Seeking the Light Within: A Day in the Life of a City of Faith
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Houston
1150 Brand Ln., Stafford
If God is in the detail, surely the divinities must smile on North America’s first traditional Hindu mandir. The gleaming white shrine and architectural marvel—built according to the eons-old Hindu architecture method of Vastu Shastra—features 33,000 individual stones hand-carved in India, painstakingly reassembled on the Stafford compound.
Past the shimmering reflecting pool and twin babbling fountains, at the top of the white stone steps, glass doors lead to the all-white inner sanctum of murtis—sacred images of deities and beloved gurus—while Hindu bhajans, or songs of devotion, emanate from white speakers. The micro-view of each intricate carving is stunning; the macro-view of the temple at dusk, breathtaking.
Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
1111 St. Joseph Pkwy., Downtown
“How awesome is this place!” reads the sign outside the Roman Catholic cathedral, quoting Genesis 28:17. At 32,000 square feet, this mega-structure of limestone and white marble encompasses an entire downtown Houston block. Equally looming is the presence of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, a rising media and clergy star who’s been tapped for international executive leadership by Pope Francis.
But there is intimacy within the colossal, Romanesque sanctuary that seats more than 1,800. In quiet faith, parishioners dab their fingers in holy water, bowing to the massive centerpiece crucifix. Before mass, the slightest footstep elicits a canyon-esque echo, fading away to reveal whispers of prayer.
Congregation Emanu El
1500 Sunset Blvd., Museum District
The simple, striking architecture of this congregation’s 1940s-era building is a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright—a perfect match with the reform synagogue’s approach, a modern take on Judaism. The sanctuary is one of the few in the South to feature an organ, and the temple was one of the first in the nation to house an art gallery, a regular fixture during FotoFest.
But most modern of all is the congregation itself, says Rabbi Oren Hayon (only the sixth in Emanu-El’s existence): “We have LGBT families, Jews of color, new Jews and blended families,” he says. “I think we’re a modern, accurate depiction of urban Jewish culture in the world today.”
Fifth Ward Church of Christ
4308 Stonewall St., Fifth Ward
The updated, earth-toned building just off the East Freeway is a symbol of a renewed Fifth Ward. Congregants dress to reflect that vitality: men in tailored suits, women in hats worthy of the Kentucky Derby.
Inside, Pastor Gary Smith strides the length of his stage and even into the crowd, preaching common-sense faith and empathy over smug piety, and eliciting laughs, too: He’s funnier than a Friday-night comic.
In keeping with Church of Christ tradition, the congregation is the choir. Worshippers effortlessly fall into their soprano, alto, baritone and bass hymnal parts, executing perfect, fluttering vibrato as they greet one another and scribble tithe checks. It's a stunning, glorious, joyful sound.
Gurudwara Sahib of Houston
5512 Breen Dr., Antoine Corridor
The scholarly Sukhchain Singh, a former law and English professor (and banker) leads the Katha—lessons of principles and history based on the 10 historic Sikh Gurus—to hundreds of Indian Sikh devotees each Sunday at this large white temple in North Houston.
Worship includes kirtan—traditional, devotional call-and-response hymns accompanied by a harmonium and tabla drums—and a langar, in which followers and visitors alike share a free vegetarian meal. A trip here offers a window into the enigmatic, egalitarian religion: reverence, self-discipline, and service to humanity are the faith’s pillars.
“We are spirit-warriors,” says the thickly bearded Singh. “To be Sikh is to seek God, and serve and protect the innocent, at all times.”
St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Church
24 Tidwell Rd., Northline
Tuzik, the old, adopted guard dog, yawns at arriving worshippers who view this church’s bright, metallic gold dome and cross as a beacon among the rush of traffic on Tidwell Road in Northline.
Lubov Stukalova is among the city’s 2,000 first- and second-generation Orthodox Russians who attend services here and consider St. Vladimir’s a community center as much as a reminder of life before the Soviet Union collapse. “To me, it is home,” she says simply, gesturing to the church’s hand-carved wooden altar, brass candle stands, statues and portraits of Orthodox saints.
In an effort worthy of Michelangelo, church leader Father Lubomir Kupecz, who’s also an iconographer, is raising funds so that he himself may paint an altar mural featuring Orthodox and Biblical imagery.
Trinity Lutheran Church
800 Houston Ave., Sixth Ward
Established in 1879, Trinity heads a mission to provide daily meals for downtown’s homeless, many of whom fit their entire worldly possessions under the pew as they join Sunday worship alongside families who drive to this historic congregation from across the city.
The church is known for its music, with the mammoth organ—which boasts more than 3,000 pipes, some of them 20 feet high—serving as chief instrument of faith. Its powerful C major chord produces a pew-vibrating, body-rumbling blast that Trinity CFO Ron Lacy describes simply as “transcendent.”
As added music outreach, each morning at 7:45, the church’s 25 carillon pipes serenade beleaguered Houstonians rushing to judgment at the neighboring City of Houston Municipal Courts.
Vietnam Buddhist Center
10002 Synott Rd., Sugar Land
Like a spiritual Statue of Liberty, the center’s 72-foot polished concrete sculpture of Quan Âm is a pillar of healing for Vietnamese communities displaced from their homeland—indeed, for anyone seeking refuge from life’s struggles.
The sprawling grounds are tranquil, incense-infused, transporting: A bridge over a pond leads to various shrines and sculpture gardens featuring the aforementioned Quan Âm (one of Buddhism’s most revered divinities, or bodhisattvas), a sleeping Buddha, and a three-story pagoda housing a traditional gong.
Though the Center’s main sanctuary is being rebuilt after collapsing in 2014, undaunted Vietnamese worshippers attend Sunday services and Tuesday and Friday chants in the Dharma Hall. Buddhist or not, all are invited to meditate amid the palm trees and ethereal icons.
Islamic Da’wah Center
201 Travis St., Downtown
In 1994, Hakeem Olajuwon purchased the Doric-columned Houston National Bank with the aim of preserving the grand monolith and creating an urban Islamic center. It became Houston’s first downtown mosque upon opening in 2002, as well as the city’s first da’wah center, which welcomes non-Muslims. Hundreds pack in each Friday for prayer, while others attend daily tours to marvel at the 40,000-square-foot structure.
A new library, built in 2015, merges modern and Islamic design with white marble, traditional arches, mashrabiyas (ornate wooden latticework) and teak furnishings. That, along with a planned Islamic art and history center, says executive director Ameer Abuhalimeh, will “present Islam in its purest form: moderation, balance and mercy.”