Fair Trade Market

Think of a product you purchased recently. Do you know where it was made, or by whom? Did you know everyday purchases can have a positive impact on the world? When we buy fair trade products, we are profoundly benefiting the lives of artisans and farmers around the globe who operate under fair trade principles while making their wares.

Fair trade products are handmade by artisans and farmers who are producing beautiful, high-quality goods including bags, jewelry, home goods, candles, scarves, ornaments, olive oil, coffee, chocolate, spices and a variety of items. Every product is unique and not mass produced. The purchase of a fair trade item allows one to form a link with the person who made it. The goods usually feature a handwritten nametag and sometimes even a picture of the artisan themselves. The Fair Trade Federation regulates the fair trade movement in North America; it creates opportunities intended to alleviate poverty by strengthening and promoting only organizations that are fully committed to complying with fair trade principles. The Federation ensures that farmers and artisans are compensated promptly and fairly for their hard work; it also safeguards the rights of children, respects their cultural identity, and promotes environmental stewardship.

Kristen Welch is a blogger and published author who has been a fair trade pioneer in our community. Ten years ago, she founded Mercy House, which funds a maternity home in Kenya, which rescues pregnant girls from extreme poverty through partnerships, teaching them sustainable, fair trade practices. Later, she opened Mercy House Global Market, a nonprofit fair trade retail store with two locations in The Woodlands. Here she is educating people about the differences between a fair trade product and something they purchase from a big box store.

“We see fair trade as a way to come alongside people without giving them a handout, it is more of a hand up, giving them an opportunity, by providing them jobs so they can solve their own problems,” commented Welch. When we purchase products that are made according to fair trade principles, we are empowering women and minorities, by purchasing affordable, high‑quality products. We are cutting out exploitative intermediaries who hold an unfair advantage over the vendors, thereby increasing the margins earned by these social enterprises, supporting their families and the wider community.

“Everything has a special story,” said Lisa Rose while describing some of the beautiful quilling crafts inside Hands of Faith, a nonprofit fair trade store located in the Lord of Life Lutheran Church. Rose is the Chair of the Hands of Faith Committee, and she leads the volunteer-only store that works with crafters and producers in over 30 countries. “Fair trade is a way of helping people in a way that is sustainable, giving them a skill and a sense of pride in being able to create something that someone would like to buy, not just because it is supporting a good ministry but because it’s an item people actually want to purchase,” she added.

Another store in The Woodlands is The Trading Co., a fair trade shop operated by The Woodlands Church. Caroline Shook, a store representative and active member of the congregation, emphasized the importance and honor they feel being able to serve the community locally and internationally through their store. “We want to make sure that the fair trade vendors we work with have the core beliefs that we share, that they are faith-based, that our missions align. We want to love the artisans even if we don’t have direct contact with them,” Shook remarked.

These local options allow one to buy with purpose, to give back, by shopping for gifts or themselves. “I think people primarily are compassionate; they want to be a part of making a difference when purchasing things that help people. They just don’t necessarily know how to find them or source them,” mentioned Welch. Every purchase makes a difference because, through the collective efforts, it fuels entrepreneurship and provides stability and well-being to entire families and their surrounding communities. Every time one picks a fair trade item, it is a step towards the eradication of global poverty, and we contribute to increased global equality.

Article by: Ana Beatriz Priego

Hindu Temple

India is a country with multiple languages, subcultures, culinary styles and traditions, so when the Hindu Temple of The Woodlands began operating in 2011, one of the first questions the founding members began to address was: How do we bring people together? They quickly realized that the way to do that was through shared experiences.

Given that Hindu culture and religion are expansive and expressed in various ways, the members of the Temple needed a way to connect despite their different beliefs. To do that, they established three guiding principles: the expression of their collective faith, preserving and enhancing knowledge and culture, and community service. Rather than homogenizing the traditions in the Temple, they respect and keep these separate distinctions but celebrate together.

Indian Festivals

The congregation had their first Woodlands’ Holi festivity in 2011, Holi is an ancient Hindu festival of colors celebrating the coming of spring. The Temple has seen attendance grow from 150 people in 2011 to 2,500 in 2019. Holi is unique because it celebrates music, food, color and diversity; the festival symbolizes love and friendship and people from all walks of life can enjoy it.

The Temple also holds an annual Diwali festival honoring light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance, all of which are values that can be universally appreciated. Diwali is celebrated by the Temple every autumn for two days, based on the lunar and solar calendars.

“We are trying to create the complete Indian experience in the Temple and are expecting 5,000 people this year,” mentioned Sudharsan Arunachalam, President of the Temple’s Executive Committee. All of the food offerings are homemade and made from scratch by volunteers. Attendees dress up in beautiful attire, enjoy food and sweets, exchange gifts and pray for the general well-being of the community and their families. People have many different ways of celebrating Diwali, as each region of India has a myriad of customs and traditions. Given the diversity of the Temple’s members, the holiday can be enjoyed by Hindus and Non-Hindus alike.

Diwali and Holi, as well as the other festivals celebrated by the Hindu Temple of The Woodlands, are all about multicultural exchange. Every member of the community is welcome to join in, free of charge, and enjoy an enriching experience with their family and neighbors, including live performances and activities that epitomize the incredibly vast range of Indian culture.

A Center for Culture and Devotion

“Hinduism is a set of beliefs; it is a platform of expression rather than a religion and the Temple welcomes people of all faiths,” mentioned Praveen K. Gottipati, Chairman of the Temple’s Board of Trustees. The Temple offers many activities: yoga and meditation classes as a platform for higher reality and enlightenment, youth and senior programs, as well as Hindi, Sanskrit and other Indian language classes. They also offer classical Indian dance, percussion and vocal singing lessons.

“We are so excited to see so many people do yoga with us, celebrate festivals with us, get some education about what we are doing; it’s a wonderful way that we are progressing as a community within the larger community,” mentioned Beth Beckwith Kulkarni, an American-Hindu and volunteer worker who was recently awarded the Lifetime Community Service Award by Hindus of Greater Houston for being an active community member for over 40 years.

The Temple is operated by volunteers, and relies on monetary donations and time contributions. Throughout the years, an active gardening community has formed among the congregation. The herbs and vegetables that they grow are used for their Annadanam Program, where every Sunday, 150 volunteers cook a meal and serve about 150 devotees and visitors.

Showing remarkable long-term vision and care for the environment, the Board of Trustees and Hindus in our community are working to protect the future of the planet. The Hindu Temple is environmentally friendly, gets its energy from solar panels, and has replaced plasticware with biodegradable plates in all of their festivities. Recently, the Temple had to remove some trees to make room for new facilities, but with the help of their youth program participants and The Woodlands Township, they have planted over 1,000 new trees.

To expand and offer additional programs and services to the community, soon the Hindu Temple will start construction of a new building. It will have a multipurpose hall for performances, events, dance recitals, concerts and more. It will also have a full kitchen, seating area and activity rooms. “Indian celebrations mean cooking, eating, and dancing,” said Rashmi Gupta, a Hindu Temple board member and resident of The Woodlands for 22 years. Gupta exemplifies the Temple’s success in bringing the community together by building bridges of understanding and acceptance. “I feel very close, and I feel the whole community as a family,” she remarked.

The Hindu Temple members invite families in The Woodlands to come out and experience the next Diwali Festival on October 19th and the Holi Festival in March of 2020.

Article by: Ana Beatriz Priego

Faiths Together

FaithsTogether is a group of community members and leaders that seeks to promote unity within The Woodlands while celebrating religious differences through respectful dialogue. Created in response to social injustice concerns, a group of concerned individuals from various faith communities came together to discuss how best to address these important issues. FaithsTogether was formed with the leadership of Reverend Charles Hendricks of The Woodlands Presbyterian Church, Rabbi James Brandt of Congregation Beth Shalom and representatives of twelve other faith communities, including Hindu Community, Unity Christian Truth Center, Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church, Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church, Northwoods Unitarian Universalist, Christ Church United Methodist, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church and Lord of Life Lutheran Church.

FaithsTogether’s founding mission defines the group as “a fellowship of religious communities, which honors spiritual diversity by building relationships and understanding among people of different faiths.” The original committee decided that the best way to initiate unity in our community was to coordinate an event in the month of November around the idea of thankfulness. The first Giving Thanks Observance was held in the same year, hosted by The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church. According to Reverend Charles Hendricks, the church’s lead pastor at the time, Mr. George Mitchell was in attendance and commented that “this is what The Woodlands should be.”

Since then, the annual Observance has rotated to different faith communities each year, with annual themes such as “Healing Our Lives,” “We are Neighbors,” “Getting to Know You—We Are Once in Community” and “Celebrating Faith and Friends.” Current committee member Sherri Duchin shared, “One of my personal favorite programs was when we looked at the role of our religious faiths in life cycle events such as birth, coming of age, weddings and funerals. We hosted this observance at Congregation Beth Shalom, and the Hindu community walked the audience through a Hindu wedding that was meaningful, colorful and musical!”

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Giving Thanks Observance, and FaithsTogether will mark this special occasion by returning to the original location at The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church. The annual Giving Thanks Observance is a beautiful time of fellowship and celebrating the human spirit, and it is proof that people of different faiths can worship together. The opening of each observance is special in its own right: after a welcome from the hosting clergy, the “shofar” is sounded, a ram’s horn that is often used in Judaism to stir one’s conscience; the Islamic call to prayer is recited in its distinctive rhythmic and lyrical verse; and the “shankha,” or conch shell, is blown to symbolize the sacred syllable Om in Hinduism.

Having experienced the Observances myself, I can attest that these three actions of faith really create an atmosphere of worship and unity, and they set the stage for a parade of faith expressions among people with a common conviction to understand and love their neighbors. During the Observance, each faith practice performs or presents something significant to their faith at the time, but some of the most special performances are the inter-religious presentations like a youth choir or skit. Witnessing the next generation embracing faith traditions other than their own, in an expression of loving tolerance and respect for their peers, is a reminder of why The Woodlands is such a unique community. Carol East, Founder and current committee member of FaithsTogether, shared her favorite moment of the annual observance: “My most meaningful memories of . . . FaithsTogether’s [Giving Thanks Observance] have occurred at every gathering for 19 years. While sitting in the midst of a group representing at least 13 faith communities, I sensed and personally experienced overwhelming, palpable feelings of joy, acceptance, respect and unconditional love among everyone present.”

More recently, FaithsTogether has tried to enhance interfaith dialogue and relationship building beyond the annual Observance. Jan Chapell, current committee member, stated, “The value of building relationships with people outside of your faith opens the door for comfortable conversations.” Last year, all the youth religious leaders in the community, as well as youth from their faith communities, came together for a night of fellowship. Some other inter-faith events have included members of FaithsTogether lecturing for a World Religion class for Lone Star College’s Life Long Learning Academy each year. They have also invited faith communities to serve the community together in different ways. One way they do this is to volunteer together. For example, they have volunteered the past two years for a Montgomery County Food Fair, a mobile food panty held at Woodforest Stadium. A dinner dialogue was held in 2016 at a committee member’s home, where 40 guests were invited to share a meal and part take in and lead Islamic conversation with their neighbors from other faith practices.

The 20th annual Giving Thanks Observance will be held Tuesday, November 13, 2018 at 7 p.m. at The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church, and you are personally invited to come and experience the wonder and beauty of this unique event.

If you would like to learn more about FaithsTogether, please email Sherri Duchin at faithstogetherthewoodlands@gmail.com

Architecture in The Woodlands



During the 1970s, Reverend Don Gebert, the first Executive Director of Interfaith of The Woodlands, literally knocked on every incoming resident’s door to help gather the necessary information to establish support services in The Woodlands. That information would also help religious leaders decide when they had enough people to start up a new congregation. Fast-forward and The Woodlands is now home to over 60 religious facilities and places of worship. There is a variety of religious architecture commonly found in newer communities, and they all serve a common purpose which is to express religious beliefs and aesthetic choices. They also are built within the constraints of economic capacity.  


An educational film produced in 1958 by the American Institute of Architects and designed for church building committees was titled A Place to Worship. It puts the building of more recent religious facilities into perspective and says, “Since the beginning of history, man has devoted his best creative ability to building his place for worship. In each period of his history, he has built his temple in the spirit of his time.” The Woodlands is fortunate there are so many wonderful options and different faiths found in the community. Here, we visited just four examples of very different religious building types and spaces. 



The Woodlands United Methodist Church 


As one drives through The Woodlands, it’s hard to miss The Woodlands United Methodist Church. The site was selected along Lake Woodlands to promote visibility and accessibility within The Woodlands community. Dr. Ed Robb was called by George Mitchell to be founding pastor of the church in 1978. Since then, it has become one of the fastest-growing churches in United Methodism with present membership exceeding 12,400 and an average worship attendance of 5,200. Architect Ted Lancaster of Lancaster & Associates credits the success of the design to his great relationship and collaboration with the committee and Robb who had a specific vision for a Mediterranean-style church. The site selection and orientation of the plan were decided in order to preserve the view of the church from the lake coming over the bridge from Lake Woodlands Drive. Ceremonial entrances and moments of contemplation are dispersed throughout the well-manicured campus that is also home to several other buildings offering different worship styles and an education center. The main cupola was designed to sit 115 feet up, on top of the sanctuary, and can be seen from the approach at Grogan’s Mill Road and is also now visible from the Hughes Landing mixed-use development. Stone wainscoting details around the base of the building were designed to provide an inviting sense of warmth and character. Fountains and arches lead you through the main building which was built in phases – the last of which was just completed, a worship chapel and expanded coffee shop and restaurant with a book store. The interior hosts a large variety of community activity throughout the week and was programmed around organizational strategies to accommodate both playing children and quiet adult worship. Open spaces feature warm green and brown tones to offer a gracious and welcoming environment. The main sanctuary has the capacity for 2,200, has built-in video projections and accommodates acoustical variety for both contemplative and larger-scale worship. Within the main building, there is also a smaller 300-seat worship chapel and a small prayer chapel. 


Congregation Beth Shalom 

As you enter the wooded property at Shadowbend Place off of Woodlands Parkway, you are greeted with two buildings set in a peaceful natural setting. Meditation gardens and an expansive outdoor leisure area surround the original structure. The original building, which houses the sanctuary, offices and education wing, was first purchased in 1998 and later renovated under former Rabbi James Brandt. Rabbi Brandt studied architecture and, therefore helped establish and set the tone for the “village square”  concept for which the layout of the sanctuary is modeled. 


As the congregation expanded throughout the years, the original building could no longer solely support the growing social services and large gatherings. According to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, “Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands addresses the diverse backgrounds of all its member families. The membership works to integrate Jewish values into daily life while interacting with the greater community to promote a relationship of common purpose and understanding.” The need for a larger, community-driven space was a natural progression for the congregation to plan and build. The stone clad social hall was built in 2005 with the help of Huffco, a design build firm, under the guidance of the dedicated members of the building committee and many fundraising campaigns. Rabbi Jan Brahms was hired in 2003 and strongly supported the capital campaign and helped realize the mission of the new building. The newer structure now houses the social hall, library, conference room, youth group lounge and kitchen. It was noted by the committee at the building dedication in 2004 that the process of fundraising and planning was just as memorable as the moment of the ribbon cutting. 


There is an abundance of holy art that finds its way throughout both buildings that sets the tone and unites the multi-purpose campus. Barbara Andes, the chair of the Art and Architecture Committee, helps curate all of the pieces that come mostly through the generosity of its members. When a congregation is so generous and willing to donate on so many aspects, that is when an Art and Architecture Committee is needed. “We all want decor and adornment that adds to our spiritual and emotional experiences that take place there, and many people have been willing to dig deep into their pockets when called upon to make that happen,” Andes shared. One donated area of work is inside the ark in the sanctuary where the Torahs are housed. Andes said, “We commissioned both a Torah cover and a curtain to close the ark. We commissioned all of the furniture on the Bimah, the raised area in the sanctuary.” Within the social hall, there is a full-scale mural painted by acclaimed artist Natalie Rottet from Houston. The mural depicts the Wailing Wall and Lions Gate, an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Art provides a backdrop for
High Holy Day services, social gatherings, and meetings. “The sanctuary’s stained glass windows which symbolically represent kedush, which means holy, were named and conceived with the help of Rabbi Brahms,” Andes shared. 


Clearly, Congregation Beth Shalom has come a long way from when it first began as a small gathering space to now providing an enriching educational experience for its members and visitors alike.  


The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church 

“A church building speaks. What it will say to the community and the world depends upon the studies and the conclusions of the building committee. The edifice may well say less, but it can say no more than the builders believe.”  -Edward S. Frey in This Before Architecture 


The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church resides unimposingly on a natural wooded site tucked in the middle of The Woodlands. The parish first worshiped in their multi-purpose building, which is now their Christian Education building, prior to the construction of their new building and sanctuary. The first worship in the new sanctuary took place in December 1996 and was initiated by a memorable sermon given by Rev. Charles Hendricks visually walking the congregation through their new space. His sermon can be found in the book The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church: A Twenty-Five Year History of Ministry and Mission, written by Reverend Hendricks and Sally Lichtenwalter that was released in September 2016. Co-author and original founding member of the church, Lichtenwalter recalls the experience, “The vision for the architecture of the church was first carefully examined by the building expansion committee and then thoughtfully executed by the architects Merriman/Holt of Houston. Expressing the Presbyterian faith through form, their aim would be to reflect both Christ’s presence and the community formed by Him  in the architecture of our sanctuary. We wish to reflect both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the cross, the central Christian symbol.”  


It is impossible not to acknowledge the success of their vision and the resulting feeling of inclusion reflected in every detail of the building. As one enters the wooded campus, a prayer garden, in memory of Keith Lichtenwalter, leads you to an exterior coffee bar, which was intended to encourage social contact before and after a service. As you pass through the Narthex, you enter the large but intimate fan-shaped sanctuary that comfortably accommodates up to 700 seats. Views to the front are preserved by the slight slope down all while creating ample room for children and elderly to have accessibility, flexibility and freedom of movement. Flexible chancel furniture creates a multi-purpose community space when needed. An abundance of windows are strategically placed to reflect the connection to the indoor and outdoor spaces while allowing natural light to fill the space. As noted in Hendricks sermon, “They allow us to see out into the world, even as we worship.” The light diffuses through the colorful stained glass that centers the sanctuary through a gesture symbolic of the creation.  


StoneBridge Church 

StoneBridge is one of the most modern congregations in The Woodlands. Ted Lancaster of Lancaster & Associates also built the 51,000 square feet facility. He again cites that his working relationship with the client added to the success of the design. Lancaster shared, “Considerable credit must be given to Becky Canterbury, the children’s minister, who was a practicing architect prior to becoming a permanent member of the church staff. Becky was a great visionary, and much of the playfulness of the architecture can be attributed to her input.”  

Prior to the new building that was completed in 2006, StoneBridge met at The Woodlands High School. The relaxed atmosphere the church provides is reflected in the contemporary design of the building that was modeled after the idea of a modern mall. Lancaster notes, “The church staff wanted a contemporary design that reflected honesty, transparency, and warmth.” These traits were achieved with the use of natural materials, building forms that were indicative of the use of space they housed, exposed structural and mechanical elements, and the creative use of color and natural light. “As a result, the interior of the building has a very relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, being unconstrained by symmetry, order or formality. I think this kind of atmosphere is attractive to younger families,” shared Lancaster. The 50-acre campus is on a long, rectangular site that can be accessed off of Research Forest Drive and Branch Crossing Drive. The site includes an existing pond, and most of the windows face east with views into existing woods. Exterior materials are metal and wood and shy away from traditional ideas of what church architecture looks like. Entering the church, you are greeted by exposed structural and mechanical elements that are intended to provide visual interest and stimulation. Unlike a traditional church, the space is fairly open and houses large common areas. The lobby and foyer areas are somewhat indefinable, incorporating variations in shape, color, materials and lighting. The children’s classrooms are more spacious than usual. In the middle of the large common space, there is a massive stone fireplace which provides an earthy feel contrasted by the neon art that is dispersed throughout the facility.   

Article by: Carey Scasserra | Photography: Derrick Bryant 

Reverend Don Gebert: A Life of Giving

The theme of goodwill throughout The Woodlands began with one man leaving everything behind for a divine purpose. Reverend Don Gebert made Interfaith of The Woodlands what it is today. Without his perseverance and creativity, the vision of bringing together faith and goodwill for the community would not be fully realized.

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Shopping with a Purpose


When Houston natives Jackie and Christine Battle returned home following Jackie’s impressive eight-year career as a NFL running back, their career goals were two-fold. They wanted to operate a business of their own and, guided by their faith, they wanted to serve others.

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