By Tim Knepper: Director, The Comparison Project

With all the time that I’ve spent learning about local religious diversity, I’m continually surprised to find that there is even more diversity than I previously thought. Just last month this happened with regard to the varieties of Orthodox Christianity in Des Moines. Not only is there the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George; Des Moines also boasts Russian, Serbian, Egyptian (Coptic), and Eritrean Orthodox Christian churches.

It was one such moment of surprise that turned out to contain the seeds of our current project to write a photo-illustrated set of narratives about the diversity of religion in Des Moines. This happened in the spring of 2012, when a student invited me to a New Year’s celebration at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple on SW 9th Ave. I replied, “But isn’t the Vietnamese Buddhist temple just east of Drake, on MLK Blvd?”

But she insisted, “No, the Vietnamese Buddhist temple on SW 9th.” Still confused, I asked, “But isn’t the Buddhist temple on the south side of town a Lao temple? Wat Lao Buddhavas on SE Park?” Again she insisted, “No, it is a Vietnamese temple. On SW 9th.”

And so it was. The largest Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Des Moines, Tu Vien Hong Duc, was on SW 9th, and I, a professor religion who prides himself on knowing something about religious diversity in the local area, knew nothing about it!

Needless to say, I attended the service, with my family in tow. And I then came back, again and again. I met privately with the monk, who is reverentially known simply as “Thay,” a word meaning master and teacher. And I eventually arranged for a Drake class to be taught on Vietnamese Buddhism in general and his temple in particular.

It was in the context of that class that the temple had finally arranged to dedicate a 30-foot statue of Quan Am, the Vietnamese Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. I felt that Des Moines needed to know about this, and so, in the fall of 2014, I wrote an op ed for the Des Moines Register about the dedication of the statue.

Little did I know that Bob Blanchard, the photographer with whom I would end up working, would read that op ed, attend the dedication ceremony, and later contact me for more opportunities to take photographs at local religious communities. “Sure,” I told him by email, “but I have a better idea; let’s meet over coffee to discuss it.” One week later we did. And it was there that I told him that I had long dreamed of writing a book about religious diversity in Des Moines, but feared that I didn’t have enough words to fill the pages. I suggested we write a picture book together. And so, this project began.

More information on the statue and the Tu Vien Duc temple, here.

Learn more about The Comparison Project, here.