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The Religious History of the Ozarks, Part 2

KSMU's Missy Shelton continues her discussion with John Schmalzbauer about the history of religion in the Ozarks.

Shelton: John Schmalzbauer holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University. And when we left off our conversation this morning, we were discussing the history of the Jewish community in the Ozarks.Were there ever tensions between the Christian communities and the Jewish communities?

Schmalzbauer: If you look at the oral history interviews that Marc Cooper supervised in the 1990s with older members of Temple Israel, you do see, not a lot of horrible incidents but you do see some slights and some insensitivity. Jewish students coming home with flyers from the public school about Easter, not really knowing what to do as parents. You also see a certain amount of assimilation sometimes. In the oral history interviews, some of the members of the synagogue talk about going to church, calling the synagogue church, which I don’t think you would see in every part of the country, I don’t think you’d necessarily see that now. Something like keeping kosher, according to one of the interviews, was always kind of difficult in Springfield. I understand now Harter House carries kosher meat.

Shelton: This idea of calling it church, that’s because in interacting with their non-Jewish peers, that’s how they would translate “I’m going to the synagogue” so you can understand what I mean.

Schmalzbauer: I guess so. That’s a good hypothesis why that would be. I just remember one of the people in the interviews with the Springfield synagogue members said, “Yeah, my father was a real church man.” You know you try to teach your students in religious studies classes not to call a synagogue a church because students who are not from Jewish backgrounds do it all the time if they’re from a Christian background. Just like Catholic students talk about the Baptist mass which Southern Baptists would just laugh about because that’s not what it’s called. Sometimes, I think the language changes because a group is small.

Shelton: I know we have groups in town like the Ba’hai and others that relatively speaking are “newer” to the area. What are some of the “newer” religious traditions we’ve seen in recent decades in the Ozarks, perhaps groups that represent other world religions?

Schmalzbauer: You have Buddhist groups in the Ozarks. You have groups in the rural Ozarks. Out by West Plains, there’s a Buddhist group that has a webpage, a retreat center, a presence that’s sort of national. There are Hindu groups that have retreats in the Ozarks. Part of it is that the Ozarks are just a great place if you want to have a secluded place for people to have a spiritual retreat. Fayetteville and Bentonville have even more of that kind of presence than Springfield, partially because of the pull of Wal-Mart, which has brought people in the white collar, skilled labor force from all over the country. There’s a Hindu group in that area that has religious education, age graded for children.

Shelton: There’s a mosque here in Springfield and a mosque in Joplin. Is it a growing community or what’s the history there?

Schmalzbauer: There’s not much information on the web or in the press about the mosque in Springfield. After 9/11, it’s a very sensitive time for Muslim communities in the U.S. and yet there are people who practice Islam in the community. I’m sure if you compared it to 1960, there would be tremendous growth in that community. According to estimates, there may be 100-200 Muslims in the Springfield metro area. At Missouri State University, we have students from Muslim-majority countries on campus and sometimes higher education is what leads to more religious diversity in the community.

Shelton: Is there any group or religious tradition we haven’t discussed that we should definitely include?

Schmalzbauer: I think it’s interesting the Mormon presence in the Ozarks seems to be growing, here and in Branson. On the south side of Springfield, there’s a thriving Mormon meeting house, with lovely Colonial brick architecture in a nice suburban neighborhood with what looks to me like a pretty full parking lot a lot of the time. Some of the entertainment act in Branson…Mormons have become a part of Branson in a way that no other non-Protestant tradition has been able to do in quite the same way.