Zoroastrian Association of Houston/The Zarthushti Heritage and Cultural Center

This profile was last updated in 2003

History

The Zoroastrian (Parsi) community in South Asia has long had a reputation for education, industriousness, and adaptability. When members of the community first reached Houston in the early 1970s, they demonstrated those same qualities, very quickly finding their own niche in Houston society.

The Zoroastrian Association of Houston (ZAH) was first registered in 1975, consisting at that time of around fifteen members. These members gathered in each other’s houses on important religious days and casually for social fellowship. The commmunity quickly grew, as members brought spouses from home and family members would visit from India or Pakistan and decide to relocate. Because most growth was due to family influence, the Zoroastrian population in Houston is mostly split between Parsis from Pakistan (mainly Karachi) and Indian Parsis (usually from Bombay), although there is a large Iranian minority. As more Zoroastrians immigrated to America, the ZAH began formalizing meetings and renting meeting space. Finally, in 1996, they built their own meeting hall and prayer room; a second phase of construction, consisting of Sunday school rooms, a library, and an atrium, was completed in early 2002.

Sunday School

Sunday School is not a typical activity in Asian or Middle Eastern Zoroastrian congregations because children imbibe the traditions and beliefs from constant exposure; however the Houston community quickly realized a need for religious education in America. While the program’s main function is to keep American-born children knowledgable about and interested in the community, it also serves to support and educate older members. Sunday School began as a “one room schoolhouse” with toddlers and grandparents participating together at monthly meetings in members’ houses. Within a few years, this impractical situation was remedied by dividing the larger community by age group.

Currently there are several separate Sunday School classes at the ZAH complex on the second Sunday of each month, followed by a youth group meeting. There is also a Zarthushti study group on the final Sunday of each month. Students of all ages learn Avestan and Persian prayers and study the myths and theology of Zoroastrianism.

Activities and Schedule

Almost the entire congregation will gather for religious events several times a year. Zoroastrian services are mostly non-participatory, with priests conducting the entire ceremony, although there are occasional group prayers. The ZAH has several part-time priests but does not have the financial ability to support a full-time priest, which would be required in order to have a consecrated fire temple (there are none in all of North America). While the construction of the center has been key for group cohesion, members feel that a fire temple would create a greater unity and be a focal point for religious activities.

Many religious activities are not purely within the congregation: members are involved in World Zoroastrian Conferences, participate in Houston’s many interfaith events, take part in Asia Society functions, and are often asked to speak at Unitarian and other churches.
Not every ZAH event is religious in nature. In 1999 they helped found a branch of the World Zarthushti Chamber of Commerce, an organization that runs a database of names of Zoroastrians in various professions in order to encourage Zoroastrians to support their coreligionists. Additionally, the Zarathushti Investment Group (ZIP) meets monthly.
The ZAH holds SAT classes for its student members and proudly announces high school and college graduations in its monthly online newsletter. There are several sports teams which compete with each other and with other Houston teams. There are congregation parties and outings as well as community service events such as tree planting days.

Concerns and Hopes for the Future

Houston’s Zoroastrian community has not attracted any outside antagonism or obstacles, but members warn of internal frictions. Most transplanted communities overcome many of the divisions present in the original community, but some main issues always remain contentious. ZAH Pakistanis, Indians, and Iranians display very little of the nationalism or political divisions so prevalent in their home countries, but they do have heated arguments over topics troubling the faith worldwide.

High levels of education tend to correlate with low birth rates. As in Asia, Western Zoroastrians, usually very well-educated, tend to have significantly below replacement numbers of children. Most of the growth in ZAH is from immigration, and members wonder how long the immigration flow will continue.
A greater cause for concern is the loss of existing members or their children. Mainstream Zoroastrianism considers itself an ethnic religion and does not allow for membership growth through conversion, and typically fire temples and prayer halls are not open to non-Zoroastrians. The Houston prayer hall is open to everyone, by community decision, but this policy has its strong opponents, several of whom refuse to attend if they feel the purity of their experience might be compromised. Intermarriage is generally forbidden in the East and is strongly discouraged in America. The moderate American position, held by many ZAH members, would allow the non-Zoroastrian spouse to attend meetings and would gladly accept the offspring into the religious fold. However, several priests and lay members refuse to accept anyone with mixed background. One very orthodox Houston-area priest will not allow Zoroastrians who married out of the community to attend his ceremonies. Given the small size of the congregation and the low birth rate, many young adults (and their parents) see intermarriage as very likely; exclusionary policies like these are seen by the some members as a serious threat to the continued existence of the community.
Despite these concerns, most Houston Zoroastrians remain optimistic. The moderate position holds a comfortable majority and is supported by nearly all the second generation. A few students from the ZAH recently founded a Zoroastrian Students’ Association at the University of Texas to counter the trend for college students to drift away from their religious background. A fundraiser is currently being held to create and improve a library at the center in order to provide easy resources for members eager to learn more about their faith. The community boasts of many leading Houston figures, including author Bapsi Sidhwa (Cracking India), and has found a solid place in America.