It’s been more than 25 years since I lived in Houston, but even in the early 1990s, it was quite the melting pot.
The city seemed evenly divided between black, Hispanic and white inhabitants and its religious diversity approached that of Los Angeles. And then there were the internationals. When I began my work at the Houston Chronicle in the mid-1980s, I was one of the few religion reporters covering Muslim immigrants, of which there were already a great deal in the country’s fourth largest city.
There was so much religion news happening in the area, the Chronicle hired two of us to be religion reporters. That was rare on newspapers.
Now the Los Angeles Times has chronicled what this apex of diversity looks like in the second decade of the 21st century. The place is even more diverse than I remember it and one of its greatest hallmarks is its religious melting pot. Not for nothing did Pope Francis award a cardinal’s hat –- first one ever in Texas- – to then-Archbishop Daniel DiNardo..
But did the left-coast Times include faith in its paean to Houston’s multi-ethnic diversity?
Take a guess.
The Margaret Long Wisdom High School soccer team hails from Central America, Mexico, Africa and points between. Its bench hums with Spanish, Kinyarwanda, Swahili and often English. But its real unifying language -- soccer, played hard -- is universal.
The high school is in southwest Houston, a city whose stunning growth and high-volume immigration have turned it into the most racially and ethnically diverse major metropolis in the country, surpassing New York in 2010.
“It’s really surprising to see a place like this in the South, where you consider it to be racist and xenophobic,” said Michael Negussie, a Wisdom High School senior from Ethiopia. “Stereotypes of Texas don’t apply here.”
Of course in some ways they still do. Houston -- with a black, Democratic mayor and a powerfully pro-immigrant population -- has potentially become one of the battlefronts in Texas over the city’s “don’t ask” ‘sanctuary policy,’ which prohibits police from inquiring about the immigration status of a person who hasn’t been arrested.
The idea of sanctuary originated back in the Old Testament and it's still a uniquely religious concept. But there's no mention here of any sanctuary churches in Houston. The story then introduces Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The story of how his city turned from a town of oil industry roughnecks and white blue-collar workers into a major political centrifuge for immigration reform, demographic analysts say, is nothing less than the story of the American city of the future.
So Houston, the story says, is only surpassed by New York and Los Angeles in numbers of undocumented immigrants and is what the rest of America will look like in coming decades.
The story goes on to tell of immigrant enclaves near my old residence at Westheimer and Hillcroft in west Houston. I probably wouldn’t recognize all the Indian restaurants there now and the Islamic Education Center (pictured with this article) is new since I lived in the area.
The article goes on to list statistics showing a 40-year turnaround in demographics. In 1970, 62.8 percent of the population was white, 10.6 was Hispanic, .7 was Asian and 25. 7 was black. Then there is today’s breakdown: White, 25.6 percent; Asian, 6 percent; black, 23.1 percent and Hispanic, 43.8.
Houston, Miami and Los Angeles are America’s top three Latino cities. But what did some of those Latinos bring? They helped bulk up the local Catholic diocese and added to some vibrant congregations, such as the Catholic Charismatic Center in east Houston. And others left the Catholic Church to attend mega-entities such as Lakewood Church, now America’s largest congregation at 52,000 people attending every weekend.
But there was nary a mention of any houses of worship this welter of immigrants could be attending. There was no mention of the city's Catholic seminary and University of St. Thomas, nor of the many huge Southern Baptist and United Methodist churches in the area.
So this part of the larger story was out there and very easy to see.
The article skimped on some other details. The white population within Houston's extensive city limits may have dropped, but I suspect those same whites are still there, only hiding out in suburbs like Katy, Pearland, Cypress, Sugar Land and The Woodlands. And yes, there’s a lot of African arrivals in Houston now, but what was it that brought them there and not to, say, Dallas? I never got an answer as to what about Houston draws immigrants.
My guesses: It is cheap to live there, it’s not far from the Mexican border and Texas these days has jobs. Have all these new arrivals from countries ranging from India to Iraq led to an explosion of Hindu temples and mosques?
The bottom line: There's no excuse for profiling a city in the midst of the Bible Belt and not mentioning religion.
Sometimes, when it comes to life and faith, the Los Angeles Times totally gets it. Other times, it's like they have no idea at all.