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Sharing the Faith

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Erin Eby, Natalie Wayne, Lauren Eby, Sophia Wayne

From left, Erin Eby, 10, Natalie Wayne, 9, Lauren Eby, 9 and Sophia Wayne, 10, enjoy participating in Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations together.

There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it. – George Bernard Shaw

This is a season full of holidays and, for many, religious rituals.

But as we celebrate our own faiths, there are also those who take the opportunity to share traditions with friends who believe differently.

Swati Narayan and Maria Yousuf

Swati Narayan (left) and Maria Yousuf share both friendship and a deep respect for one another's religious observances. (Photo: hartphoto.com)

The experience, they say, has opened their eyes to humanity’s commonalities and, along the way, made their holiday celebrations even richer.

As always, this fall, Swati and Rakesh Narayan, whose families moved here from India several decades ago, included friends from many faiths in their annual Diwali party.

For years, the couple have lived on a cul-de-sac, and Swati wanted to make the celebration “one big block party, just like you’d have in India.” After all, who wouldn’t enjoy a disc jockey who plays a dhol (traditional Indian drum)?

In a world where the mistrust of different faiths is the root of conflicts, the Narayans say, sharing religious celebrations is one gesture they can make towards dispelling misconceptions. Swati, naturally a bubbly person, said she sees similarities in religious celebrations.

“For Diwali, the Hindu New Year, we illuminate the house with diyas, which are lights in clay pots. This is our festival of lights, much like Jewish people have theirs in Hanukkah, and Christians put up lights to celebrate Christmas.”

Coupled with delicacies of saag paneer and a samosa station, she said, sharing new beginnings seems sweeter when done with friends, regardless of their beliefs.

Aman Narayan, Emaan Yousuf, Deven Narayan, Humza Yousuf, Ali Yousuf, Milan Narayan

The Narayan and Yousuf children enjoying sharing their different religious and cultural celebrations. Pictured clockwise from top are Aman Narayan (15) holding Emaan Yousuf (3 months), Deven Narayan (12), Humza Yousuf (2 ½ years), Ali Yousuf  (6) and Milan Narayan (6). (Photo: hartphoto.com)

The Narayans’ next-door neighbors, Abid and Maria Yousuf, are Muslim. The Yousufs extend hospitality in return with their Muslim festival of Eid. A special dinner follows a daytime prayer service, and Maria serves desserts to symbolize the sweetness of life.

“Eid is the day that follows the month of fasting from sunrise to sundown during Ramadan, so it is a big feast,” Abid said. Abid sees similarities between Eid and when Jews break their fast after Yom Kippur.

“Both Ramadan and Yom Kippur are a time for reflection, to understand and appreciate what we have as our blessings,” he said. Abid’s 6-year-old son, Ali, the oldest of the three Yousuf children and a first grader at The Kinkaid School, invited some classmates to Eid this year.

“It’s important for kids of different faiths to see we share a common bond,” said Abid.

Another local family also believes in interfaith sharing. Having raised five children and today the grandparents of six, Ann and Kenny Friedman are used to hosting big parties. Their Hanukkah celebrations are no exception.

“We have 20 menorahs all lit at the same time,” said Ann. “It’s quite a dramatic sight when they are all burning, but I must admit, last year, one candle fell and my table runner caught on fire. Then we truly had a blaze of light.”

The annual guest list includes a staple list of friends and family, including those of other faiths. “We read the story of Hanukkah so everyone there can understand why we are celebrating this festival, and then we sing songs. It is not unusual for a guest to play a Hanukkah melody on the piano, and then break out into a Christmas tune.”

In another interfaith tradition, Tricia and David “Bud” Eby’s friendship with Robin and Donald Wayne has become even stronger through their annual holiday exchange.

The Wayne girls, Sophia, 10, and Natalie, 9, who are Jewish, “can’t wait to go to the Ebys each year to decorate their Christmas tree,” said Robin.

Tricia puts on Christmas music and makes sure there are cookies. When it’s time for Hanukkah, the Eby girls, Erin, 10, and Lauren, 9, enjoy latkes and lighting the menorah with the Waynes. “It shows me that we are the same because we both celebrate with family and friends,” said Sophia.

Ann Friedman, Reylon Robinson, Alex Moorer, Dana Smith, Logan Belcher, Kaleb Wright

Ann Friedman includes friends of all faiths in her annual Hanukkah celebration. From left, front row: Ann Friedman, Reylon Robinson, Alex Moorer and Dana Smith. In back: Logan Belcher and Kaleb Wright.

Bill King, chair of Interfaith Ministries in Houston, which brings people of varying faiths together for dialogue and service, believes in sharing a meal with people of other faiths.

“You realize the great faiths share so many fundamental ideas,” said Bill, who is Christian. “We all share things common to the human experience – how our kids are going to get into college, what’s happening with interest rates. Even with faith issues, we find out everyone is searching for the same answers.”

Bill, wife Melissa and daughter Faith, 14, have shared celebrations such as Ramadan and Passover Seders with friends of other faiths.

“One thing I love about Houston is we’ve got every culture and religion here,” Bill said, “and people are very accepting of that.”

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