Many minds, one God

Marking 200th anniversary of founder’s birth, Bahai faith celebrates equality, diversity of religions

Posted: October 21, 2017 at 3:11 a.m.

The Baha’i house of worship in Wilmette, Ill., is one of nine such places of worship for the Baha’i faith worldwide. Other locations include Delhi, India; Kampala, Uganda; Santiago, Chile; and Sydney.

This weekend, members of the Baha'i faith in Arkansas will join in a worldwide celebration commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the religion's founder, Baha'u'llah.

The anniversary is part of the religion's Light of Unity Festival, a series of events that celebrates the effects of Baha'u'llah's teachings on the lives of others -- even those who aren't followers of the Baha'i faith -- because unity of mankind and with all religions is a cornerstone of the Baha'i faith.

The Baha'i religion, established in 1844, grew from the revelation of Siyyid Ali-Muhammad of Persia (now Iran). Known as the Bab (Arabic for "Gate"), his beliefs included the idea that he was meant to prepare the way for another messenger. As word of his belief and teachings spread and were met with opposition, the Bab was eventually executed for his beliefs, after which one of his followers -- Mizra Husain Ali Nuri, who would come to be known by his followers as Baha'u'llah -- claimed that he received a revelation from God that he was the messenger the Bab had been referring to.

Baha'is first came to the United States late in the 19th century, participating in the first World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and holding its first national convention in 1909. With five million followers worldwide and 250,000 in the United States, Baha'i is one of the fastest-growing and one of the most widespread religions in the world.

According to Annette Myrick of Maumelle, some of the earliest Baha'i followers came to Arkansas from Ohio, including a man named Homer Holmes.

Baha'is do not proselytize but are obligated to let others know about Baha'is and what they believe, and as a result Holmes wrote letters to the editor of the Arkansas Gazette. One of Holmes' letters, published June 7, 1958, outlined a vision for a "world without war," but a goal sought in the letter also serves to reflect the steadiness of a belief in unity, calling for "[t]he establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united."

The Little Rock Bahai community was established in 1943 and considers its population not to be the number of followers of the Baha'i faith, said Erica Roy of Little Rock, but the number of people who benefit from community services and projects carried out in the community.

'UNIFIED REALITY' AND EQUALITY

Racial equality, the elimination of prejudice and equality between the sexes are central to the Baha'i faith.

So is the idea of a "unified reality," which includes the belief that sacred texts across religions, including the Torah, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, are part of the same revelation of the same God -- just at different intervals throughout history.

Namvar Zohoori, the chairman of Little Rock's spiritual assembly -- one level of the faith's governing board -- said another of the faith's central beliefs is there is only one God, and that this belief flows directly into the belief in the equality of man.

"If there is only one God, he can't be in competition with himself," Zohoori said. "The different religions are not in competition ... even though they're called different names and they came out at different times, they're all in harmony if you look at their essential teachings.

"And then if you believe that -- that there is only one God and [that] man has been created by God -- then all [human beings] are the same as well."

Baha'u'llah and the Bab are believed to be the twin manifestations that led to the formation of the Baha'i faith, and two of a series of messengers that includes Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster and Muhammad -- all of whom represent the same God.

Science and religion are believed to be in harmony in the Baha'i faith, Zohoori said.

"Religion without science becomes superstition," Zohoori said. "Science without religion can lead to catastrophic things like the atomic bomb and unbelievable cruelty that one man can inflict on another."

"If [science and religion] appear to be in conflict, it's just because we haven't investigated far enough to figure out where the harmony really is," said Dan Reimer, a member of North Little Rock's spiritual assembly.

One of the main tenets also involves the investigation of truth, said Roy, who is involved with the Little Rock area spiritual assembly.

"We're meant to investigate reality, we're meant to investigate our spiritual lives -- we can't be told what we believe by someone else," she said. "The belief is that we have to investigate [for] ourselves."

For Baha'is, that means making an active decision at the age of 15 -- thought by Baha'is to be the age of spiritual maturity -- to declare themselves as adherents of the faith, because being born to a Baha'i family doesn't automatically mean a person is identified as belonging to the Baha'i religion.

There also aren't clergy to discuss the decision with, because the Baha'i faith does not have professional clergy. At the area level there are spiritual assemblies, over which is a national assembly. The faith's top governing council is the Universal House of Justice, a group of nine men elected by members of the faith who have headquarters at the Baha'i World Center in Haifa, Israel.

At the area level, Roy said, places where residents worship are developed as community centers. Little Rock's Baha'i Center is one of those places, and Baha'is consider it a community center as well as a center for Baha'is.

"One of the hallmarks of our communities is what you call an outward-looking focus," Reimer said. "We're not so concerned just with the needs of our members. We're concerned about the world at large and the community we live in and what we can do to improve [those conditions]."

BEAUTY IN DIVERSITY

Ameria Jones of Little Rock, who is black, was well traveled by the age of 6 when her family settled in Little Rock in the 1960s during the civil rights movement.

"[Living in the U.S.] was quite a shock because we had been blessed to live very protectively on Army bases, and things [in Little Rock] were very different," said Jones, whose father served in the Army. "We grew up [meeting] people from all over the world who worshipped everywhere, and they would make their worship home wherever they felt loved."

There had been "uncomfortable moments" in the church the family attended while she was growing up -- such as when she brought to church a friend who was white to join the black congregation where her family worshipped -- and it wouldn't be until one of her sisters brought the family to worship together at Little Rock's Baha'i Center on Pine Street when she was 17 that Jones learned about the Baha'i faith.

"I didn't understand why we had all these differences, and the Baha'i faith just answered all those questions," Jones said. "The Baha'i faith [expressed] that in diversity there is so much beauty."

Myrick, a specialist in the data analysis field, said the diversity among Baha'is challenges followers as individuals to "face our own prejudices and overcome them" and to grow spiritually.

"If I sit in a room [where] everybody that believes the same thing I do, then I'm not going to grow very much because I'm not going to learn very much," Myrick said. "But if I sit with 10 people [and] every one of us has a different perspective and a different view, I'm going to think about what they said ... and so we would never seek to be a homogeneous group.

"We constantly want that diversity so that we're growing as a community, because one of the things as Baha'is we're trying to -- as God has asked us to do -- is to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization."

200 -YEAR LANDMARK

In recognition of the bicentennial, former President Jimmy Carter sent a letter of congratulations to the Baha'is' National Spiritual Assembly, citing its central tenets as having the "same aspirations" of the work of The Carter Center, which he and his wife, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, founded in 1982.

"We are heartened by your global community's rededication to peace, racial justice, the equality of women and men, and the essential unity of all religions," Carter said in the letter. "As many of our people struggle with persistent systemic justice against African Americans and the Indigenous Nations, chronic violence against women, religious conflict, and endless war, the centrality of peace, human equality and religious unity found in the Baha'i writings and activities can serve as an inspiration to those of all faiths and creeds."

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola has signed a proclamation designating this weekend the celebration for the birth of Baha'u'llah, and will be present at a closed event today commemorating the occasion.

In Northwest Arkansas, Baha'is in the region are celebrating the birth of The Bab today with a public gathering for a program and a meal at 3 p.m. at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in Prairie Grove and will celebrate Baha'u'llah's bicentennial Sunday at the Baha'i Center at 2377 SW 48th. St. in Springdale, which also will feature a movie on Baha'u'llah's life and teachings and a skit performed by one of the faith's junior youth groups.

David O'Neill of Rogers said although Baha'u'llah's birth is celebrated each year, the bicentennial carries extra meaning to Baha'is.

"We believe that Baha'u'llah is the return of the spirit of God ... and that this is a watershed moment in the history of mankind, just as it was when Christ came, or Muhammad, or any of the other great messengers," O'Neill said. ... "It's very similar to the celebration of, say, the birth of Christ that Christians celebrate."

CELEBRATION, DEVOTIONALS

Additional events include a High Tea celebrating Baha'u'llah's birth at 4 p.m. Sunday at 1208 Kierre Loop, North Little Rock, (817) 301-8144; Community Prayers and Devotional at 7 p.m. Friday and Nov. 3, text (501) 804-7915 for location; a devotional on the theme of unity at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at 511 N. Pine St., Little Rock; and a devotional at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 at 1208 Kierre Loop, North Little Rock, (817) 301-8144.

The Baha’i Center of Little Rock on Pine Street is considered by followers of the faith to be a community center as well as a gathering place for Baha...

Religion on 10/21/2017