Sunday #37 – San Antonio Baha’i Community, 735 W. Magnolia Ave.
This weekend, I went from the oldest synagogue in South Texas to a meeting for the youngest of all independent world religions – the Baha’i Faith. A religion that started in Iran less than 200 years ago now has six million followers and remains one of the fastest growing, “drawing membership from every religion, race, ethnic background, nationality and creed in the world,” according to Wikipedia.
Knowing absolutely nothing about the religion, I grabbed a juvenile book about the faith for a quick read. What I found fascinated me, so I anticipated this visit to a greater degree than most.
I first wanted to know about the famous people who cloaked themselves in the faith and found that jazz great “Dizzy” Gillespie, as well as other jazz musicians were Baha’i followers. Likewise, one of my favorite former All My Children soap actresses Eva La Rue and actress Carole Lombard were included in that list.
Though I try to stay away from discussing much about the beliefs of each faith, one important belief needs an explanation in order to understand the persecution the founders and those who have practiced Baha’i have endured. Baha’is believe in one God and that he sent many messengers like Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and more. These divine messengers are believed to have brought truth and understanding that was right for a particular place and time in the world. The Baha’i have four central figures that have shaped the Baha’i Faith, but Baha’is don’t worship those early shapers of the faith like Baha’u’llah, but revere him as a great teacher.
Due to this Baha’i belief that all people are created equal, some Muslim religious leaders in former Persia became threatened and persecuted these leaders. Not only were several of the early proponents of the faith arrested, beaten, imprisoned and executed but many followers had to leave their homes to practice their faith. The Nazi’s officially banned the faith due to their teaching that all races are fundamentally equal, and when communism reigned in the Soviet Union, Baha’i were not permitted to practice their faith. Many of those who continued their practice were exiled to Siberia.
Preconceived Ideas about Baha’is
Hard to have preconceived ideas when you’ve never met anyone that was in the Baha’i Faith. However, from my research, I’d say I would expect to find the following:
- Less structure than with other faiths — (bingo)
- A fair amount of people from the Middle East (only one in attendance today. most were Anglos, but some Hispanics and one African American)
I walked into a room with a circle of chairs and someone immediately told me that the group had just finished their Study Circle that had been going since 9:00 a.m. and that these people would be staying for the devotional.
Several people introduced themselves and asked my name as I found a seat with the other 25 or 30 people, most dressed in jeans and shorts. All seemed to be middle-aged with a few older exceptions.
The Baha’i Faith has no clergy, sermons, liturgy or set order of worship. However, one person named Madeline appeared to be leading the discussion on today’s topic: “God is Everlasting.”
After she relayed the discussion topic, she pointed to a man with a guitar that had chosen several musical pieces that related to the topic. Then Madeline passed out slim and colorful folders that held some words to songs, all numbered to about 25. She asked others in the circle what they’d like to sing and the guitarists played the songs and we followed along with the words. Not much to these songs, most were about three sentences long, so it felt more like singing around a campfire on a fall evening, accompanied by a guitar in the background.
After many songs, Madeline passed out a few prayer books to people and several read passages from the book or said a prayer on their own. Then Madeline passed out copies of passages from the Baha’i Faith, Old and New Testament, Qur’an, and even from a Hindu text. Afterward, she asked for those in the circle to share their thoughts on the texts that were read. That’s about all there is to a Bah’ai Faith devotional.
After dismissal, many went back to get food and eat with each other, but I used the time to visit with a couple of people, then headed to the book store room. One man running the bookstore shared that there were more than 100 works they considered sacred texts of the faith and then he asked me which I would like to purchase. When I said I wasn’t ready to delve into all the sacred texts this year, he said I should get started now since there were so many. He handed me a small book by “Baha’u’llah titled “The Hidden Words.” and said that was his gift to me.
Awwww……I was quite honored and will read it, but only the English part. I’m afraid I’m a bit rusty on my Arabic and Persian. Okay, well, I only ever learned to write my name in Persian, so rusty isn’t even close to accurate, but I am getting the hang of reading from right to left, thanks to a few trips to Shabbat services.
Post Meeting Thoughts
I think if someone just walked into a Baha’i devotional, they’d find the lack of structure to be a bit perplexing, but since I had read some information about the faith, I looked forward to learning more. In my reading, I found the beliefs of this faith to perhaps be what the world needs right now.
Cultural fragmentation has created emerging chaos around the world, so participating in a faith that embodies oneness is refreshing. Exclusive congregations that insist that you join their spiritual side by living by a certain set of rules before you are considered a full member often leads to this fragmentation. Ignoring religious diversity is no longer an option in a global environment and economy. Being a spiritual nomad has helped me to see that there are churches and groups that are being responsive to the longings of a changing world.