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  • Dialogue and Solidarity in a Time of Globalization*
  • James Fredericks

Los Angeles as a Global Religious Community

Forty-two years ago, standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, ushering in sweeping changes in the immigration policy of the United States. Johnson wanted to sign the act into law in sight of Ellis Island as a dramatic gesture. However, with no little irony, more of America's new immigrants came through Los Angeles International Airport than past Lady Liberty in New York's harbor. The Immigration and Naturalization Act, conceived during the Kennedy administration and passed by Congress during the Johnson era, ended the old quota system that had restricted immigration from Asia since 1924. The act also had the effect of reversing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The effects of this legislation in the Los Angeles region have been dramatic. Hsi Lai Temple, to say nothing of the Chinese community it serves, was made possible by the 1965 act. The same can be said of Wat Thai Temple in the North Hollywood neighborhood, which serves Buddhists from Thailand and their U.S.–born children. The 1965 act, however, does not account for Nishi and Higashi Honganji temples in Little Tokyo. These temples have been part of the cultural fabric of Los Angeles for more than one hundred years.

Diana Eck, of Harvard University's Pluralism Project, has remarked on numerous occasions that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world. Bangkok and Kyoto may be great Buddhist cities, but they cannot boast of the sheer diversity of Buddhist lineages that have come to Los Angeles to establish the sangha, preach the dharma, and serve the people. After 1965, immigrants came to Los Angeles not only from Taiwan and Thailand, but also from Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Korea, and they brought their Buddhist faith with them. After 1965, Christians came to Los Angeles as well—not so much from Ireland and Italy, but from the Philippines, Korea, Eritrea, [End Page 51] Ethiopia, and Egypt. If Los Angeles is a complex Buddhist city, it is also a complex Christian city. Jains and Hindus came after 1965 as well. Their sacred places can be found in Orange County and the Malibu Hills. Muslims came too, from Indonesia, Bangaladesh, Pakistan, and Iran. All these immigrants have become neighbors, and, in the process, their religions have become neighbors as well. The Jain Temple in Orange County is situated near several Vietnamese Buddhist temples. The Islamic Center of Southern California is around the corner from Vietnamese and Korean Buddhist temples in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. Of course, these communities have become neighbors to the Christian communities that have long been established in Southern California.

The arrival of new religious communities brings with it new challenges. Should Sikh students in New York or Michigan be subject to suspension or even arrest for carrying the kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school with them? In North Carolina, should a Muslim be required to swear an oath on the Bible before testifying in court? Can the state legislature of Indiana open its sessions with a prayer to Jesus Christ? Should Muslim women in Alabama be required to remove their hijab (head scarf) in order to be photographed for a driver's license? How much input should religious groups have in the development of educational guidelines for teaching about religions? In California, various Hindu groups are objecting to the state's curriculum guidelines for the teaching of Hinduism. The proposed changes were later opposed by a group of scholars headed by Michael Witzel of Harvard University, who claimed that "The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise." A Jewish group has voiced objections as well, not only in regard to the teaching of Judaism, but the teaching of Christianity. What weight should be given to the proposals of Christian groups critical of Darwinism regarding the teaching of evolution? If the local Catholic church...


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