Wire Service: RNS
As a high school boy in Minnesota, Joseph Peterson spent the late 1960s reading at the local library, passing over Mad Magazine or sci-fi novels in favor of ancient religious texts.
The scripture of the Zoroastrians -- the faith of the old Persian Empire -- captured the Christian teenager with its reverence for nature and belief that God created good but not evil.
"It was years before I would meet another Zoroastrian," he said. Donning a "sudra," or sacred white shirt tied with a chord, Peterson began to dress, pray and think of himself as a Zoroastrian. He was unaware, however, that he was entering a faith that forbids converts.
The religion's closed-door policy might be unremarkable if it was thriving. But Zoroastrianism, once a major religion considered by some experts to be the first monotheistic faith, is in danger of extinction with an estimated 160,000 adherents across the globe. A more generous estimate puts that figure at 276,000.
Today, Peterson, 52, is the only widely accepted convert in the United States. The few who recognized him as an equal sparked a fiery debate within Zoroastrianism when he was officially converted in 1983.