Irvine's Many Avenues of Worship

Times Staff Writer

Irvine, a city once criticized as being so vanilla and bland it reminded one author of "The Stepford Wives -- perfect in a horrifying sort of way," has emerged as one of the nation's most religiously diverse suburbs.

Here, there's a Buddhist temple that can house 42 monks, a Korean church that boasts 4,000 members and a $50-million K-12 Jewish day school. There's a $4-million Islamic elementary school, the county's largest Greek Orthodox Church and a university run by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Ahead is a $37-million Jewish community center and a Mormon temple, which sits just outside Irvine's border on land annexed by Newport Beach in 1998.

The religious pluralism in Irvine reflects a national trend in which large institutions of faith are following immigrants to the suburbs, creating houses of worship that are also cultural centers for newcomers to America.

The construction of mosques, temples and buildings more exotic than a standard church and steeple have caused some consternation in suburban neighborhoods not accustomed to the sights. But experts say acceptance is growing, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era.

"The suburbs are becoming real communities with all the vanities of a big city," said Robert Fishman, professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. And, he said, that includes a variety of religious institutions and the diversity and tolerance that travel with them.

"It's really the most impressive aspect of our society right now," Fishman said.

Irvine's rise as a center for religious diversity can be traced to an influx of affluent immigrants, a quirk of geography that puts the city at the center of Orange County, a major university in the middle of town that attracts diverse scholars and students, and master planning that designated large chunks of land for religious use.

"I'm not aware of anything else going on like this in the state," said Scott Anderson, executive director for the Sacramento-based California Council of Churches. "It's reflective of the religious pluralism in California. Where else in the U.S. would this cast of characters come together in one city?"

Joel Garreau, author of "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier" who likened Irvine to the movie "The Stepford Wives," said the religious diversity reflects a spiritual and communal need in what he sees as a sterile city.

"They may be about God, but they're mostly about community -- in an area that desperately needs it," Garreau said. "You can see the demand for this kind of thing right upfront."

The seeds for religious diversity were sown in the early 1960s, when Irvine Co. executives drew plans to convert 47 square miles of its fertile ranch land into the world's largest master-planned city.

"The idea of planning for religious institutions is no different than any other social entity that's important and vital to a community," said Ray Watson, Irvine Co. vice chairman and the company's original planner. "It's really not very complicated."

In Irvine's master plan, large ribbons of land were set aside for religious use, usually along what promised to be busy corridors or in more remote areas where traffic wouldn't affect residential neighborhoods.

Watson said the Irvine Co. often sold the land at discounts or offered attractive payment plans to draw an array of churches and synagogues to the city.

"At the same time, you had to show to us you have the wherewithal to build on the site," Watson said. "We wanted to make sure they weren't going to sit on the land for 15 years."

Reared in a Protestant family with virtually no exposure to other faiths, Watson said one of his first challenges was to wipe out the festering perception that Orange County's housing developments were anti-Semitic.

At the time, property deeds in many housing developments contained racial covenants that prevented minorities such as Jews and African Americans from buying the homes.

Because of his outreach, Watson became a hero in the local Jewish community. It's a position he cemented after he found a site in the early 1970s for Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach near the border of Irvine, then used his business contacts to help the congregation raise money for the property and building.

An emphasis on education in Irvine, whether in the public school system or at UC Irvine, helped attract diversity.

The city's high-achieving school district became a magnet for Asian immigrants, and the presence of a UC campus attracted a wide range of scholars and students.

"The university made a big dent in the hard-line politically conservative image of Orange County," said Rabbi Bernard King, who headed Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine for more than 30 years. "Things became more multicultural because of the university. It set the tone."

According to the 2000 census, 46,000 of Irvine's 143,000 residents were foreign-born. Unlike previous waves, immigrants today often start out in the suburbs and "many bring with them money and capital," said Helen Rose Ebaugh, a University of Houston sociology professor who studies immigrants and religion. The average household income in Irvine is $62,000; 24% make more than $100,000.

"One of the first things they do is re-create their own religious institutions," Ebaugh said. "But unlike in their own countries, these have become big cultural centers."

Bethel Korean Church began in Lake Forest in the 1970s, but eventually settled in Irvine because of its central location, available land and large Korean population. Half of the services are in Korean and lunches mostly feature kimchi (seasoned cabbage), rice, vegetables and other traditional foods.

The $5-million Pao Fa Temple offers nightly prayer services, a variety of classes taught in Chinese and a Chinese-language library.

"I think we're in a period where we can no longer think of American religions as being just Protestant, Catholic and Jewish," said Donald E. Miller, executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. "Before, religion was seen as something that facilitated assimilation. Now there's a strong notion that it also helps preserve the culture of immigrants."

Most religious groups have found the welcome mat out in Irvine. The $4-million New Horizon Elementary School for Muslim students decided to locate in the city in 2000 after its attempt to get Rancho Santa Margarita's approval failed because of homeowner backlash.

"They had absolutely no problems [in Irvine], and I made sure they didn't," Christina L. Shea, then the city's mayor, said at the time. "People think of Irvine as vanilla, but we are very multicultural, and it's something I'm very proud of."

Only the construction of St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church in 1992 received any significant opposition in the community. Neighbors worried that the church's massive blue dome clashed with their village's earth-tone color scheme. Additional landscaping was ordered and the dome was lowered 10 feet.

A 10-year project by Mariners Church that included 330,000 square feet of new construction breezed through the City Council in 2001. But just across the border in Newport Beach, designs for a modest 17,500-square-foot Mormon temple were drastically altered because of intense opposition from homeowners. The planned steeple, for example, was whittled from 124 feet to 100 feet to, finally, 90 feet.

Opposition to the construction of unfamiliar religious institutions in suburbia is dissipating throughout the country, experts say.

"Yes, there is still some suspicion of large Hindu temples or Buddhist temples or mosques," USC's Miller said.

"But one of the interesting aspects of Sept. 11 was Islam was given an audience, and it has really led to the further pluralization of American religion."

Irvine's greatest asset might simply be its location: in the center of Orange County, with access to four freeways. For immigrant-heavy congregations that draw from wide areas, Irvine offers an ideal location.

The city was picked for the site of the Samueli Jewish Campus, a $65-million project whose final stage is set to break ground this spring. The plans included the purchase of 20 acres, the expansion of Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School, and a sprawling 120,000-square-foot Jewish community center and adjacent athletic complex.

"What we found is that 80% of the Jews in Orange County were within 15 to 20 minutes of the campus," said Gail Duner, spokeswoman for the Samueli Jewish Campus.

The religious diversity doesn't reveal itself in any large Latino church, perhaps because Latinos represent only 7.4% of the city's population. Even in the city's three Catholic parishes, the only services offered in a foreign language are in Korean.

Still, when one of Irvine's original planners looks around the city and sees the pagoda-style roof of the Buddhist temple, the Hebrew and Arabic lettering on religious schools, and 1,800 students going to classes at Concordia University, a Lutheran college, it's with a sense not of surprise, but satisfaction.

Says Watson: "We have what we wanted to have."

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