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Our Diversity of Faiths

The emergence of a diverse new religious landscape in Orange County and Southern California has been detailed in recent articles in The Times. The significance of this changed environment will go beyond whatever immediate effect it may have on the way people go about their own religious practices. It already is influencing our common business in schools, in the workplace, and in the relations among ethnic groups and between government and various faith communities.

What we make of this new melting pot is bound to have profound implications for the next century. It poses wonderful opportunities and substantial challenges for the future.

Orange County long has been a place where people came to carve out their share of the American Dream. For more than a century, people from traditional mainstream religious groups have found in their wide-open geographical surroundings a setting in which to pursue their ideals and values. But now, there are new groups in addition to Christians and Jews. As noted by J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Southern California is becoming more diverse in the way in which that religiosity is expressed. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, estimates that there are more than 500,000 Muslims in Southern California, about 120,000 of them in Orange County.

In Irvine, the effect of such new immigration can be seen in the decision by University High School to provide an empty room where youths can pray during lunch hour. Buddhists in Southern California are said to account for 40% of that population in America, and the area has a smaller but “sizable” population of Hindus. For followers there are such destinations as the Hsi Lai Temple in nearby Hacienda Heights.

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Immigration is not the only force shaping our new diversity. The mega-church movement, an alternative to traditional church structure, has drawn Protestants to such nondenominational settings as Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa.

There are Mormons, evangelicals and many others. Political pundit Hugh Hewitt, wearing one of his many hats, wrote recently of “the embarrassed believer” and the challenges for people of faith in an environment perceived as secular. Orange County has its own annual religious diversity fair, organized by the indefatigable Kay Lindahl. William Shane of the National Conference brings his infectious enthusiasm to a successful houses of worship tour and to a program that trains young future leaders in the challenges of diversity. All of these currents are bringing the common concerns of religious values and culture to the surface.

And to that common life, with its concerns about crime, housing, education and the like, we have activists as different in style as the Rev. Wiley Drake, the controversial advocate for the homeless in Buena Park, and the largely Latino faith-based activism of the Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO) in Santa Ana and Anaheim.

In both the work of Drake and OCCCO, the tensions and possibilities for church-state interaction in addressing pressing social problems can be seen. The latter organization in the early 1990s was able to identify remarkable new ground in its collaborations with Anaheim officials and members of other faith groups in pursuit of safe neighborhoods.

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The county’s Human Relations Commission, which had a hand in bringing in OCCCO, has sought to pave the way for a more harmonious future through its work to promote understanding between various groups. These organizations lie at the heart of the county’s efforts to find common ground as it prepares for life in the next century.

Coping with this new diversity will not always be easy, and many will have to learn to think in new ways about the cherished core values and attitudes held by others. However, this same panoply of faiths is an asset for a county eager to realize the full potential of a modern community.


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