Commentary
By Menachem Wecker 6-29-2017

Every election cycle, Iowa garners widespread attention — often of the underwhelmed variety. “White-bread Iowa doesn’t begin to represent America’s diversity,” claimed the headline of a New York Daily News article in 2012, which called the state “about as white as the National Hockey League” and said it isn’t “a true sampling of anything.” A New York Times headline the same year was more generous, characterizing Iowa as “Racially Homogeneous, but Politically Diverse.”

But a book recently published by Drake University offers a very different view — heralding Des Moines as a national and international example of religious diversity. In talking about A Spectrum of Faith: Religions of the World in America’s Heartland, both the book’s author, Tim Knepper, professor of philosophy at Drake, and photographer Bob Blanchard were pleasantly surprised when they first got to know the city.

When Knepper moved to Des Moines midway through a Boston University Ph.D. in religion in 2002, he did so “kicking and screaming,” he says in an interview. But when his wife was accepted to a writers workshop in Iowa City, “there was no saying no.” Expecting little religious diversity in the state, Knepper instead was “amazed to find out about stuff like the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, the Maharishi Institute in Fairfield, and the Hasidic community in Postville.”

Des Moines surprised Blanchard, too, who arrived from Colorado and Wyoming. “My perception was typical of those with no connection here — Des Moines is white, Protestant, flat, and boring,” he says in an interview.

Des Moines did turn out to be flat, but Blanchard and Knepper soon found it wasn’t boring or homogenous.

“For people from Des Moines, it is no surprise to you that your neighbors are Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Christians of all varieties,” writes Eboo Patel in the book’s forward, going so far as to liken it to a modern incarnation of the biblical City on a Hill. “You have been making food and music and friendships together for years.”

The book’s text and photographs, which profile 15 Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh communities, collectively demonstrate what Patel views as “something that I believe cities all over the United States and the world should seek to emulate.”

In A Spectrum of Faith, Knepper notes that Iowans often don’t know about their own state’s religious diversity. “One goal of this book is simply to make Iowans more aware of the rich diversity of religion in their state and how that diversity is a function of Iowa’s rich history of welcoming refugees and immigrants,” he writes.

The project involved Drake students, who immersed themselves in the 15 religious communities. One of those students — now a graduate — Matthew Becke, spent time at a mosque, the Ezan Islamic and Education Center, where he met refugees from Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia.

After fleeing war, one of the hardest things for refugees to re-achieve is a sense of belonging. “Establishing a home in a foreign land is integral for refugees to begin the process of regaining what they have lost,” Becke writes in the book.

After reestablishing a semblance of normalcy, including securing jobs and a working understanding of the new culture, refugees often crave their own spaces. With limited means, the community of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in Des Moines purchased a former car dealership and mechanic shop as a fixer upper. They bought the building that would become their mosque in 2008, on the first day of Ramadan. The result was metamorphic.

“They did more than remodel an abandoned building,” Becke writes. “They transformed themselves from displaced survivors of war to established Americans.”

But new beginnings don’t wipe the slate clean on prior trauma. As Becke hears firecrackers leading up to Fourth of July celebrations, he notices the worshippers, who are breaking their Ramadan fast, trying to ignore the cracks and pops, which remind them of “a city under siege.”

Cities and states can be complicated and multi-faceted, and, from the start, Knepper and Blanchard make it clear that A Spectrum of Faith is neither objective nor comprehensive, but valuable in the anecdotal.

Others may agree, though not necessarily in the authors’ favor. Lynn Hicks, the Des Moines Register’s opinion and lead engagement editor, suggests the book may present only a partial, rosy snapshot of religious diversity in Des Moines.

“I think the Drake book does a great service in highlighting some communities that many in central Iowa know little about,” Hicks said.

“But these are small communities.”

Indeed, only about 1 percent of the metro Des Moines area is non-Christian, and as Catholic and Protestant churches attract immigrants, there have been growing tensions, according to Hicks. A recent fatal shooting involved Sudanese immigrants outside a Lutheran church, which welcomes that community, he says, and area mosques have received threatening letters.

Writing in a chapter about a Sikh community, student Meghan Plambeck observes an “ivory white dome” that “peeks out from behind the crest of cornfields.”

What she writes next could be a microcosm of the entire book: “You may not expect to find a thriving center for a religion founded on the other side of the world here in Iowa.”

Menachem Wecker is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C. He holds a graduate degree in art history from George Washington University.

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