Some say the world will end in fire. Zoroastrians say it was born of fire, the most important symbol for God.
Flames danced high above a deep urn during a recent initiation rite for teenagers at the Zoroastrian fire temple in Westminster. Six young people, most of them from family trees rooted in Iran, wore white and tied hemp cords around their waists to symbolize their commitment to the faith during the Sedra-Pushi, a Farsi term that refers to a rite of passage into adulthood. Zoroastrians compare it to the Jewish bar mitzvah.
"The hardest part is memorizing the prayers," says 16-year-old Vishtasp Soroushian of the long chants recited in ancient Persian. He went through the Sedra-Pushi several years ago and is now preparing for the priesthood.
What was a flourishing religion in ancient Iran and across the Persian Empire has dwindled through centuries of foreign conquest to be perhaps the smallest of monotheistic faiths. For some Westerners, the name of the religion is as familiar as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, also based on a belief in one God. However, while its roots extend to at least the 7th century BC, and some scholars date its beginnings as far back as the 16th century BC, most Westerners are not familiar with Zoroastrianism's primary teachings.
In a library filled with books about the religion, its history and theology, Mobed Bahram Shahzadi, director of the Westminster fire temple, spends most of his day. Above his desk there is a portrait of Zarathustra, who is believed to have founded the faith in the region of Afghanistan. It is the face of a young man with a dark beard who wears a turban and robe similar to those worn by Zoroastrian priests during modern religious services.
A thorough tutor, Shahzadi explains that Zarathustra wrote the Gatha, a collection of hymns that is contained in the Avesta, the Zoroastrian book of sacred scripture.
"Zarathustra taught the importance of good thoughts, good words and good deeds," Shahzadi explains in precise English. That simple teaching is as basic to the faith as the "law of love" is to Christianity. All other Zoroastrian beliefs flow from it. Including the idea of heaven and hell.
"Both are in the next world and in this world as well," explains the senior and scholarly priest. "We can make this world heaven or hell depending on how we think, speak and act. If our actions are good, we can say we are living in heaven."
A desire to care for the environment led Zoroastrians from earliest times to expose their dead to the elements rather than "pollute" the ground by burying bodies. The tradition continues in Bombay, India.
India has the largest community of Zoroastrians in the world, with about 76,000 adherents. Iran has about 45,000, and North America about 10,000, scholars estimate. Worldwide membership figures vary widely with estimates from fewer than 200,000 to more than 500,000.
California has become a center for the religion with the influx since the early 1980s of immigrants from Iran following that country's revolution and later after the Iran-Iraq war. Fire temples, or smaller centers, dot the state from San Jose to Los Angeles, Westminster to San Diego.
"I was nervous before I had to recite, but afterward I felt so proud," says Soroushian of his initiation day. At the ceremony in April, he was among the mobeds, the community of priests that included his grandfather. Each one held a sprig of green, a symbol of life and fertility.
At the first sound of the ancient prayers at the Westminster rite, women covered their heads with scarves. What had been a social gathering, with coffee cups and flicking cameras, turned quieter.
Fariborz Shahzadi, the center's religious education director, reminded the group of the fuller meaning of the day. Zoroastrians have been allowed to practice their faith in Iran during this century, but several nearby countries were restricted under Communism. In Southern California, leaders such as Fariborz Shahzadi are vigorously reviving the religious commitment.
"Close your eyes, imagine you are in New York on a wagon train headed for the West Coast," he began.
"You have all come to this country, by choice or not. It's a new system. You adapt, you bring some of the old, you learn the new, so you can have a happy tomorrow.
"If you came after the revolution, you came to establish yourself in a new world. And you have established religious centers, with classes and seminars. You have published books in English about the religion. You have passed on your financial and moral support to your kids so they can learn the religion. Through slush, snow and mud, these goals have been achieved. I am asking for your continued help, for the kids."
Goals that are familiar to many of their neighbors. Outside the fire temple, the view includes a Korean Baptist church, a Pentecostal church with services in Spanish and Vietnamese and a glimpse of Little Saigon.