A Book Project in Des Moines Showcases the Area's Religious Diversity

Apr 4, 2017

The cover of "A Spectrum of Faith: Religions of the World in America's Heartland"
Credit Drake Community Press

At a time when religious intolerance has sparked violence at mosques, synagogues, temples and churches nationwide, a project in Des Moines is embracing the diversity of faiths within Central Iowa. A photo-rich book is being released this week that illustrates various worship services in the area.

Freelance photographer Bob Blanchard had lived in Des Moines just two weeks when he read an op-ed column by a Drake University philosophy professor named Tim Knepper.

“He talked about the dedication of a 40-foot-tall Buddhist statue at a Buddhist temple on Southwest Ninth,” Blanchard says. “This is Des Moines. I didn’t expect a Buddhist temple.”

The dedication ceremony for a 40-foot-tall statue at the Buddhist Temple in south Des Moines
Credit Bob Blanchard

He grabbed his camera, and spent hours snapping photos of the statue from Vietnam. This prompted an e-mail to Knepper, who says a photographer was just the person for whom he was looking.

“I’ve always wanted to write a book about the religions of Des Moines, but I don’t have enough words to fill up the pages," Knepper says. "Let’s write a picture book.”

Two years later, the 134-page, paperback “A Spectrum of Faith: Religions of the World in America’s Heartland” is being released by Drake Community Press. The 15 chapters take readers to Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples around the Des Moines area, to synagogues, mosques and churches of various stripes. Even those featured in the book, like Gurwinder Singh Kapur of the Sikh temple in West Des Moines, are surprised by the religious diversity depicted.

Harinder Kaur (left) and Tirlochan Kaur at the Sikh Temple in West Des Moines
Credit Bob Blanchard

“Our friends and families and relatives out there, when they get a hold of this book, they’re going to be wowed," he says. "Because when they look at the pages they’ll say, in Iowa.”

Blanchard’s captivating portraits fill the book. Knepper’s passion for the project is clearly evident. But it’s the students at Drake who brought “A Spectrum of Faith” to life. Senior Matthew Becke went multiple times to the Ezan Islamic and Educational Center, where Bosnian refugees gather to pray and sing. It was Becke’s first brush with Muslims.

“They’re police officers, they’re teachers, they’re doing the normal things American’s do," Becke says. "They’re trying to raise their children, they’re just trying to live a normal American life.”

Adijana Dizdarevic (left) and Lejla Mehmedovic at Ezan: Islamic and Education Center in Des Moines
Credit Bob Blanchard

Des Moines-native Anna Steenson took on the job of documenting “A Spectrum of Faith” on film. The Drake sophomore says she wanted to capture the book’s spirit in her 15-minute movie.

“The excitement, the passion, and the beautiful images that are going to be in this book, so people get excited about this project,” she says.

Drake students laid out the pages, they wrote and edited the text. English professor Carol Spaulding-Kruse guided their work.

“The writing is really meaningful when they know it’s not just a paper for a grade," she says. "It’s something that’s going to last, and it’s actually making a real contribution in their community.”

Photographer Bob Blanchard says he was moved by how eager the subjects were to share their stories.

Shradha Humagai dances at the Hindu Cultural and Educational Center
Credit Bob Blanchard

“I had a Hindu person up in Madrid tell me, you know it doesn’t matter how we worship or who we worship," he says "What matters is how we live our lives.”

The man whose idea it was to write a book about the religions of Des Moines, Tim Knepper, says he will be forever touched by the people he’s met.

“My life is so much richer because of the lives of these people who are featured in this book," he says. "And I am so grateful to them.”

The publication of “A Spectrum of Faith” will officially launch Thursday night at Drake. Proceeds from sales will go the Des Moines Area Religious Council.