On any given night, every local government or school board meeting, public event or large-scale spectacle in Angelina County is likely to begin with a prayer from a pastor or one of the board’s presiding members.
It’s a scene that’s not uncommon across Texas.
However, many — but not all — followers of non-Christian faiths say they not only feel welcome, but accepted, in East Texas.
The church pages on Saturday in The Lufkin Daily News provide service information from 70 different Christian churches. The website for Love in the Name of Christ says the organization works with 75 churches countywide. The Lufkin/Angelina County Chamber of Commerce has 14 churches that are members, but little participation from any of the other congregations.
Texas is part of the Bible Belt, an informal region in the southern United States; the term is used to describe an area with conservative Protestant values.
The Pew Research Center’s religious composition of adults in Texas shows 77% are Christian, 4% are affiliated with non-Christian based faiths and 18% report no affiliation with any religion in particular.
The Association of Religion Data Archives is a free source of online information related to American and international religion.
Its 2010 survey showed Angelina County’s population in 2010 was 86,771 and that there were 156 congregations. Of that total, 54,040 — representing 62.3% of the population — were Christian church-goers.
The remaining 29,481 “unclaimed” individuals may not have been counted by their churches or answered ARDA’s survey, the association said.
The “other” types of religions the association worked with in Angelina included the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahá’í’s, Muslims and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. They also counted the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, which had 33 adherents.
Dr. Steven Feld, Judaism
Despite there being a small group in Angelina County, those who practice Judaism were not included in the ARDA census.
“We have a few Jews that are loosely affiliated,” Dr. Steven Feld, a practicing Jew in Lufkin, said. “For customs and holidays we get together — on holidays like Hanukkah or Passover — and have dinner and recite the traditional blessings.”
However, they do not actually have any traditional synagogues or places of worship between Houston and Tyler. Feld said that for a long time he took his children to Tyler for worship every weekend. This was often difficult for his family because it stretched them so thin, he said.
“On high holidays now, we’ll go — like on the night before Yom Kippur — to Tyler and attend the service there,” he said.
The Jewish community in East Texas is made up of individuals born into Judaism and those who converted, he said. He lived in Israel with his family while his children were young, and still maintains relationships with friends and family there, he said.
“It was very difficult when the children went from one language to another,” Feld said. “Especially when returning to the United States. My daughter was in second grade and didn’t know the difference between ‘B’ and ‘D.’”
His children were used to reading, writing and speaking in Hebrew while they lived there and the transition to the American school system was difficult. Another difficulty came when working with teachers and other children who were of a Christian faith, he said.
“There were times when it was difficult for my children because there were those who felt it was important for their salvation and safety to pray for them,” he said. “This was offensive, but it was with the best intentions. They didn’t realize it, and they were not trying to harm my children.”
He said the community has never been anything but welcoming to his family, if not occasionally misguided in their attempts to be so. But they were always able to communicate those problems and find a solution, he said.
Feld and his family have lived in the community for decades now, and have no interest in leaving, he said.
Kiran Patel, Hinduism
Kiran Patel said he found peace and acceptance in East Texas when he moved here 30 years ago.
He said he was grateful to find a home with welcoming arms after having faced prejudice in England, where he worked for several years.
Patel is one of the small group of practicing Hindus in East Texas. He was born in Kenya and moved to India as a child. He later moved back to Kenya and then moved to England to learn and work, he said.
“I’m not going to live anywhere else from now on,” he said while watching his children and grandchildren dance and play at the Navaratri Festival at the beginning of October.
“I’m going to live in East Texas,’’ Patel said. ‘‘I love it here. This is the best community I have found. So I don’t want to move from here. … They just take everybody as if they’re their own. This is my home. I don’t have any other home except East Texas.”
He is proud of the small temple he built in his home. He uses it to pray to various deities, including those representing fire, earth, water, air and a precious metal, he said. He doesn’t believe that there is a right or wrong God, but that they are all from the same source and should be respected as such.
“So you can say Jesus, that’s fine,” he said. “My God is Jesus, too. We don’t fight over a god. Because we know there is only one power in the world. Whatever name you choose, you can do it. So that is the whole idea of Hinduism.”
He said gods are like parents; everyone has the figurehead of a parent, but they all look and act differently. But while the people who are parents may be different, the figurehead is the same.
“If you look at those who practice Hinduism, we are the most tolerant of any other religion in the world,” he said. “We tolerate everything. To us, there is no good or bad, all religions are equal because we believe all gods are one.”
Sarah Bennett, pagan
Sarah Bennett sat on a park bench at the Ellen Trout Zoo Park, a small moon and star pendant gleaming from a chain around her neck. It’s one of several symbols that many pagans in the community use to identify each other, she said.
Between the various sects of pagans, there is a bustling community in Nacogdoches and Angelina counties, Bennett said, but many are scared to come “out of the broom closet” in Angelina County. Business owners, city workers, teachers and stay-at-home parents have seen their peers face backlash for their beliefs, Bennett said.
This is part of the reason why she presides as a spokeswoman and leader in the pagan community. She began by speaking to students working to become social workers at Stephen F. Austin State University and was later interviewed by The Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel.
“I was worried that my car would get keyed or something,” she said. “Instead, I actually got emails of support. I was surprised by that.”
She thinks Nacogdoches may be a little more accepting because of the university, though.
“We have several members from Angelina County who I speak with all the time,” she said. “They’re nervous about being in the public. And that’s understandable. They’re nervous about losing jobs, or if they’re job hunting, they don’t want it to show up when they Google their name. I’ve even known people who work for the city and they don’t want to be known because of job security.”
She said this community is extremely supportive of other types of religions outside of Christianity, but that welcoming attitude doesn’t extend to pagans or Wiccans.
“I want that. I wish we had that,” she said. “In high school I was really picked on for it. My principal even made fun of me for it. He got onto me about not bowing my head during prayer.”
She said that has improved for her personally as she’s become an adult. People are less likely to cause a scene, she said.
“There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions,” she said. “Social media has made it a little easier to be open about it, but it’s also allowed the spread of a lot of misinformation.”
She runs a Facebook group dedicated to pagans in East Texas where people can be open about their beliefs and ask questions when needed. For many people it works as a form of a “church community,” she said. They can connect for sabbats — which are pagan holidays — or for ritual needs in daily practices through the group, too.