Diversity in matters of faith is widespread in the Kansas City area. But those whose faiths fall outside the Judeo-Christian tradition still face subtle problems.
One problem is that their beliefs aren't quite understood by mainstream society, and another is that their traditions aren't quite honored.
"I think in past years there has been an increase in understanding of other religions, and that's very healthy," said the Rev. Vern Barnet, an expert in world religions.
"However, a case we still have is that dominant religions don't necessarily recognize the importance of other religions and their holidays that are observed," he said.
One example, Barnet said, was the case of a Muslim student at a local school who was all but forced to eat lunch even though he was observing his religion's fasting period.
The five-county Kansas City area is home to slightly more than 2,000 congregations and more than a dozen religious faiths. In addition to the more familiar Christian and Jewish faiths, there also are Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Baha'i, pagan and Islamic groups.
"Although it is hard to pinpoint in numbers, the largest faiths in Kansas City outside (Christianity) are Jewish, Muslim and Hindu, and they're easily recognized because they have a strong sense of identity," Barnet said.
There are substantial Sikh and Buddhist communities in the area, too, said Barnet, who is the founder and minister-in-residence of the World Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Study in Overland Park. He is also active with the Kansas City Interfaith Council, which works with about 11 different faiths.
"There's a Muslim population between 10,000 and 15,000 people in the Kansas City area, but most people do not know about our religion and it is sometimes a problem for us, taking off our holidays from school or work," said Amjad Dalaq, manager of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City.
The Muslim religion centers on the word "Islam," which means both "submission to the will of God in all aspects of life" and "peace." Muslims believe that God, whom they call Allah, created human beings and the world for the purpose of worshiping him, Dalaq said.
"Our children who go to public schools, kids in their classes sometimes don't understand what they believe and make fun of them, and some teachers don't like our children taking off school days for our holidays," Dalaq said. "Some parents just take our kids out of school for the day anyway."
Steve Klick, a spokesman for Buddhist Information of America, said mainstream society knows little about Buddhism either, despite the growth of the faith in America. Thousands of Buddhists live in Kansas City, he said.
Buddhists celebrate a number of mainstream holidays, such as Hanukkah and Christmas, but the group's belief system differs sharply from most Western religions, Klick said.
"It's not that we don't have faith, it's just a different kind of faith," Klick said.
"We're about proof and evidence, and we believe you should doubt and question everything until it is proven to you, which eventually it will be. We believe in striving to help and benefit as many people as possible. There is no heaven and hell in our belief system, and we don't dwell on sins a lot. We believe people are inherently good and pure."
Mark Johnson, with the Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is of Overland Park, said local Baha'is haven't encountered much discrimination. There are between 200 and 300 members of the faith in the area, he said.
The Baha'i faith was founded by the prophet Bahaullah more than 150 years ago in Persia, now known as Iran.
"Unfortunately, our religion was seen in Persia as a very big threat, and our people were persecuted very severely and exiled numerous times because of it," he said.
Barnet said society is becoming much more inclusive.
For instance, an increasing number of churches have begun offering world religions series, he said. The media have begun giving more attention to different faiths. And he has seen more awareness in civic organizations of the need to be more inclusive of all faiths.
"I think, for the most part, people are pretty eager to learn about other faiths without having to change their own," Barnet said. "What I would like to see is people visiting each other's places of worship, and that doesn't happen very often. Also, I hope someday people can start talking more openly about religious and spiritual activities, like they talk about the weather."
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