By Emma K. Buckles

In the fall semester of 2021, ten different religious sites around Birmingham were analyzed by a team of thirty-five Samford University undergraduates. These students examined the religious emphases and practices of each institution. The sites’ affiliations ranged from Roman Catholicism to Orthodox Judaism, from Muslim to Buddhist, from Messianic Judaism to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Birmingham’s high concentration of religious sites shows the city’s people. They practice their religions both in large Catholic cathedrals and online-only meditation platforms.

There are three Catholic churches profiled in this series. The Cathedral of Saint Paul is highlighted for its music and the impact that congregational song has on its services. Music fosters a sense of unity among the congregants at Saint Paul. Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church is also keen on worship bringing together the congregation in unity. The student researchers highlight the the place of the Eucharist in uniting the congregation. At Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, researchers also emphasized the role of the Eucharist, particularly the celebration of the traditional Latin mass in connecting the congregation to Catholicism’s rich history. Together, these three essays provide an broad window into the Catholic presence in Birmingham.

Students also explored two congregations that identify with Judaism. Knesseth Israel Congregation is unique because it is the only Orthodox synagogue in Alabama. Being the only one of its kind in the area, the congregation itself is hoping to educate the surrounding community as to the values and traditions of the faith tradition. Unlike Knesseth Israel, Beth Hallel Messianic Jewish Congregation practices Messianic Judaism. And thus positions itself between traditional Judaism and Christianity. Its relationship is further explained in the essay. The congregation itself includes at least one Samford graduate.

Just as the identification of Messianic Jews with Judaism is contested by many Jews, so many Christians contest the identification of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with Christianity is contested. Our researchers give us a few into the Sunday services of this community and draw on interviews with young LDS missionaries.

The West Side Masjid is the third of the Birmingham Islamic Society’s centers to be profiled on Magic City Religion. It occupies a storefront in downtown Fairfield. Nearby the society has established Muslim Garden, a section of Oakland Cemetery that allows for proper Muslim funeral and rituals for the community.

Asian religions are practiced in diverse ways in Birmingham. Hindus at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir gather before colorful images for their focused worship. There is a large focus placed on the congregants to pursue devotion. Members of the Cahaba River Sangha meet online to follow Buddhist practices of mindfulness and listening.

Through the research of this project, the students were able to expand their knowledge of the Birmingham religious communities. They became more familiar with the breadth of religious diversity in the Birmingham area. This project continued to widen the scope of Magic City Religion’s profiles of Birmingham’s rich and varied religious life. Students learned not only about unfamiliar religions and their characteristics but also about the specific focuses of these religious sites here in Birmingham. Our collection of student-written essays now numbers seventy.

We welcome you to come and learn about the religiously diverse atmosphere in Birmingham as these students have walked through congregations around the city from high church liturgy to thoughtful meditation.

Communities profiled on Magic City Religion in fall 2021

Emma K. Buckles ’23 served as assistant editor of Magic City Religion for three semesters in 2020 and 2021. She is a religion major in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies.

Published December 10, 2021

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