The Bosnian Islamic Association Mosque sits in the center of Utica, New York. Housed in the former Central United Methodist church, it serves as a symbol of that city’s past, its present and, perhaps, its future.
And it offers a glimpse into America’s changing religious landscape.
Robert Knight, a Hamilton College assistant art professor and S. Brent Plate, a visiting professor of religious studies, looked at the changing character of the community by focusing on its sacred places. Together, they created a 52-minute documentary, “In God’s House: The Religious Landscape of Utica, N.Y.”
Monday, the film will be shown at Elizabethtown College’s Gibble Auditorium at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Knight will be there to discuss how and why he made the film and what he discovered about the community.
Hamilton College is only a few miles from Utica, which has long been an immigrant hub. European immigrants came to the area to build the Erie Canal and the railroad. Many settled in the industrial city. They brought their religions — Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism — to the community.
As boom turned to bust after World War II, people began moving out of the rust-belt city, leaving behind churches and temples.
Today, newer immigrants are taking their place. Since 1981, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees has settled more than 15,000 immigrants in Utica. They, too, have brought their religions with them.
In North Utica, a cement cross towers behind a Buddhist garden at Quan Am Vietnamese Buddhist Temple — the site of the former St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“The demographics are changing in mainline church communities,” said Richard Newton, assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, who helped bring Knight and his documentary to the college.
From mainline to sideline
In the documentary’s trailer, the Rev. Dennis Dewey, pastor of Utica’s Stone Presbyterian Church, says churches in that area that once were called to as “mainline,” are now referred to as “sideline” churches.
Knight, who spoke by telephone earlier this week, described local reaction to the influx of people from Bosnia, Myanmar and Vietnam as “quite positive. It’s a fabric of the culture of the city now.”
Part of that has to do the changing economy.
Post-industrial Utica offers cheap housing for people and immigrants have leased or purchased the religious structures that had become albatrosses for dwindling Christian congregations.
“It’s a reflection of the economic hardship of the community,” Knight said.
Bosnians began arriving in Utica in the 1990s during the Bosnian War. Not all came through the Mohawk Valley Resource Center. Knight said Utica’s Bosnian population was supplemented by Bosnians who had previously settled in Idaho but came to Utica when they heard it was becoming a Bosnian enclave.
The former Central United Methodist Church, he said, was sold to the Bosnian community for $1.Not all of the churches have changed their identity, however.
Tabernacle Baptist Church remains a Baptist church even though its congregation is comprised largely of Karen (formerly Burmese) people.
And therein lies a unique story. The church was founded in 1819. In 1828, the congregation commissioned missionary Cephas Bennett to travel to Burma where he, Adoniram Judson and Anne Judson were already ministering to the Burmese population. Bennett later founded the first high school in Burma and one of the first Burmese refugees to reach Utica was a Karen man named Joseph Bennett whose family took that name in honor of Bennett.
Religion: Tool of social change
Does the Utica story have a corollary in Lancaster County?
“We see Lancaster County as largely anabaptist and pietist,” Newton said.
But that is changing.
“Religion,” Newton explained, “is one of the tools of social change.”
He cited the “vibrant Hispanic community” within the Church of the Brethren.
“The Church of the Brethren,” he said, “has been historically white, but now there is a diversifying of the demographic that’s fascinating.”
“Religions,” he pointed out, “build upon each other.”
Knight said the documentary was a way for him to learn about the changes taking place in Utica.
“It was a great way to get to know the community in a respectful and authentic way,” he said.