Many newcomers have questions about what worship is like in Austin. The city certainly has a distinct culture all its own built on diversity and eclectic traditions. Many of those traditions however stem from a mostly Christian Texas. So what does the overall landscape of Austin’s worship communities look like?
It is difficult to know just how many followers of each religion there are in Austin. There is no census of religion and many Austinites have spiritual beliefs that are impossible to categorize into a specific religion. Austin’s competitive economy has attracted a large diverse multicultural and — overall — young population over the last 25 years giving the landscape of worship in Austin a complexity and diversity uncommon to many other cities. A religiously diverse city Austin is home to worshippers of Christ Buddhism Judaism Islam and many others. Overall Austin’s laidback and eclectic culture spills into religion as much as it does any other element of Austin life though the oldest traditions have not disappeared.
Austin’s Historical Houses of Worship
As one can imagine early Austin pioneers and settlers practiced either Catholicism or Christianity. Not surprisingly then Austin’s oldest church building is St. David’s Episcopal Church and today is located on 8th St. near San Jacinto Blvd. in Downtown Austin. The church was built in 1853 and housed two merged congregations The Christ Church Austin congregation (which began meeting in 1847) and the Church of the Epiphany (founded in 1857). This united parish split over disagreements about the Civil War leaving one parish without a rector and the other without a church. The church got its modern name of St. David’s when the building inspired a second unification of the parishes in 1866. In addition to services and community events St. David’s welcomes newcomers with a welcome dinner and introductory classes on the Christian Faith and Episcopal Church.
Around the time St. David’s was getting started a catholic community began meeting at St. Patrick’s church in the 1850s. In 1872 the congregation renamed St. Mary’s Catholic Church moved to a newer building in 1872 in what is now Downtown Austin and remains one of Austin’s oldest churches. Today St. Mary’s offers 18 masses per week and walk-in or appointment based confession. The church also offers wedding and pre-marriage counseling services confirmation and instruction in Latin.
Not long after worshipers of Christ put down roots in Austin followers of Judaism began to openly worship. The oldest and largest Jewish congregation in Austin is Congregation Beth Israel. Early congregation members met in 1876 using the mayor’s office as a makeshift synagogue and were not able to build a synagogue of their own until 1957. The congregation’s synagogue is now located in Rosedale and offers Friday night and Saturday morning services youth and adult learning services and community service groups.
Exploring a Modern Faith
Today the landscape of Austin is still made up of traditional religious buildings but also includes many inter-congregational groups not attached to any one house of worship as well as resources which encourage worshipers to ask questions about themselves and their faith. One of these resources is exploregod.com. The site encourages anyone to ask hard-hitting questions about the Christian faith and answers them in artistic videos featuring “a bunch of really smart people to help us put together some legit answers.” Explore God is a campaign made up of over 300 Austin churches designed to increase spiritual awareness and prompt curiosity and non-threatening discussion of the Christian faith. It is the largest most unified effort in history to raise spiritual awareness in Greater Austin.
Taking Catholic worship in a modern direction is Our Lady’s Maronite Church. While the church is celebrating 30 years in the Austin community the parish is as diverse as Austin is. Our Lady’s Father Don Sawyer says “[Our Lady’s Maronite Church] is different than any other church and Austin is fertile ground for it.” The parish is made up of people from all over Austin including worshipers from 27 different countries — some of whom call Father Don “coach” for his encouraging and supporting role in their relationships with God. In Our Lady of Maronite Austinites from any background can feel close to God.
Christians looking for a worship experience as unique as Austin will find the Evangelist Vox Veniae is an excellent choice. Vox Veniae started out as a church for Chinese-Americans in 2006 but quickly became multiracial. The church meets in what used to be an after-hours B.Y.O.B. club and is also used as a yoga studio art gallery and Wifi-equipped work-space. Services are lead by Rev. Gideon Tsang a Toronto native with tattoos who preaches from a stool instead of a pulpit. Non-traditional services which include a six-piece band and always begin with gourmet coffee-brewing fit right in with Austin’s eclectic reputation.
Austin is also home to places for progressive Jews to worship as well like the Congregation Kol Halev. Kol Halev meaning “voice of the heart” emphasizes inclusive meaningful and joyful rituals accessible to both Hebrew and English speakers. The Congregation also features services like a unique B’nai Mitzvah program that focuses on individual study and varied Shabbat services. It is located in Southpark Meadows in south Austin.
Another great resource for Jewish Austinites is the Jewish Community Association of Austin. While not actually a worship group the JCAA is a community of Jewish people brought together by the common goal of helping others. The JCAA is not attached to any one synagogue and offers various arts and fitness classes family and youth services and community events for professional and social groups. “In Austin you can find your religious home no matter who you are and what your background” says Rabbi Rebecca Epstein. Rabbi Epstein and Lital Yaacob run the Outreach and Engagement program at JCAA which acts as a “concierge” to the Jewish community especially for those new to Austin and looking to get involved.
In the Christian Community one group that continues to stand out and reaches out to worshipers from any church is the Austin Christian Fellowship. Like the JCAA The ACF focuses on uniting Christians in the service of others. “Christianity has never been a spectator’s sport – Jesus has called us each to make a difference where we are” says ACF Pastor Steve Shaver. The ACF has three campuses around Austin instead of one centralized campus where they offer worship services alongside opportunities to join other Christians in community service.
While Judeo-Christian faiths dominate worship in Austin progressive worship is populated by the Buddhist communities. The Austin Shambhala Meditation Center in the neighborhood of Bouldin teaches Shambhala Buddhism which comes from Tibet. The center emphasizes bringing meditation and peace into one’s everyday life over retreating from the world in order to meditate. Director Billy Boyar in an interview with KOOP Radio Station said that rather than focusing on “religious” traditions The Austin Shambhala Meditation Center focuses on finding and developing one’s “basic goodness” and radiating that outward into the community as “compassion.” Shambhala welcomes anyone who is interested in Buddhism meditation or living a mindful existence.
An Interfaith Connection
With Austin’s growing religious diversity there has also been a developing trend toward interfaith groups which encourage participation from members of all religions. Most Austin interfaith centers focus on bringing people of any faith together for a shared goal like supporting the arts promoting open dialogue among many faiths or fighting for religious freedom.
The Interfaith Arts Council (IAC) for example unifies people of different faiths by emphasizing art and music as common elements of any religion. According to their website they believe that “as an intrinsic component of most religious ethnic and social traditions inspired art holds infinite promise as an effective global vehicle to seek commonalities and advance understanding among people of all nations.” The IAC has sponsored such music artists as Gospel artist Cynthia Clawson Native American flutist Aaron Pyle and national recording artist Rabbi Joe Black. Religious diversity and Austin’s love for music combine to create an interfaith community that promotes peace and unity across faiths in the IAC.
With a similar goal the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest strives to promote peace and understanding through open communication between people of different faiths. The institute features lectures on various religions such as Buddhism Islam Mormonism and Baptism which anyone who is interested in learning about another faith can attend. Other programs include Dialogue Dinners which focus on getting people of different–and often conflicting–faiths to learn more about each other and youth programs aimed at inspiring young people to respect and celebrate religious diversity.
Another interfaith organization with a strong presence in Austin is The Texas Freedom Network (TFN) which combines Austin’s diversity and a Texan value of fighting for one’s freedom. More political than many other interfaith organizations TFN focuses on promoting laws and policies that ensure religious freedom in education and civil liberties. The city’s religious landscape would be incomplete without this organization to bring Austin’s diversity of worship to the capitol building.
There are dozens of interfaith organizations in Austin striving to continue a culture of freedom and diversity–which may say more about Austin’s religious acceptance than the numbers of religion-specific communities out there.
There are hundreds of worship communities in Austin from small prayer groups and meet-ups to sprawling synagogues and temples. There are also many Austinites who do not necessarily identify with any one particular religion but are very spiritual–evidenced by the number of interfaith groups in the city. Then there are those Austinites who strive to live their lives based on peaceful rationality and science: the atheists who have a presence equal to many religious communities. When it comes to worship Austin really does have something for everyone.
Austin is known as the most liberal progressive and diverse city in Texas for reasons that are far more complex than simple religion. Over the last century historic world events Austin’s music scene and its booming economy have attracted an eclectic group of people to the city who in turn have brought religious diversity to a city once home mainly to Christians and Catholics. “There now exists this great cooperation between bodies of faith in the city of Austin” says Pastor Shaver of the ACF. Though Austin has come a long way toward religious tolerance the city’s journey is not over. Christianity still dominates the city’s religious landscape and there are those who still feel the need to keep silent about their beliefs for fear of ridicule discrimination and even violence. Nevertheless the general outlook is hopeful. Austin is one of America’s fastest growing cities because now more than ever the city draws young diverse people looking to start new lives. If that’s not fodder for growing religious diversity and acceptance what is?