday, August 20, 1999 1999 Madison Newspapers, Inc. (used with permission)

Byline: By John-Brian Paprock Special to The Capital Times

Dane County's fast population growth can be seen in the religious landscape as well as the countryside. The growth has been not just in numbers of people, but also in diversity of race, culture and religion.

The last 25 years -- especially the last decade -- have brought significant changes in religious demographics to the area.

Before the 1970s, Madison and Dane County were essentially Christian. While still maintaining a large majority, Christianity now is not the only source for spiritual nurturance.

In fact, the Madison area is now as diverse in religion as most large cities and urban areas.

Since the 1970s, ethnic and other minority religions have established themselves here. They are no longer the exclusive domain of University of Wisconsin students, professors and their families.

UW-Madison has the oldest Muslim student association in the nation (circa 1960), but only in the 1990s was a second mosque opened and a Madison Area Islamic Association developed.

Deer Park Tibetan Buddhist Center/Monastery and a Cambodian Buddhist temple are near Oregon. The Sikh community of Madison has finally put a sign in front of their Middleton Gudwara.

The area also has added two more synagogues (the Reconstructionist and the Orthodox Lubavitch/Hasidic) and a Zen Buddhist center.

Add to this growth the number of religious groups using other facilities and homes. When the numbers of ethnic Christian churches (such as the three Korean churches, the Chinese Christian Church, the three Eastern Orthodox missions and several Hispanic ministries) also are taken into consideration, it is clear that anyone and everyone can be affected by the diversity.

Until the 20th century, immigrants to our area were almost entirely from northern European countries. The southern and eastern Europeans are more recent arrivals.

Even counting those former and freed slaves that came to Wisconsin via the underground railroad and the migrant workers, mostly Hispanic, the new residents were almost exclusively Christian.

Changes in immigration patterns and refugees in the middle and late 20th century have brought individuals and families from areas of the world that Americans once considered exotic at best.

Weddings, funerals and other life-stage ceremonies are no longer the standard Catholic or Protestant affairs they once were. The differences can be enormous and confusing.

For instance, white is the color worn for most Asian funeral ceremonies. Wearing another color, or black, could be seen as disrespectful. This also is why, in most Asian weddings, white is not worn by the wife-to-be.

Most are tolerant and understanding of American ignorance.

There is also another assumption of ignorance that is made often: racial stereotyping.

The following questions will demonstrate: Of what religion is someone whose heritage is from India? From Japan? From the Middle East? The answer is that the majority within these ethnic groups in the United States are Christian. Yet in their respective homelands, Christianity is a minority religion.

Ignorance may create moments of embarrassment, but when ignorance turns into prejudice it can be problematic. The Madison area has not seen overt religious bigotry in many years.

That makes our area a desirable place for diverse people to live and raise families, but it doesn't automatically make us immune to ignorance, covert prejudice and potential hate crimes.

There is also tension among those in these ethnic minority religious groups, especially when confronted with American ``separationism'' of religion from culture.

Many are not used to the idea that religion is not part of public life and expression.

Some traditions require certain dress codes and times for prayer. For example, Muslim women voluntarily wear the hejab as a symbol of humility and equality, not subordination. It is not just a scarf worn for fashion.

Another assumption made is that all ethnic people who live, dress and eat within a cultural practice are religiously devout. The percentage of devout and religiously knowledgeable is probably the same for Christians as it is for those who are not Christian.

Such challenges exist not only in Madison and Dane County, but across the United States. Similar issues and questions are developing in other countries as well.

The realization of a world society for the 21st century means that local people deal with people from all over the world, including places where Christianity is the minority belief system.

International corporations here and everywhere have always needed multilingual skills in their workers, but they are also seeing the need for further training. They are training their people in cultural issues as well, emphasizing the different belief systems within the global diversity.

So the need to interact with that diversity is global and local.



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