Promoting Local Interfaith Relations
in the Silicon Valley

By James Reites SJ and Philip Riley

Santa Clara University calls itself “The Jesuit University in the Silicon Valley.” While the Valley is most known for technology, the complex ways in which globalization comes alive locally are equally important. The Valley, more accurately known as the Santa Clara Valley, is a county without amajority ethnicity: the 2000 census revealed Santa Clara County was 44 percent Caucasian, 27 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic and 3 percent African-American.

The key to this story is immigration, which has increased 60 percent in the Valley since 1990. Today 36 percent of the county’s residents (nearly 600,000)were born in another country, and 177 different languages are spoken in our homes. The region’s religious life reflects these trends; 11 percent of our neighbors belong to a tradition other than Judaism and Christianity compared to three percent nationally.While Catholicism is the largest denomination here, its 50+ churches share the Valley with 32 Buddhist centers, a dozen mosques serving Muslims from as many as 40 different countries, and active Sikh, Hindu and Jain communities that are building some of the largest andmost expensive temples in the United States.

The public square still has Christianity at its center – witness the recently refurbished Catholic Cathedral Basilica – but that center is also populated by public art celebrating the Ohlone heritage and creation myths, and its hillside environs now include Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples and Muslim mosques.

Local Religion Project and Interreligious Dialogue

It is in this context that the Local Religion Project (LRP) was established in 2003 as a programof the Religious Studies Department at Santa Clara University. Its goal is to support teaching and research on the many and diverse religions in the Silicon Valley by establishing relationships with religious and civic leaders in the region and documenting an estimated 1,500 local faith communities and organizations. The LRP uses the Silicon Valley as something of an experimental lab for understanding how different faiths live together in a community.

For the past two years, for example, Professor Philip Boo Riley, founding director of the LRP,has assigned his students to enter into this complex community to research how religion is lived in the Valley’s varied faith communities. Taking bearings from class and library research on the region and religious traditions, students observe rituals, interview leaders and community members, and document with images, video and text what they encounter. Each research study adds to the growing collection of profiles of the area’s religious communities on the LRP web site, and in turn provides a starting point for further student research.

Students come away from their research with a greater understanding of alternative faith traditions and an experience of different ways of being religious.Catholic students for whom Buddhism was a distant and esoteric practice attended puja “devotions”with a small Tibetan Buddhist community in a residential neighborhood in San Jose. Students who had never heard of the Baha’i marveled at the local San Jose community’s hospitality and openness to all faiths. Students who had not ventured beyond California’s borders got a taste of India in their study of immigrant communities at the Jain Center inMilpitas.A Vietnamese Catholic student,with the aid of an elderly gentleman visiting from India, learned about Hindu religiosity by observing a Diwali (Festival of the Lights) celebration at Fremont’s Hindu temple. Other Catholic students puzzled over the use of light (albeit a flashlight) in the local Silicon Valley Atheist’s “Human Light Festival” celebration – was it not a ritual drawing on a universal religious symbol?

The interreligious encounter is not just about Christians encountering other traditions and worldviews. Last quarter, a Buddhist student learned about Catholic social justice traditions by interviewingmen served by the Cathedral’s homeless ministry in downtown San Jose.An AhmadiyyaMuslim from Pakistan became interested in World War II internment and researched the extent to which the history of that experience lives on in a local Japanese Buddhist community. Interviews with a Sikh high school student about her language and music classes at the new gurdwara in south San Jose demystified religious practice for a group of non-religious students.A religious studies-art doublemajor witnessed first-hand the power of public inter-religious dialogue when she documented the Ramadan fast by San Jose’s police chief, a Mormon, who sought closer ties to the Islamic community in religious practice. Local students have turned to their own communities to be guides in encounters: a Jewish student shared her synagogue’s Holocaust education program with her Catholic classmates, and a Chinese Buddhist student opened his family’s practice at Pao Hua temple in East San Jose to his Catholic classmates.

A Model for Ignatian Institutions

Students are bombarded dailywith images of religions contested and contesting. Indeed, CNN, the Internet and the popularmedia are content to leave us with images but little understanding of the persons and religions they capture.The LRP takes students beyond these dramatic and distant representations of religion and puts individual faces on religion; contact with their neighbors provides young people direct experience of how religion is part of the fabric of life in the Valley.Students canmove to understand religion as lived and experienced in a diverse setting, cultivating a disposition to engage across religious differences that will stand them well in the future. In this way, the university takes advantage of its privileged location in the Valley,providing an illustration of what former Jesuit Father General Peter Hans Kolvenbach intended when he called for education of “the whole person of solidarity in the real world.”

Riley is founding director of the Local Religion Project and associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University.Reites (CFN) is associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and the California Province representative on the National Jesuit Advisory Board on Interreligious Dialogue and Relations. The Local Religion Project website is

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