POTOMAC, Maryland — Like many of the boys and young men studying at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland, brothers Zayd and Rayn Patel have well-rounded interests outside the classroom.
Zayd, 12, a sixth grader, plays oboe in the school band, sings in its choir, is on the math team, runs track, likes to play golf and squash, plays keyboard and piano, and is part of a rock band.
Rayn, 9, a fourth grader, is nationally ranked for his age group in the sport of fencing, plays trumpet in the school band, also sings in its choir and is part of the drama club.
Both boys also like attending daily Mass at the school. The 550 students between third and 12th grade have the option of voluntarily coming to Mass, and about 200 do.
Younger brother Raif, 5, who is in kindergarten and homeschooled by their mother, plays the violin and just started playing ice hockey.
“They follow their own paths,” said their mother, Zeena Lafeer.
This Lent, Zeena, husband Sameer Patel and their three sons are on a special path together as they prepare to receive the sacraments of initiation and become Catholic at the April 20 Easter Vigil at Little Flower Parish in Bethesda, Maryland. The parents and their two oldest sons will be baptized, confirmed and receive their first Communion. Raif will be baptized.
“We have found ourselves here after a journey,” Sameer said, noting that he and his wife “came from varied religious backgrounds, and we wanted something to ground our family.”
Their shared faith journey, Zeena explained, began when “one day our oldest son said, ‘I go to Mass every day (at school), would you like to join me?’ That kind of was a sense of relief, because I think that’s what I was always wanting, but I didn’t have the courage to start that for my family. So to have it come from my son … (I felt) let’s see where this leads, and here we are.”
Zeena said she and her husband were raised Muslim and attended Catholic schools and wanted a faith-based education for their sons.
“We just found ourselves really searching for something (where) our children could learn to love God,” she said.
Sameer, whose family roots are in India, grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, and attended Catholic elementary school there. His father is Hindu and his mother is Muslim.
Zeena’s parents, immigrants from Sri Lanka, are Muslim. She was born and grew up in Leonardtown, Maryland, where her father was a pediatrician. She attended Catholic grade school and high school.
“I saw a different way of worshipping God, (but) I knew it was the same God,” she said, recalling that she attended Mass and religion classes with other students and felt peaceful in church. “Forgiveness and hope were aspects my friends had.”
The couple met at Georgetown University. She said her philosophy and theology classes led to questions about faith’s role in her life. “It sort of ended one chapter and I didn’t know the next one,” she told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Sameer sang in an a cappella group at Georgetown, where a Jesuit priest, Father James Walsh, sang with the group and was a friend and mentor to Patel.
Meanwhile, Zeena’s friends who had been encouraging her to marry a fellow Muslim someday “dragged me to hear him (Sameer) sing. We lived in the same dorm.”
The couple started dating at Georgetown and married in 2002.
Their interest in music has continued. Zeena plays the piano and flute and works with Raif as he learns violin. Sameer founded the Bach to Rock Music Schools in Bristow, Virginia, and Fulton, Maryland, where the students include children and adults alike.
The family’s educational efforts began in 2010 and they opened the Bristow Montessori School, where Sameer continues to serve as board chairman. Five years later, they opened the music school next door and then expanded to Maryland.
Now the family is learning together about the Catholic faith.
“We’re all learning and coming to our beliefs collectively but also individually,” Sameer said.
He said the family has been inspired by the teachers and families at The Heights, which is sponsored by the Opus Dei prelature of the Catholic Church. On a recent Friday morning, the parents and Raif joined Zayd and Rayn at a school Mass.
Both parents said they are inspired by their older sons’ faith that was fostered at the school. “They have a greater purpose, which is very evident. … When my older son said, ‘Would you be upset if I decided to become Catholic?’ That was a courageous leap,” Zeena said.
The boys’ father added, “I see them guiding me as much as I guide them.”
At Little Flower Parish Deacon Don Longano said it has been a privilege to prepare the family to receive the sacraments.
“They bring much faith and energy to the RCIA discussions,” said Longano, who also is the director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Washington. “This family will be very active in the parish, and by their witness to the faith, I know they will be an inspiration to all of us at Little Flower Parish.”
At The Heights School, Headmaster Alvaro de Vicente praised the family’s witness.
“The inspiring thing about their journey … it’s an affirmation of the beauty of the faith that’s always been in my life, but that I can so easily take for granted” he explained. “It’s humbling and beautiful to see them come into the Church.”
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.