Guide: Religion in the Triangle

March 1, 2010 

At a mainline Christian church, the pastor plans to offer yoga classes.
A congregation of humanistic Jews meets regularly for services but does not pray to God.
A local Muslim advocacy group has invited local political leaders from across the Triangle to attend an iftar meal concluding the daylong fast of Ramadan.
These are just some of the ways the Triangle’s increasingly diverse religious landscape has evolved. Once a stronghold of Baptists and Methodists, the Triangle now supports a rich and ever-growing tableau of faith traditions. In large part, this transformation is due to immigration. Over the course of the past decade, thousands of people have moved in from across the United States and abroad. They brought their native faiths with them, and those faiths have found fertile soil in a population long known for its religious enthusiasm.
Consider:
* The Triangle supports dozens of Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwaras, and Buddhist temples.
* The Triangle has the state’s first Mormon Temple located in Apex.
* The Duke Chapel, a soaring limestone neo-Gothic like cathedral, is led by an Anglican priest and includes an interdenominational congregation that meets at the chapel Sunday mornings.
Protestants still make up the region’s largest religious bloc, as they do across the United States. In North Carolina, Southern Baptists remain the largest religious group, with more than 3,000 churches. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina is particularly well known for its emergency relief auxiliary, which has a national reputation for recovery and repair operations following hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters.
But if Southern Baptists are still number one, Methodists have lost their footing as number two, replaced by the region’s expanding Roman Catholic population. Indeed, the region’s largest churches are not Protestant but rather Catholic. Many of these behemoth congregations are straining to welcome newcomers from other states as well as a flood of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh counts 207,000 Catholics in the diocese, and that's not counting an even larger number of Hispanics who show up at Catholic churches but don't register.
The U.S. Census Bureau is forbidden by law from asking people about religion so good numbers are hard to come by.
Unlike Atlanta or Dallas, the Triangle doesn’t have a large concentration of Protestant mega-churches or mega-star pastors. Still, a number of large churches have seen double-digit growth in the past few years. Among the largest are Colonial Baptist Church, an independent congregation not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and Hope Community Church, another independent church.
The Raleigh-Cary Jewish Federation and the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill estimate there are 12,000 Jews in the Triangle. But because many Jews don’t affiliate with a synagogue there are likely more.
Similarly, it is hard to gauge how many Muslims live in the Triangle. At the celebratory ending to last year’s Ramadan fast, more than 5,000 Muslims showed up at Cary’s SAS soccer park. There are doubtless thousands more. The Islamic Center of Raleigh is the region’s largest mosque. It is now completing construction on an addition, which would expand the mosque to 48,000 square feet.
While many newcomers come to the Triangle with a strong denominational affiliation, increasingly people shop around for the church that best meets their needs. Families may choose a church with a rich variety of children’s programs. Singles may want to find a congregation that caters to their needs and makes them feel welcome.
Finally, a survey of religious identity published several years ago found that people who were not religious when they moved to the South tend to become more so once they’ve lived here a while. To many, the study confirms the impression that the region’s religious core is not only deep and durable, but accomodating.

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