Houston, once a small oil and rail yard town, is America’s second fastest growing city, covering an area slightly smaller than Massachusetts but bigger than New Jersey. The city is also one where no single ethnic group claims more than 33 percent of the population. Although diversity can sometimes be a source of tension, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has reported a steady increase over recent decades in the positive ratings area residents give different ethnic groups. In 2013, a local newspaper headline read “Houston Losing Bible Belt Bragging Rights,” acknowledging that, while Christian congregations abound, the diversity of Houston’s religious landscape is keeping apace with the city’s rapid expansion.
Since 1996 the Houston Zoroastrian Center in Southwest Houston has served the city’s Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian Zarathushtis. The Center is home to the nation’s first Zoroastrian Sunday School and a library that serves as a repository for historical and scholarly information about the tradition. Annually, the public is invited to attend a Jashne Sadeh fire celebration as part of the Center’s efforts to educate the broader Houston community about Zoroastrianism.
Houston is home to the largest Muslim population in Texas and one of the largest in the South overall. For over a decade, Houston’s mayor has partnered with the city’s diverse Muslim groups and cultural organizations to host an annual iftar dinner during the month of Ramadan. Counted among the city’s numerous and diverse Muslim communities is the Ismaili Principal Jamatkhana (“House of Prayer”) and Centre, which serves as the headquarters for a quarter million Shia Ismaili Muslims living in the United States.
Though the Jewish community in Houston can trace its roots back to the mid-nineteenth century, the city has only recently reached critical mass. The Orthodox Union declared Houston a destination city and identified it as the first “Affordable Orthodox Living” community. According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, as of 2011, the Houston area was home to 23 different Jewish congregations.
Houston’s Hindu community is also sizable. The area’s largest temple, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, is located in South Houston, just a short drive from the Ismaili Principal Jamatkhana. Founded in 2004, it took craftsmen sixteen months and 1.3 million volunteer hours to carve by hand the white marble and limestone temple. Before a small mandir was established in 1988, Swaminaryan devotees in the Houston area met in each other’s homes to hold weekly religious gatherings. Today, the smaller mandir still stands and is now part of the new temple complex, which also includes a monastery and an interactive museum where visitors can explore the history and beliefs of Hinduism.
“We are home to an incredible variety of people with different backgrounds and of different faiths. In order to have a successful future, we have to know how to work with and for each other,” remarked then-Mayor Annise Parker in an interview with The Houston Chronicle. While the City has done much to promote and celebrate the diversity of its residents, it has also been criticized for infringing upon the religious freedom of some. In 2014, some interfaith groups and Christian organizations, both local and national, expressed disapproval at the City’s plan to issue subpoenas for the sermons of five local pastors. The pastors had been vocal about their disapproval of a proposed human rights ordinance in Houston that aimed to ban discrimination of LGBT people  Soon after Parker met with concerned parties, the subpoenas were withdrawn.
In 2015, the Houston Chronicle reported that Houston has 37 of the state’s 207 mega-churches. Lakewood Church, founded by Joel and Victoria Osteen, is just off of Route 59, where traffic can be backed up for miles on a Sunday morning. Some might be surprised to learn, just a short drive west, members of Houston Oasis, a community of self-described “freethinkers,” also gathers on Sunday mornings. Founded in 2012, Houston Oasis meets at the Norris Conference Center and is part of a growing number of Humanist groups forming across the United States.
Interfaith initiatives in Houston have shaped, and are being shaped, by national and international efforts. Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, a hub for interfaith activity in the city, organizes popular bi-annual “Dinner Dialogues” which have been replicated in other cities and states. Near a business park just off Bellfort Avenue, the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue, part of the global Gülen Movement, is currently building the Houston Peace Garden where visitors will be able to visit replicas of a synagogue, church, and mosque. The Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University engages the campus and Houston communities in inter- and intra-faith conversations. The Rothko Chapel, founded over 40 years ago as a space for all in the heart of the city’s museum district, features the work of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.
“No city more clearly exemplifies the trends that are rapidly refashioning the social and political landscape of all urban America,” writes the Kinder Institute at Rice, whose Kinder Houston Area Survey findings were the subject of a 2012 documentary by founding director, Dr. Stephen Klineberg. The film’s title—Interesting Times—is apt for a city “where the American future is going to be worked out” in light of the nation’s new multiethnic and multireligious reality.
Houston has a story to tell — one about diverse religions co-existing and thriving in one city.It’s a tale with countless narrators, multiple interpretations and a number of interesting details, a story Rev. Greg Han, director of interfaith relations at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, hopes to spotlight.Han hosts the new “Interfaith Podcast Project,” which launched on Monday. Each show features an in-depth conversation with a member of one of Houston’s faith communities. Each series focuses on a particular topic.