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Faces of Faith: Religious diversity in metro area

­­By Lisa Brody

While the United States Constitution mandates a separation of church and state, America remains a country founded on religious ideals. “In Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” are the words enshrined in the Constitution, representing a foundation based upon the values of most of the world's religions.

The first settlers at Plymouth Rock were the Puritans, a group of English Protestants looking for religious freedom who sought to purify the Church of England from Roman Catholic practices, asserting that the Church of England had not been fully reformed and needed to become more Protestant, and believing they had a direct covenant with God to create the necessary reforms. When the Crown and Church of England did not agree, they sought refuge and religious freedom in the New World. A group set sail in September 1620 for Virginia, and landed in Massachusetts. Calling themselves “Pilgrims,” their landing spot is now known as Plymouth Rock.

The Puritans were a devout people, family-oriented, with a high rate of literacy. While they were the first to set their feet on American soil and establish a religious colony, in the 500 years since, millions of other 'pilgrims' seeking freedom from religious persecution, among many other reasons, have emigrated to what is now the United States, creating a multi-cultural society brimming with religious diversity.

Here in metropolitan Detroit and southeast Michigan, there is a cornucopia of religions and those who practice, from Protestants to Muslims. According to the Pew Research Center, the religious composition of adults in Michigan is 70 percent Christian, which breaks down to 25 percent Evangelical Protestant; 18 percent mainline Protestant; 18 percent Catholic; eight percent historically Black Protestant; less than one percent each Mormon, Orthodox Christian, Jehovah's Christian and other Christian faiths. The most recent Pew survey and research was conducted in 2019.

Non-Christian faiths represent about seven percent of Michigan's faith-based population, with Muslims comprising about three percent of the population; two percent Jews; one percent Buddhist; and less than one percent Hindu and less than one percent other world religions.

According to Pew, 24 percent of Michiganders report they are unaffiliated with any religious faith; three percent are atheist, meaning they do not believe in a god or gods; and three percent are agnostic, who is someone who claims neither a faith nor belief in God. Another 17 percent reported they are “nothing in particular,” the Pew study reported. According to Pew, those categories have grown over the years, with individuals aged 18-29 representing the largest group who do not believe in a god or religion, have a college or post-graduate degree, are primarily male, and make over $100,000 a year.

While 62 percent of adults in metro Detroit said they “seldom or never” participated in prayer or a scripture group, 35 percent said they meditated at least once a week, and 59 percent reported feeling “spiritual peace and wellbeing” at least once a week. Twenty-nine percent said they turned to religion for “guidance on right and wrong,” while 51 percent said they used “common sense.” Yet almost 75 percent believe in a heaven – and 60 percent believe in a hell.

“People in times of trouble turn to religion for strength, to ground them, even when a high number of them are unaffiliated,” said noted southeast Michigan demographer Kurt Metzger director emeritus, Data Drive Detroit. “The United States is a very religious country. But what are churches doing to be relevant to their communities? What are they doing for the people who need them most? Due to the COVID pandemic, there has been increased outreach, an important factor for churches in providing food and assistance.”

“I think the Detroit metro area is a melting pot when it comes to religion,” said Randall Engle, Christianity professor in the department of religious studies at Oakland University.

Unlike the Puritans in Massachusetts, and later in Virginia, Detroit and Michigan were first settled by French traders who were Roman Catholic, “which is why the oldest church in Detroit is St. Anne's (Basilica of Saint Anne de Detroit),” Engle said, which was founded in 1701 by French colonists and is considered the second oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the United States. As of 2010, the Roman Catholic Church was the largest individual Christian religion and had 1,717,296 members out of a Michigan population of 10 million residents. It has six diocese – Detroit, Saginaw, Marquette, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Gaylord – and one archdiocese in the state, and was the only organized religion in Michigan until the nineteenth century. According to Geoffrey Migiro of World Atlas, when Michigan gained statehood, the border of the Diocese of Detroit was redrawn to match the state's.

“It topped off at 24, 25 percent” of Christian religious adherents, and settled at 18 percent currently, said Bob Brutell, vice chairman of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit and vice chairman, Ecumenical Theological Seminary, as well as an adjunct professor of religious studies and history, University of Mercy Detroit. He noted while Catholic followers are diminishing, “it still is the largest aggregate church. It has over 200 parishes, with lots of resources – it has lots of buildings, giving people lots of places to meet.”

Another asset he noted is its parochial system of religious schools which can be a feeder system for worshipers. Whether the network of churches and school buildings are an asset or an increasing expense as people stay home or choose other denominations “is another issue. Some buildings are doing extremely well. St. Hugo of the Hills (in Bloomfield Hills) is an amazing parish. Our successful parishes spawn social justice units and social services,” assisting hundreds and thousands of people in the metro area, Brutell pointed out.

Engle explained that all religions, and their adherence and importance in daily life in the United States can be explained by migration patterns, which were ultimately determined by economics. An early influx of immigrants came because of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, followed by the transformation of the assembly line and the jobs brought by Henry Ford in the early 20th century.

“All ties are to ethnicity and religiosity,” Engle said, noting that John and Horace Dodge, who started the Dodge Brothers Company, were Germans with “a strong Lutheran bent. And all the people they hired were immigrants who came with a strong mix of religions.

“Detroit starts heavily Roman Catholic,” Engle said, “but after two or three generations becomes a true melting pot.”

He explained that melting pot begins to occur after the first generation, who work to maintain their identity through their religious affiliation. “Their children meet someone often from another ethnicity, and they want to start another or join another church where they both feel comfortable. It's a typical pattern which leads to new religions and congregations,” he said.

How do many identify as belonging to one religion or another? “Two generations ago, you'd say I am because my parents were X. Today, we're finding less and less of that,” said Engle. “Today, we're finding people shopping for the goods and services that a church will provide for them rather than the label. People are less concerned with the theology than the social aspects – is it close to home, can I meet people there, will they have a softball team, will they have Sunday school for little Susie? They're trying to retain members and pay the bills to keep the lights on.”

He said sometimes he has to wonder if “they're a church or a cruise ship.”

Brutell said that in the Detroit area, as well as the U.S. as a whole, Catholics emigrated in large numbers to this country between 1880 and 1930.

“They came for economic security, which is what America represented, then once they were here they needed the U.S. identity,” Brutell said, which increased steadily between the 1930s and 1960s in metro Detroit. “The Catholic Church helped provide an American identity through its social justice teachings. It supported unions in its early years; it provided education for their children – much more than it does today. It offered health care. There were hospital systems – the Ascension system, Providence, St. Joe's. It was quite a social system that Catholics depended upon, and of course, the rituals which any religious person depended upon. It regulated their lives – Sunday morning mass, weekday worship.”

According to the Archdiocese of Detroit, there are about 1.3 million Catholics in southeast Michigan, with 218 parishes, 86 Catholic schools, and five Catholic colleges and seminaries.

“As mainline churches diminish, who is picking up the baton for social services that those religious institutions provided?” Brutell asked, noting it is a difficult lift for many non-profits.

Engle said the immigrant melting pot experience is what led to a rich and diverse collection of churches throughout the metropolitan area over the last couple hundred years for many religious denominations, and it is a phenomenon which continues as assimilation continues among ethnic groups and each generation get further from its immigrant base. Today, he said, there are over 26,000 different denominations of Christianity, which can broadly be classified among three classifications: Orthodox, which include the eastern Christian religions such as Greek or Russian Orthodox; Roman Catholic, “which is one big monolith which has the pope as its leader;” and Protestants, who broke off from the Catholic Church after Reformation and there “are a gazillion different ones 'because we want to do it differently but we want to do it our way.'”

Locally, it is difficult to determine where exactly members of various religious groups reside today because not only has data from the 2020 U.S. Census not yet been released, but it did not include a question on religion so religious data questions will not be answered.

Chaldean Catholics are a separate branch of the Catholic Church, with Weam Namou, executive director of the Chaldean Cultural Center noting, “there's some differences in our faith.”

Chaldeans are Iraqi Catholics, speak and pray in Aramaic, and look to preserve the Aramaic language. Certain holidays are different. “There's such historic significance to our lineage to biblical Mesopotamia,” where current-day Iraq is, said Namou. “In our church, we understand all the history and background. It's our responsibility to tell our story.”

The last count for the Chaldean community, from the 2010 Census, was there were 180,000 Chaldeans in metro Detroit, “but we estimate it is much larger. Sterling Heights has the largest percentage of Chaldeans in Michigan.”

Many estimate the Chaldean community currently as between 250,000 and 300,000. Why so much bigger than the 2010 Census?

“In 2014, ISIS forced the Chaldeans to flee Iraq (or be slaughtered in Iraq),” said Namou. “It is believed that Michigan now has the largest number of Chaldeans in the world because of all the tens of thousands of refugees who fled all over the world. Before 2014, we were second after Iraq. It's why Michigan being our home, it's so important to have accurate numbers.”

She said now Michigan is the only area which has cultural organizations, a chamber of commerce and a support system for refugees, immigrants and those who have been here for a few generations. There are also many Chaldeans in California, among a few other states, but their community is strictly based around the church.

While in Iraq, she said Chaldeans were a minority, “we had many Muslim friends,” she said she sees the many of the younger generation seeking a stronger identity, both culturally and religiously.

“Many younger people are becoming more connected to the church – I notice it more with those who are born here than immigrants. They almost feel like they're protecting it because of what happened with ISIS – that someone tried to destroy them and their culture and they want to preserve them,” Namou explained.

But she worries about some young people who may not fit into the traditional boxes – which Catholicism is not often open nor flexible about, something Brutell also pointed out. They both noted that “spiritual” to traditionalists is not considered “religious.”

“Some young people who feel they are outcasts, gay, that they don't belong – but who want the traditional aspect, to belong – they are dying,” Namou lamented. “The community they want to be embraced by they feel rejects them. For someone who has another path as everyone else – we're all a nation of immigrants, new to this east/west path. We need to embrace God, have a personal relationship with God, however they get there.”

“The issue for Catholics is young people are not joining the Catholic Church; some are only nominally willing to call themselves Catholic,” said Brutell. “They don't want to join an institution that tells them what to do. The Catholic Church does not reflect many of their views, especially with LGBTQ issues.

“Catholic young women may not oppose the Catholic Church and priesthood and that the church is male, but they don't warm to it,” he continued. “They see other churches that are welcoming to women in leadership, LGBTQ issues, like the Episcopal Church. I think Pope Francis will have an effect; he has brought a sense of openness and collegiality – maybe not as much change as possibility.”

“The increase in younger people seeking out religion is because they're seeking connectivity,” said Oakland University's Engle. “After class, once many of my students learn I am a man of faith, many of my students want to talk to me about religion and belief. They'll say, 'I'm Lutheran – what does that mean? I'm Methodist – what does that mean?' They've grown up in a world that says the truth is whatever you want it to be and they're intrigued.”

Demographer Metzger suggests that many young people, especially those with lower incomes, may turn to religion for solace, the need to be with other people, and because they think religion will save them.

“The lower the income, the higher the involvement with religion,” Metzger said. “When you're getting kicked day in, day out, there's systemic racism, over the years, people who just don't have the options day-to-day because living is so tough – the church becomes so important because they believe the next life will be better – God is there. It probably will not get better here on earth.

“Religion gives them hope and strength and some avenue to feel better. They develop connections with others believing the same thing,” he said. “People turn towards it in a country that is already religious. The unaffiliated may not feel connected to any specific denomination, but there is an increase in prayer for their family and self, even if it's not in any formal sense.”

According to the 2010 Census, the largest Protestant denomination in Michigan was United Methodist with over 228,521 adherents, followed by the Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the Lutheran-Church-Missouri Synod.

Lutherans have been in Detroit since around 1820, with the first recognized Lutheran sermon by Rev. Frederich Schmid preaching in a carpenter shop on the site of the former Ford Auditorium. He later established the German Protestant Church, also called the German Lutheran Church, in 1837. Since 1873, it's been known as Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The Michigan Area Conference of Methodists is one of 54 Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church in the U.S., and one of 10 members of the North Central Jurisdiction, representing more than 830 local churches with approximately 130,000 members, led by Bishop David Bard.

Methodism is historically related to Protestantism, and developed as a revival movement within the Church of England during the 18th century, and according to the BBC, were named Methodists because of "the methodical way in which they carried out their Christian faith." Besides evangelism, Methodism emphasizes charity and support of the sick, poor and afflicted through works of mercy.

The Right Rev. Dr. Bonnie A. Perry was elected head of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, covering southeast and south central Michigan, in June 2019, making her the first woman and first openly gay priest elected as an Episcopal bishop in Michigan. The diocese includes 77 churches with approximately 16,000 members as of 2019.

Perry explained the Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican communion and “comes down from the Church of England, but because the Crown is the head, and after the Revolutionary War, the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted nothing to do with Americans,” as well as Americans belief in a separation of church and state, creating the Episcopal faith, where bishops were elected. “Most of those who wrote the Constitution were Episcopal,” she noted.

“Part of my call – and why I was elected to be here is because there is a need to be progressive,” Perry said. “While we're upholders to our values we cannot be paralyzed by the anesthesia of nostalgia. We're not sidestepping the really important questions – which is, how is the teaching of Jesus Christ relevant to these times that are wretched, terrible, amazing, cracked open? White people are finally getting an idea of racism, white supremacy, white privilege – what does Jesus have to say about this? What does Jesus have to say in the midst of this pandemic? What do I do with his teachings in this moment of time?”

As Perry determines her, and her flocks' – messages and responses, what is troubling her is the ability, and inability, to reach out in this time of crisis. It is a theme heard from numerous religious groups – in this time of where a pandemic is causing illness, death, isolation and economic upheaval, many people are turning to their religion for solace – at a time when the doors to congregations, churches, temples must