US Bahá'í News Service
Society seems to be catching up with the wisdom of abstaining from drinking alcohol. Dry January is a growing international social trend. Recent medical studies have debunked the purported health benefits of alcohol use. Health enthusiasts are jumping on the bandwagon of “going on the wagon,” and science is increasingly with them.
Baha’u’llah gave guidance on the topic back in 1873, in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book. Members of the Baha’i Faith are prohibited from consuming alcohol or using mind-altering drugs such as marijuana, opium, LSD, and other hallucinogenic substances unless prescribed by a qualified physician as part of a medical treatment.
Dry January, during which participants abstain from alcohol for the month, started as a public health campaign in England in 2012 and has grown from an initial 4,000 participants to four million in England alone in 2018. Bolstered by a book, podcast, news coverage and plenty of social media posts, the movement has come “across the pond” and is finding fans here in the United States.
Dry January participants report health benefits from even this short-term abstinence, and many feel so good they decide not to go back to drinking. Research by the University of Sussex in England found: 71 percent of respondents slept better, 70 percent reported improved health, 67 percent had more energy, 58 percent lost weight, 57 percent had better concentration, and 54 percent developed better skin.
“Alcohol can worsen certain skin conditions, such as rosacea, for which it is a known trigger of flares, and causes increased frequency and long-term damage of the skin in those who suffer from that condition,” says dermatologist Dr. Shadi Koroush, a member of the Baha’i Faith. “It can also accelerate the aging of the skin through its dehydrating effect and other harmful ingredients that damage the tissues.
“There has been evidence to support the health benefits of the guidance we have in the Writings regarding abstaining from alcohol,” says Dr. Koroush.
Baha’u’llah’s son and interpreter, ‘Abdu’l‑Baha, explains that the Aqdas prohibits “both light and strong drinks,” because “alcohol leadeth the mind astray and causeth the weakening of the body.”
Alcohol affects mind, body and soul. Consumption of alcohol inhibits the proper function of the mind, the essential quality of the soul. Its use is not in line with the noble station God has intended for human beings: “Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.” Baha’u’llah wrote: “It is inadmissible that man, who hath been endowed with reason, should consume that which stealeth it away.”
“Before I became a Baha’i, I had spent four years at Cornell University where daily consumption of alcohol was a rite of passage and part of being a college student,” says Cynthia Barnes-Slater of Evanston, Illinois. “I used it to relax, to socialize and to lessen my anxiety about being 3,000 miles from home and my family, and being [a black student] in a predominantly white, Ivy League school.”
Barnes-Slater says that many of her interactions with friends were superficial if alcohol was involved. “No profound, significant discussions about the meaning of life when you and your friend are ‘buzzed,’” she says. “I felt that the true nature of the person was obscured, as if you were talking with the substance, and not the real person.”
Barnes-Slater stopped drinking when she became a Baha’i. “I wanted to live a life congruent with my beliefs. Nowadays living alcohol-free is second nature and I’m mystified as to how people use—and misuse—alcohol to deal with life.”
For some, the Baha’i prohibition on alcohol is a personal challenge. For others, it is a reason they are attracted to the Faith:
“I gave up alcohol when I became a Baha’i,” says Susan Engle of West Lafayette, Indiana. “I was actually searching for this as a benefit, having grown up in a church where drinking was just fine and dandy. My father was an alcoholic, and a prohibition was helpful to me.”
Several years ago Kay Hubbard observed that some of her new friends at a party in Los Angeles weren’t drinking. They were Baha’is. “They were an ethnically diverse group of artists having way more fun than their peers and I knew their bond went deeper than a common dietary restriction,” she says.
“They also did not judge me or the people around them at the party one bit for drinking.” Hubbard has since become a Baha’i and is currently studying naturopathic medicine.
In August 2018, a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet concluded that to minimize health risks, the optimal amount of alcohol someone should consume is none. Zero. Zip. Nada. The report was the result of a massive study, co-written by 512 researchers from 243 institutions.
Previous studies found evidence that people who have a drink or two a day are less likely to have heart disease than people who abstain or drink excessively. But the new study found that many other health risks offset and overwhelm those health benefits. That includes the risk of breast cancer, larynx cancer, stroke, cirrhosis, tuberculosis, interpersonal violence, self-harm and transportation accidents.
Currently, 73 percent of men and 60 percent of women in the United States drink. The US ranks 51st and 47th place globally for men and women, respectively.
The negative social consequences of alcohol use are severe. Every year, alcohol accounts for traffic accidents, injuries, deaths and birth defects, and contributes to domestic violence and family breakdown. Alcohol use imposes staggering economic costs in health care and lost productivity.
Here are some sobering numbers collected over the past decade from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading national public health institute of the United States.
In that time period, excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths each year in the United States, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years. Excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults. The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption were estimated at $249 billion.
“As an internal medicine physician I have seen firsthand the destructive effects of alcohol on the liver and the brain,” says Emi Hosoda, a Baha’i from Enumclaw, Washington. “While many believe these changes occur with ‘heavy drinking’ I have seen changes in people who ‘split a bottle of wine’ between a couple one to two days per week, three to four glasses each. For every glass you drink over one glass per day you raise your risk of cancer by 17%.”
“Alcohol use is just a symptom of a larger neurological and spiritual problem,” says Devin French, a Baha’i from Louisville, Kentucky. French had been in a 12-step program prior to becoming involved with the Baha’i community.
“I resisted becoming a Baha’i because I felt that the community was at such a different level or standard of purity,” French says. In general, struggles with alcohol was not something that was talked about in French’s Baha’i community. He was able to open up, first to a close circle of Baha’i friends and then later more broadly.
Adhering to the laws of Baha’u’llah is a journey for every Baha’i. Baha’is are enjoined to concern themselves with their own shortcomings rather than the faults of others, and local Baha’i administrative institutions are also advised not to pry into the lives of the believers in efforts to ensure that they are behaving properly.
The Baha’i laws are not arbitrary dos and don’ts. They are intended to raise the standard of human understanding and behavior, to spiritualize the life of every person on earth, and to bring tranquility to the entire human society. So it follows that in addition to benefits for the individual, abstinence from alcohol can result in a healthier, safer and more tranquil society.
Abstinence from alcohol is part of a pattern of living that promotes happiness: “Happy are they that observe God’s precepts,” Baha’u’llah declares. “True liberty consisteth in man’s submission unto My commandments.”
Read other perspectives on alcohol use and the Baha’i Faith:
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I was a child in the small town of Peru, Indiana, in the 1980s. I was raised by an atheist father and a Catholic mother who was pretending to be a Baptist. My mom insisted that my sister and I go to church every week, and I often questioned what we heard there.
When the Baptist preacher said that Buddha was a devil, I looked at my mother and asked, “Isn’t Buddha just like Moses but in Asia?” She just smiled and nodded without saying a word.
I got in trouble in Sunday school for asking too many questions. When they taught about Noah’s Ark, I asked, “What did they feed the tigers, and how did they keep them from attacking the other animals?” and, “What if one of the animals had died?” The teacher threw me out of class.
As I got older, I read the Bible every summer at church camp. I realized that a lot of the stuff that we were being told in church wasn’t in there, and there was a lot in the Bible that we weren’t being told — like a lot of troubling violence.
I have social anxiety disorder (a chronic mental health condition in which social interactions cause feelings of anxiety) but didn’t know that until I was in my early 20s. I’ve had good and bad ways of coping with it.
As a teen, one of the ways that I coped was by avoiding the high school lunchroom and reading in the library instead. That’s when I discovered mythology and Eastern religions. Buddhism really spoke to me. I read everything I could find on it in our library and by age 14 I considered myself a Buddhist.
When I was 16, my mom died in a car accident while my parents were in the middle of a nasty divorce. The estate settlement dragged on for years, and when I was 21, I was called to testify in court, which triggered intense anxiety.
I agonized over the court appearance. I worried about what I should say, and what the evidence was. I wondered what I could do to make the whole thing just stop.
At the same time, I was drinking and smoking marijuana a lot. I realized that neither was helping me think clearly, but when I tried to cut back, I couldn’t. When I tried to quit totally, I found myself in crisis. I ended up in therapy and that’s when I learned I had social anxiety disorder.
A lot of things I had never understood about myself suddenly made sense — the undue stress I felt during a conflict in a friendship, why I often lay awake at night thinking about a conversation, and the difficulty of socializing in a large group of people.
In therapy, I realized that most of my friends had their own problems with drugs, and that I needed to find a different way to meet people. I wanted to find a spiritual community where I could practice my new coping skills with people who were doing something positive with their lives and in the community.
Despite how much Buddhism had helped me with my social anxiety, I had never engaged with a community or even another Buddhist. I wanted to be involved with a community of believers, work at a career of service to humanity, and live as a husband and father. I tried going to church, but it didn’t feel right.
One day, I was looking something up in a religious textbook and noticed there was a chapter on a religion I’d never heard of — the Baha’i Faith. There was a bulleted list of major points that included the equality of men and women, the elimination of social prejudices, and the establishment of an international institution to handle global problems. I read them out loud to my girlfriend.
Over days, we kept rereading those pages, talking and thinking. I just assumed since there were so few Baha’is, there wouldn’t be any in our town. She found an ad with a local phone number in the newspaper. She and I went to a Baha’i home for a devotional gathering.
The Baha’i Writings seemed too good to be true, and I looked for some odd teaching that would be a deal-breaker. I couldn’t find it.
I read for months until someone mentioned the Book of Certitude. The themes of progressive revelation and how leaders of religion often lead their followers astray — those were two things I really connected with in my personal experience as child in church and as a Buddhist.
I committed myself to the Baha’i Faith on July 14, 2003, Bastille Day, to commemorate my freedom from the prison of self. My girlfriend became a Baha’i almost a year later. We were married in 2007 and had our first child in 2014.
Following Baha’i law and being part of the Baha’i community really transformed my life. Going to Baha’i gatherings on a regular basis has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and helped me grow. The community is a safe place with people who share the same beliefs, and being part of it is a way for me to stay sober.
Right now, I’m in the midst of a career change into the healthcare field. It’s been wonderful to integrate the Baha’i idea of work as worship into my career.
Recently, I worked in a nursing home where there was one woman who was really sick. She hadn’t spoken for two or three days. In the middle of the night, she became very ill and I spent a lot of time with her, helping her get cleaned up and putting her back into a clean bed. She died the following morning. Some people would say it was a negative experience, but for me it was a positive one. To be the last person to care for her and show her compassion was a great honor.
I’ve learned that I am able to stay calm in emergencies, think straight, and decide what needs to be done. There’s something about my social anxiety that helps me to be with people in vulnerable moments and comfort them. I look forward to being able to worship God by offering comfort and patience for every single patient.
A story of how a youth service project in Lewiston, Maine, brought together immigrants from various African countries who overcame cultural differences to serve their community.
A story of two women who come together through prayer and build a relationship of service together.
An introduction to Baha’u’llah’s core teaching of the oneness of humanity and how it is being translated into reality through a framework of community building activities.
The last of the spiritual giants known to Baha’is as Hands of the Cause passed from this world in 2007.Young people in Concord, Massachusetts, watch a presentation on the life of the Hand of the Cause Roy C. Wilhelm. Photo courtesy of Bre Vader
But the Baha’i community of Concord, Massachusetts, is inspiring a new generation with their “examples of service and steadfastness” through a series of monthly talks to children’s classes and junior youth groups.
“The concept is to ask a member of the community to come and offer a presentation on the life of a Hand of the Cause of God,” says Bre Vader, a member of that community.
Hands were appointed by the Head of the Faith through 1957 to encourage growth of the Baha’i Faith worldwide for the remainder of their lifetimes. Some were honored with that title posthumously in recognition of their services. Their functions are now carried out by Counselors appointed for each continent and Auxiliary Board members appointed for smaller regions.
About 25 young people, ages 18 months to 14 years, participate each week in a children’s class and a junior youth group in Concord.
On Nov. 18, 2018, they gathered as Fran Pollitt, a Baha’i visiting from nearby Wayland, told stories and led activities illustrating the life of Roy C. Wilhelm (1875–1951), who was given the title of Hand of the Cause of God after his death.
Since Wilhelm was a coffee importer and regularly served the beverage to guests in his home, Pollitt brought three kinds of coffee beans for the children to smell and take turns grinding.The Hand of the Cause Roy C. Wilhelm and his mother, Laurie, are pictured in 1923 in Teaneck, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Bre Vader
She also created a dramatic presentation featuring the characters of Wilhelm and his mother, Laurie, that was acted out by two adult members of the Concord Baha’i community, David Vader and Monette Van Lith.
The children watched intently as the actors told of Wilhelm’s 1907 meeting with ‘Abdu’l-Baha, then head of the Faith, in the Holy Land. They heard stories of the trials and services of the Wilhelm family.
Then they decorated little books Pollitt created that were similar to those Wilhelm published to share Baha’i quotes and prayers.
More than the youngsters are benefiting from these talks, says Bre Vader.
“It is meaningful to share these stories,” she says, “as they remind us all of the heroes of our Faith and the unique ways we can be inspired by their examples of service and steadfastness.”
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Once they committed to think more like “farmers” than backyard “gardeners,” Baha’is and friends in several Northeast localities began to cultivate opportunities for more young people to train, serve and build community.
The difference is an attitude and vision much like what is “needed to farm large areas of land, in comparison to gardening a few potted plants,” says Riwaj Thapaliya, a Baha’i in the Boston area.
With that vision, youth camps have been organized as spaces for intensive study, worship, practice and reflection on acts of service.
And the harvest so far? With stronger capacities and the accompaniment of friends, dozens of youths — typically high-school age or a little older — have used energy from the camps to help start children’s classes and junior youth groups.
Some are reaching out to invite other friends into the process. And many are finding closer connections in their hearts with Baha’i teachings and communities.
Thapaliya says the wisdom of “being farmers” was shared by Counselor Taraz Nadarajah, a senior Baha’i official visiting from Australia, in an early May gathering at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine. That event brought in people involved in Baha’i community-building activities across the Northeast.
Here are stories from three of those communities.
Boston: a newfound commitmentXzavier Foster (from left), 16, Lenz Dodin, 17, and tutor Riwaj Thapaliya at a training camp for Boston-area youths. Photo courtesy of Riwaj Thapaliya
Coming out of last spring’s gathering at Green Acre, the Boston-area participants took a moment to evaluate how activity in neighborhoods was functioning after years of outreach and support, says Thapaliya, a young adult living in Chelsea.
“We reflected that while youths local to the population were certainly facilitating some activities in the neighborhoods, we had yet to see large flow of youths consistently enter the [training] institute process.
“With newfound commitment,” he says, “we were whispering to ourselves, ‘We need to stop gardening and begin farming.’”
Thus was born a plan for periodic youth camps offering intensive study of courses from the Ruhi Institute that equip people to share core activities of community building. That idea spread to other states.
In the Boston area, it took the form of inviting “a cohort of local youths to study at a stay-away camp [every three months], ensuring that in less than a year these youths would emerge as tutors” equipped to facilitate study groups, says Thapaliya.
With fresh inspiration from Nadarajah’s stories about successes in Sydney, Australia, “we realized that we, too, could engage a large number of youths into the institute and ultimately see entire populations move towards the Revelation of Baha’u’llah.”
During the summer, Boston-area Baha’is hosted two 10-day summer camps at a retreat center they rented in New Hampshire.
“We had a total of 14 youths go through Ruhi courses in these camps,” says Thapaliya. All of the campers studied Ruhi Book 1, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit. Then, depending on whether they wanted to mentor younger children or middle-schoolers, they chose Book 3, Teaching Children’s Classes, Grade 1, or Book 5, Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth.
“Four among them continued on to Books 2, Arising to Serve, and 4, The Twin Manifestations — declaring their faith in Baha’u’llah in the process.”
Erie: galvanizing the youthsYouths from the Erie, Pennsylvania, area take a break from their study of books from the Ruhi Institute curriculum at a camp held this past summer. Photo courtesy of Tom Howe
Meanwhile in Erie, Pennsylvania, a retired couple and a college-age youth were carrying out a similar strategy — albeit on a smaller scale and without the experience of Boston’s extensive prior activity in neighborhoods.
Tom and Pohleng Howe had arrived in Erie in February 2018 with a vision. They wanted to help Baha’i activity in the Erie-area cluster of communities move to a new milestone of development: tens of Baha’is and friends serving hundreds through the core activities of community building.
They consulted with area Baha’is about focusing their initial efforts on a neighborhood with a diverse population and lots of young people. After a study of demographics and several visits they selected an area on the east side of the city that is home to various immigrant groups.
A number of outreach attempts were conducted throughout the spring, says Tom Howe. Multiple visits were made to Nepali community leaders, who expressed support for the process.
In May, after hearing Nadarajah’s inspiring narrative at Green Acre, the Howes and others began to plan for their own 10-day camp. But they felt one more piece — a younger partner — needed to be in place before the camp could be organized.
With that in mind, a team of Baha’is volunteering at the regional level approached Shreeti Thapa, the only Baha’i youth in Erie, about serving full time over the summer. Financial support from Baha’is and encouragement from individuals and institutions made this service possible.
A summer service team was formed for Erie and Thapa moved into the Howes’ two-bedroom apartment in June after she came back from initial training at Green Acre.
Thapa has “unique aptitude” in Nepali language and culture, Howe says, so early outreaches focused on residents of Nepali Bhutanese background. “A big breakthrough and confirmation came when we met a key community leader and he offered his office to use for youth gatherings,” he says.
Also, the Howes walked the streets and got to know African and Middle Eastern refugees. Initially parents seemed more interested than the youths, says Tom Howe, but that changed when talk turned to the concept of a camp.
“The word ‘camp’ galvanized the youths, … whose electrified intense interest provided the means to have deeper conversations to explain the purpose of the camp, the training, study, service, etc.,” recalls Howe.
Eventually with 10 youth participants, the camp proved “exhausting but very productive,” he says. “We had to focus a lot of energy around providing sports and recreation, and there were some cultural challenges, but the camp was quite successful.”
Four teams of two to three youths each were formed at the camp: two teams to start children’s classes and two to start junior youth groups.
Rochester: part of a new communityStudy of the Ruhi Institute books was a key part of a summer camp for youths in the Rochester, New York, area. Photo courtesy of Karen Marquardt
Inspired by the success of the Erie camp, Baha’is and friends in Rochester, New York, decided to create their own youth camp to train youths to serve their community as animators of junior youth groups and teachers of children’s classes.
Materials used in the Erie camp were customized for Rochester. Then, over two weeks, a team shared them with young people in the Maplewood neighborhood.
“The team broke up into pairs and visited homes of youths who had previously attended children’s classes and junior youth groups,” outlines Karen Marquardt. “These youths brought the team members to the homes of their friends, who were invited to the camp.”
In the span of one week the team signed up 18 participants — 11 girls and seven boys — for the youth camp. Eleven participants had no exposure to the Faith, and all except three were Nepali immigrants.
The event was held at a campground in Painted Post, New York, with Rochester-area Baha’is donating funds so the youths could attend at minimal cost.
The campus provided breakfast, lunch and dinner, says Marquardt, as well as access to a large swimming pool, a rock climbing wall, nature trails, and a bonfire.
The youths completed Book 1, then covered sections of Books 3 and 5 to prepare for immediate service when they returned home. As it happened, the girls chose to be trained as children’s class teachers and the boys as junior youth group animators.
Over the course of the camp, transformation on several levels was observed among the young people, says Marquardt. “For most of the participants this was their first experience being away from home, … but by the end of the camp they had adjusted to the feeling of being apart from their parents and part of a new community.”
Devotional gatherings were held every morning and evening, followed by Baha’i songs.
Marquardt says six of the girls with no previous Baha’i experience volunteered to write an original song summarizing the ideas they learned from Book 1.
One verse goes:
“Be an example for others, be truthful and kind.
“If you want your community better start with your heart, change your mind.
“Be an example for others, be truthful and kind.
“If you want your community better start with your soul, let your hearts bind.”
With a lot of enthusiasm centering on prayer and song, the youths showed that some of the language from study materials was influencing their thinking as new topics came up, says Marquardt. The material from Books 3 and 5 also started to become part of their discussions outside of study.
A blossoming of core activities
Since the initial camps, all three localities have seen a blossoming of core activities for young people.
In the Boston area, four children’s classes and two junior youth groups emerged as youths returned home eager to start their own activities with neighbors and friends.
“Additionally, now we have vibrant weekly youth gatherings that bring most of these youths together for singing devotionals, continued study of the institute courses, and socialization with one another,” says Thapaliya.
With the help of their tutors, the four newly enrolled Baha’i youths have also started hosting Baha’i community gatherings such as Nineteen Day Feasts.
“One of the youths, after reading the section on the Baha’i Feast in Book 2, remarked how ‘cool’ it would be to host Feast in her own house since Baha’u’llah promises that the house that hosts it would be blessed,” Thapaliya relates.
“These comments have been eye-opening for us as they showcase a glimpse of a new culture emerging as a population draws closer to Baha’u’llah through the institute.”
In Erie, the returning youths are being accompanied as they begin offering children’s classes and the junior youth program to neighbors.
The neighborhood team also has been reaching out to other youths in anticipation of holding another camp in early winter. And Thapa has taken up residence in an apartment the Baha’i community rented as a center for youth gatherings, training sessions and core activities.
In Rochester, continued study of Book 5 after the camp led three boys to assist with existing junior youth groups. They have said they look forward to starting their own groups soon.
Three girls started a children’s class for neighborhood children, and two other girls started a children’s class with family members.
Marquardt says many of the participants came together at the Rochester Bahá’í Center for a youth camp reunion with prayers, songs and games.
“Further events are being planned to take advantage of the time youths have off from school,” she says. “These include day camps for long weekends, a seven-day winter camp and two additional weeklong camps during summer 2019.”
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The Baha’i Faith teaches that we should enjoy the material things of life as long as do not become too attached to them. The best use of our material wealth is in service to humanity. Here are two stories of Baha’is who find spiritual rewards in owning fewer possessions.
The Panes: living a decluttered life
As a couple, the Panes, Lucia and her husband of six years, Jeremy, have pared down their possessions over the past several years and say they are living ever more intentionally as time goes on.
“‘Abdu’l-Baha teaches us that we need to have moderation in all things,” Jeremy says of a lifestyle that they feel aligns with their Baha’i Faith.
“I have kind of always been into minimalism,” Lucia says. “I’ve always been a very organized and tidy person, even growing up. I don’t ever remember my parents asking me to clean my room. I like doing laundry and folding it and putting it away.”
According to Lucia, minimalism is “just having the things in your home or in your life that bring you joy or help you live your best life — and not holding on to all the extra.”
Lucia says that not having a lot of material possessions gives her more time to focus on other things and create a holistic Baha’i life.Jeremy and Lucia Pane enjoy a guest-ready kitchen thanks to their decluttering efforts.
“It means I can do my workouts in the morning and have more time for prayer or reading. It means not having to frantically clean or put things away when people come over for a devotional gathering and that we have time to pick out prayers or readings. It means that we’re more relaxed when people come over.”
The Panes moved into a new condo in Skokie, Illinois, two years ago. “When we were looking for a new place to live,” Jeremy says, “we wanted to serve the community by providing space for Feasts [Baha’i community gatherings].”
“The Universal House of Justice [the international governing council of the Baha’i Faith] has been requesting for years now that we have deep and meaningful conversations with our neighbors and friends and co-workers, and it was important to us to find a space that would make that easier.”
“Our home is not only for us but also for others,” Jeremy says, “It is to be shared.” The Panes share their home by inviting people for devotional gatherings, board game nights and by hosting overnight guests.
The Panes say moving from a one-bedroom apartment to a two bedroom condo was a catalyst for getting rid of a lot of their belongings because they didn’t want to move them. Although Lucia spearheaded the couple’s decluttering, she says Jeremy likes the principle of not holding onto things unnecessarily.
“We’ve worked on only keeping things that serve multiple functions,” he says. “I think the only thing that we have that only does one thing is a waffle iron.”
“Because you cannot make waffles without a waffle iron,” Lucia adds with a laugh. “And we like making waffles.”
“I’m not focused on getting the latest phone or a new this or that. I don’t even pay attention to that stuff anymore. I haven’t really bought new clothes in a couple of years,” Lucia says. “I have no clue what’s in season for clothing. What’s in season for me right now is warm clothes,” she quips. “Not focusing on all those material distractions gives me more time to focus on my spiritual life.”
Lucia grew up in Hawaii in a Baha’i family that fostered spare living.
“My parents lived in a geodesic dome house, which looks a little like half of a golf ball. It’s made of 96 triangles and there are no corners. No basement. No attic. No place to hide things.”
“My dad grew up in the ‘70s in the Czech Republic, a communist country where you held on to everything and you used everything because you just couldn’t get things. You were very creative with how you used and reused things.”
“One of the older Baha’is in my community growing up used to joke that you can’t take a U-Haul to heaven and that’s always stuck with me,” she relates. “Don’t get attached to your material things because you can’t take them with you.”
Lucia attended college on the mainland in California and was conscious of paring down supplies she was bringing back and forth.
“If you load your trunk up and drive to college two hours away, it’s a different experience,” she says. “I started out with very little and just accumulated stuff while I was there.”
And although tidiness wasn’t on Lucia’s list of what she was looking for in a mate, she says it probably should have been. “We’ve definitely had some discussions about it — what my standard level of tidiness is and what his standard level of tidiness is — and they don’t always match.”
“You spend a lot of time learning about the person that you’re married to and the consultations we’ve had is really about the specifics, the nitty-gritty, of those core belief systems,” Jeremy says. “We’ve had some hard conversations about what the household could bear” in terms of convenience and caring for the environment. Owning a car is an example of a concession they’ve made.
“It would be much more environmentally conscious for us to give it up entirely,” Jeremy says. “We really have to do a very good job in scheduling to see who gets to use it.”
Lucia says having a decluttered home also helps her to control some of her feelings of anxiety. “Sometimes feeling closed in makes me feel anxious,” she says. “I was feeling like there was just too much stuff around. There was stuff on the table. There was stuff in the corner. There was stuff that we hadn’t unpacked after our move. And I finally just said, “Why are we keeping all this stuff?”
As an outgrowth of paring down their possessions, Lucia discovered the “zero waste” community online.
“Zero waste is about lessening your impact on the environment. It’s not about creating no waste at all, but minimizing your waste. Like minimizing your possessions, you minimize the amount of trash that you produce on a daily basis.”
“For me, plastic in the ocean is a huge issue,” Lucia says, “because I grew up on an island, taking care of the ocean—and taking care of the Earth—has always been important to me.”
“We’ve had some very dire warnings from our scientific community about the effect that humanity is having on the planet,” Jeremy says.
“Jeremy and I have become more conscious about what we’re consuming. Who is making our clothing? How are they being treated? Are they being paid a living wage? And are they made from sustainable resources? Because you do vote with your dollars,” Lucia says.
Jeremy paraphrases a quote from the Baha’i writings to explain how we might view the issue: “If the Earth is one country and mankind its citizens, then we ought to treat all of humanity in a way that supports and sets up ways for people to make a livelihood.”
“If we’re all one human family,” Jeremy asks, “how is taking advantage of our brother, or how is taking advantage of our cousins helpful? It’s not.”
“A big thing rather than buying more is buying better,” Jeremy says. “That’s another thing that relates to minimalism. Instead of having more things, you just have better quality things.”
“And,” Lucia adds, “it’s feeling more connected to people around the world who make the products that we purchase.”
“Living what I believe.”
In this audio interview, Chicagoan Corinne Herrmann, a university Math instructor and member of the Baha’i Faith, chats with Editor Joyce Litoff about the spiritual rewards of pursuing a minimalist lifestyle.
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A Baha’i Choral Festival Choir of 62 singers made up the largest and most diverse group at a Thanksgiving weekend performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
On Sunday, November 25, the singers, brought together by Van Gilmer, music director of the Baha’i House of Worship, joined a 467-voice chorus organized by Distinguished Concerts International New York. The audience that filled the 2,000-plus seat hall was rewarded with an afternoon that was not only musically fulfilling, but also spiritually uplifting.
For Joyce Jackson, an alto singer from Palatine, Illinois, the highlight of the event was when she first stepped on stage at Carnegie Hall. “So many people aspire to sing there — the reputation, the acoustics, the history,” she says. “And I’m just this one little person and I get to go on that stage and sing. Wow! It was just magical.”
Sue Benjamin, from Wilmette, Illinois, echoes those feelings of joy in the experience. “We worked really hard to learn the music,” Benjamin says. In addition to group rehearsals prior to coming to New York, she and other sopranos met every Thursday evening for months to work on their parts.
“We really knew those runs, which were devilish,” Benjamin says of the music. “And when we got to Sunday morning at Carnegie Hall I had the experience of saying to myself, ‘I worked for this, I’ve trained for this, I know this. I’m just going to be in the moment and enjoy the experience.’ I felt like I was in the zone. Those high B’s? No problem!”The combined chorus of 467 voices rehearses “Worthy Is the Lamb,” one of two pieces that both groups performed together. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer
Their confidence with the music also came from hard work with conductor Jonathan Griffith during physically demanding five-hour-long rehearsals in New York in the days leading to the performance.
The conductor rallied “all those people who were strangers and had never sung together before,” says Steve Brisley, a bass from Evanston, Illinois. That was one of the details that impressed Brisley with the production’s organization.
“I really appreciated the level of professionalism and attention to detail of the maestro,” says Cynthia Barnes-Slater, an alto, also from Evanston. “He was very detail-oriented in terms of tone, quality and diction. He was very demanding, but also kind of funny,” Barnes-Slater says, noting the conductor used humor to break tension during the long rehearsals.
And they got good results. In “New York Concert Review” Jeffrey Williams wrote, “Their balance was exceptional, the diction was precise, and the strong direction of Maestro Griffith helped inspire them to a level higher than they probably imagined was possible.”
Members of the Baha’i Choral Festival choir joined in singing the first half of the Messiah, then retired to seats in the first balcony tiers while other singers took the stage. But their role in the performance wasn’t over. They rose on cue to join the orchestra and the second group for the “Hallelujah Chorus“ and “Worthy Is the Lamb.”The audience rises to join the combined choruses and orchestra for the thunderous “Hallelujah” chorus. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer
As reviewer Jeffrey Williams wrote, “One cannot speak about ‘Messiah’ without mention of the Hallelujah chorus. …I knew the coming ‘surprise’…and when it was to occur, and I was braced for it — and yet once again, it blew me away! The sound of nearly five-hundred voices filling the hall as the audience stood (many of those in the audience singing along) was simply magnificent. Yes, it’s over the top, but it is still a thrill! The audience roared its approval at the end of the chorus. The applause continued for several minutes until Maestro Griffith beckoned the audience to sit down.”
For Burton Smith, a bass singer from Lansing, Michigan, a second memorable moment came when the hoopla of the performance was over. Smith joined Director Van Gilmer and others from the Baha’i group for a banquet hosted by the concert organizers. At the dinner party they performed a song in honor of the conductor and the four soloists. “It was wonderful,” says Burton. “The maestro, as well as the soloists, were quite moved.”Baha’i Choir Director Van Gilmer celebrates with “Messiah” conductor Dr. Jonathan Griffith at the after-performance banquet. Photo by Edward Giddings
“Van — God love him,” relates Joyce Jackson, “made sure we were ready to sing ‘I Love the Lord,’ — just in case we had the opportunity to perform it.”
“When he realized that Jonathan (Griffith) and the soloists were there at the dinner Van invited them to come to the area where we were seated and we sang for them. Wow! They were blown away!” One of the soloists was moved to tears.
Smith describes Griffith’s delighted response, confirming that the singers had heeded his oft-repeated Messiah rehearsal prompt: “See! You can sing with passion!”
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Pursuing global understanding, reconciliation and change were much on the agenda last month at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Ontario.
Representatives of more than 142 religious organizations convened to host booths and exhibit space that welcomed more than 8,300 visitors.
Through talks, presentations and films, music direction, service to the planning council, and collaboration on programming for children, Baha’is made significant contributions to the event.Opening ceremonies with lively indigenous music and dancers set the tone for themes of inclusion and reconciliation. Photo by Joyce Olinga
Festivities began on November 1 with the ceremonial lighting of a sacred fire that burned all seven days outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. A few hours later further opening ceremonies included indigenous people dancing in colorful regalia.
The event’s focus on indigenous inclusion and reconciliation was “very powerful for me,” says Joyce Olinga of St. Louis. “It was significant that there were women dancers and a women’s drumming circle, too.” she says.
Olinga says that the Parliament brought together “people who were open-hearted, wanting to learn, and curious. It was like heaven on earth where all people’s beliefs are honored and respected.”
Olinga took more than 1,000 photos of the event and has already shared many in a presentation for her monthly interfaith group in St. Louis.
Toronto’s Parliament was the second for Ellen Price, a Baha’i from Wilmette, Illinois. “It was a place where everyone was just coming together to share and express love,” Price says.
“What I thought was so cool was that there was so much creativity in people’s expressing their spirituality,” she says. “Walking through the hallways and on the many escalators in the conference center you’d see art at the booths, and there were people singing, and dancing and even wearing big puppet heads. It was such a beautiful experience.”Mother-daughter visitors enjoy the Baha’i “Mine of Virtues” a patch in the Interfaith Family Festival that ran for five days.
Price collaborated with Edwina Cowell, of Glenview, Illinois, founder of the interfaith organization, “Spiritual Playdate” to create part of the Parliament’s first-ever children’s programming. Cowell recruited 17 religious groups to each host an activity, or “patch” during what became the five-day family festival.
Cowell says she was inspired a year earlier by an activity she saw at the Baha’i House of Worship — a tent that simulated a mine of “gems of inestimable value” that taught children about their inherent virtues.
“We strove to make it a little bit like a children’s museum where it was an exploration,” says Cowell of the interactive patches. “We wanted everything to be entertaining and engaging for both adults and kids.”
“We had Muslims and Zoroastrians and Unitarians, and each of them demonstrating something from their faith,” Cowell says. “They weren’t trying to get you to sign up for something, or enroll in something, or sell a book.” Instead, they were sharing what Cowell says we all really need, “some religious literacy without proselytizing.”
The learning patches were visited by families from around the world who attended the Parliament. There were also field trips from local Toronto schools, and on one day more than 1,200 middle and high-schoolers visited the interfaith family festival.
Much of the Parliament programming spoke to issues of indigenous people, women’s dignity, climate action, and countering war, hate and violence. According to Molly Horan, director of communications for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, there were 1,352 programs engaging 2,055 presenters, 56.3 percent of whom were female.
The Wilmette Institute, an online global Baha’i learning center, hosted a booth and streamed live interviews. One was with Sovaida Ma’ani Ewing, an attorney and author from Washington, D.C., who made a presentation with a Catholic professor she met at the last Parliament in 2015.
“So many people are feeling so despondent these days, given everything that is going on in the world, and really don’t believe that peace is possible at all,” Ma’ani Ewing says. “And the Baha’is have a completely different perspective.” Her goal was to share the Baha’i view on peace and engender hope.Spring Green Films produced the documentary, “The Gate,” and hosted one of the 142 booths in the exhibit hall. More than 1,000 attended the screening of the film.
“One thing that surprised me about the Parliament,” says Trish Forde of Northfield, Illinois, “was the fact that there are so many different religions in the world. So many! I just didn’t realize.”
Forde says she was pleased that people were so open to discussing the Baha’i Faith. “They were often surprised to learn that we believe some of the same things,” she says. “We were all learning, without pushback, without arguments and without trying to prove that they are right and we were wrong. None of that occurred.”
Another highlight for Forde was the screening of the film “The Gate,” a documentary about the origins of the Baha’i Faith. “About a thousand people showed up. That was really something!” Forde says. “I don’t think any other film had that kind of attendance and the next day people were literally talking about it everywhere.”
The Parliament’s mission — people of all religions working harmoniously “for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world” — is in close alignment with Baha’i principles, and the affinity between the Parliament and the Baha’i Faith goes back to the organization’s beginnings. The first mention of the Baha’i Faith in the western hemisphere was in 1893 at the first Parliament, part of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Baha’is have been involved in the planning of several of the Parliament gatherings since it was revived in 1993.
It was in every respect a typical night at a multiplex theater. As people walked into a dimmed auditorium at the Harkins 14 in Prescott Valley, Arizona, slides with accompanying music were projected onto the screen. Then the lights fell completely and a feature film rolled.“Light to the World,” a film about the life and teachings of Baha’u’llah, can be viewed online in several languages.
This Oct. 9 screening, however, was sponsored by area Baha’i communities and free to the public. And the movie shown was Light to the World, a documentary outlining the life and ministry of Baha’u’llah, founder of the Faith.
One audience member praised “the appropriateness of the magnificent images and message for the big screen.” The film shows a diverse array of people from around the world telling how Baha’u’llah’s teachings are touching their lives. Produced for the 2017 bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth, it has frequently been viewed through the internet. Showings in big movie houses are rarer.
In the aftermath, local Baha’is rejoiced not just in a successful evening but in their increased ability to host large numbers of people interested in how the teachings of Baha’u’llah apply to their lives and society.
That included learning what audience members are curious or concerned about and addressing those questions — as well as introducing attendees to Baha’i-initiated core activities for community building and inviting them to participate.
“The key takeaway is the continuing relevance of the film and a preview in terms of working with large venues,” says Tom Halstead, a Baha’i in Dewey-Humboldt.
Many of the more than 50 attendees “remarked that this was like a ‘peek at the future’ when mass audiences would get a chance to view Baha’i media in large-venue formats,” he recalls.
Halstead, a veteran audio-visual professional, had a big hand in that, coordinating technical aspects from the projection booth. This included the direction of lighting in the theater, as well as organizing slides of the Baha’i writings that were displayed for 45 minutes as people filtered in before the film.
Little touches to enhance the event
As people filtered in for the Oct. 9 screening of Light to the World in Prescott Valley, slides of the Baha’i writings set to orchestral music were shown for 45 minutes. These “walk in” images were adjusted in their dimensions, so the curtains and lights could be semi-dim for arrivals, says Tom Halstead, who coordinated the presentation.
As the film was cued, the house lights were taken down completely and the curtains adjusted to the new ratio. After the movie, lights were brought all the way up for the period of questions and answers.
Aside from what was learned about staging a presentation, organizers gained valuable experience in promotion, says Halstead. More than 30 internet and broadcast radio stations, as well as several networks of newspapers, were notified and emailed information.
Posters were circulated among like-minded organizations and included descriptions of Baha’i-initiated community-building activities in the area, ranging from spiritual education classes for all ages to devotional gatherings.
At the event, Halstead’s wife, Jeanie, fielded audience questions. Attendees voiced such varied concerns as fears of Islamic terrorism and world government, as well as “faiths’ views of the soul and enlightenment, including the ideas of selflessness promoted by writers like Eckhart Tolle.”
Tom Halstead reflects, “Arizona tends to be conservative … and the movie increased capacity greatly by showing a faith that accepts Muhammad yet is all about peace. Many even commented that a United Nations-like system can allow for love of country and be so peaceful and not racially divided.”
Some attendees have begun engaging in study circles and devotional gatherings. And local Baha’is have discussed inviting those participants to share their experiences during the quarterly meeting held to reflect on the progress of community-building activities.
Interfaith contacts also have invited Baha’is to present the teachings of Baha’u’llah to their congregations and have expressed interest in learning how to apply Baha’i methods of consultation to discussions on racial unity and social justice.
“Another meeting after the movie included a series of seminars on white privilege” hosted by Baha’is Pamm Sosa, who lives in Prescott Valley, and her daughter Wendy, from Houck in the Navajo Nation, says Halstead. Wendy Sosa has given race relations seminars across the state and started a private school for American Indian children.
Recent Census data shows Yavapai is a mostly white county with a significant Latino population and smaller concentrations of African Americans and American Indians. Halstead notes that white privilege is a significant focus of local discussions on the elimination of prejudice.
What’s on the horizon? Perhaps for October 2019 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab, the forerunner of Baha’u’llah, “the team that put the event together has its eye on the local stadium,” says Halstead.
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When art teacher David Draime was approached by a colleague to design a large exterior mural and organize students to paint it at their Fairfield, California, high school, he hesitated.
“I didn’t think I would have the time or the energy for such a huge undertaking,” says Draime, a Baha’i and one of three art teachers at Vanden High School. “But after a few days, I began to reconsider.”
In conceiving the mural that was to stretch all the way across a street-facing wall, he took inspiration from the Baha’i concept that we’re all “flowers of one garden,” which he felt was especially “positive and timely for a school with a diverse student body.”Kira Swafford is flanked by two of the dozens of flowers making up a mural painted by students at Vanden High School in Fairfield, California. Photo courtesy of David Draime
So over the 2017–18 winter break, he came up with a flower-filled design. Then he gave the project to his four advanced art classes, totaling about 95 students.
As the mural project developed, he says, “I started receiving confirmations that … whatever help I needed, all the time, energy and organizational skills this task would require would most certainly be forthcoming.”
The school’s principal, Bill Sarty, and the superintendent of schools, Pam Conklin, got behind the proposed design, and funding was secured. Work on the mural began in mid-April 2018.
At a staff meeting, Sarty related that Draime’s art students would be creating a “very special mural for our school.” Without sharing details of the design, he added: “I just want to say that this mural will have a very powerful message which will unite our school.”
Students add their unique touches
Students caught the spirit, too. Each one was given a photo of a flower and some greenery as a reference for painting a small section of the master design in acrylic.Jordyn Clayton stands in front of a mural she helped paint at Vanden High School in Fairfield, California. Photo courtesy of David Draime
“In the midst of painting my flower, I realized that each and every one of us literally represents a flower on that wall,” recalls Jordyn Clayton, a junior.
“Even though we have our own ways and styles of creating our flower, when you look at it all together it makes up the most beautiful and satisfying thing anyone could lay their eyes on — and created by teens!”
Says Kira Swafford, a senior, “I feel proud that I was a part of creating such a beautiful and inspiring mural. It was also fun because everyone got along well and connected over the painting process. It was almost like we became united as the mural says. It was an experience I will never forget.”
“It was really a sight to behold,” says Draime. “They took ownership of this project and devoted themselves to it, each according to her or his own abilities.”
He says the students themselves “were a beautiful, living example of the very thing they were painting. Here, you have a very diverse group of students — diverse in their ethnicity, religion, national origin, socio-economic status, disability, and, importantly, diverse in their artistic abilities — all working unitedly together towards the creation of a common, beautiful vision.”
Some students regularly stayed after school to work on the mural, while others showed up on weekends as well.
Timely bits of assistance
At every stage, help came just when needed, according to Draime.
“Several days before we began priming the wall, I happened to be talking with one of our counselors. He casually said to me, ‘Hey, you should do a time-lapse video of the students painting this mural.’
“I was so busy with organizing the project, ordering supplies, etc., that I had not even thought of that. What a great idea! If he had not mentioned it to me at that time, I may have only thought of it after several weeks into the project and then it would have been too late.”
Draime enlisted the help of Vanden High School’s video production teacher, Brent Manuel, who loaned him the equipment and showed him how to use it.
“I think in its own way, the video is as important as the mural itself in that the making of this beautiful and important work of art can be enjoyed by everyone around the globe,” says Draime.
Upon seeing the video, Superintendent Conklin sent a message: “I just shared the video with my family. … It is simply beautiful. … We all agree that this is one of the best projects we have ever seen. It warms my heart every time I watch it.”
The project was not finished until the week of graduation in early June — a total of six weeks. In sum, more than 3,000 student-hours went into the artwork’s creation.
“Put another way, if one person were tasked with this project and worked full time on it without a vacation, it would take that person over a year and a half to complete it,” notes Draime.
Clayton, one one of the student artists, sums up: “We all represent a flower on this wall and each of the flowers are so beautiful in their own way. This mural literally says to me that there is enough room for everyone to stand in the light and shine.”
See a local TV news report here:
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Relationships forged with fellow faith communities are continuing to give Baha’is in Cincinnati, Ohio, a seat at the table when issues of interest are discussed.
Just in the past few months, three such opportunities have arisen:
- Members of WINCS (Women in the Northern Cincinnati Suburbs) toured the Cincinnati Baha’i Center and asked questions about the Faith and its teachings. The visit lasted four hours.
- The Baha’is helped plan a Festival of Faiths in June and sponsored a booth (see “Cincinnati Baha’is gain visibility, collaborators through festival participation”).
More recently, a Baha’i was included in a WINCS-sponsored panel discussion Oct. 8 at the Islamic Center of Cincinnati on how the Abrahamic religions view the Virgin Mary.
“Last spring at a meeting of the Festival of Faiths steering committee, I overheard a conversation” about the upcoming panel, recalls Deborah Vance, who serves as secretary of the local Baha’i governing council, the Local Spiritual Assembly. “I popped over and explained how the Baha’i Faith is also an Abrahamic religion. They quickly invited me to participate.”
As a result, Vance shared the dais at the public-invited program with Lutheran and Catholic ministers, the Rev. Matt Byrd and Father Kip Stander; a Jewish rabbi, Jennifer Lewis; and an Islamic imam, Hossam Musa. After the presentations, participants were invited for a tour of the mosque.
Vance began her talk by tracing how the Bab, forerunner of the Baha’i Faith, was descended from Abraham through Hagar and through the Prophet Muhammad. Next she outlined how Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i Faith, was a descendant of Abraham through His wives Keturah and Sarah. (For more about the Baha’i Faith’s connection to Abraham see the book Abraham: One God, Three Wives, Five Religions.)
Vance went on to explain that the Writings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah uphold and extol the teachings of God’s divine Messengers. Baha’u’llah said those teachings over the ages comprise God’s one unfolding religion.
And she noted that Baha’u’llah wrote of the divine Sonship of Jesus and the mystery of the immaculacy of the Virgin Mary. Baha’i teachings also quote from the Qu’ran about Mary’s tribulations, in explaining how God tests humanity to distinguish the sincere from the insincere.
Vance was concise, perhaps mindful of the dictum “Blessed are the brief, for they will be invited again.” Though with their recent track record, Cincinnati Baha’is are on their way in any event to taking a meaningful part in the discourses of society.
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Starting with a simple Sunday prayer gathering in a Corvallis home 22 years ago, Baha’is in two Oregon counties developed spiritual and educational activities for all ages. From there they learned how to bring such community-building activities into even more neighborhoods.
And for the past seven years a teaching team has made regular efforts to keep up the vitality of several Baha’i-initiated activities in Benton and Linn counties, says Paula Siegel of Philomath. It’s a learning path much like many other U.S. Baha’is and their friends are walking.Multiple conversations go on as attendees enjoy refreshments at a devotional gathering in Corvallis, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Paula Siegel
But the Corvallis devotional gathering is still a significant part of the mix, and the teaching team meets weekly to “discuss and reflect on the program, consult on the needs of its participants, and share and support our individual teaching activities outside the weekly devotional gathering,” Siegel says.
Centering on sacred texts from all religions, the Sunday gathering in Corvallis was started in 1996 to bring people from across Benton and Linn counties to worship together. Before long, spiritual education classes for children, junior youths, youths and adults were also being held at the same place.
After a decade, however, local Baha’is rethought the gathering’s purpose in the light of guidance about community building from international and national Baha’i institutions.
They realized a lot of energy was going into the centralized gathering and that much of it would be better spent on the building of community in neighborhoods across the two-county area, Siegel says.
One Baha’i continued the Corvallis devotional gathering in her home. It became apparent, though, that a team effort would be needed to “support, strengthen and sustain” that activity and integrate it with others in the area.
Thus, in 2011 the team was born to assist several Baha’i-initiated community-building activities and nurture people’s interest in the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
That team, now numbering five Baha’is, reflects a call by the Universal House of Justice, the Faith’s global governing council, for the emergence of a “growing band of believers” who are “distinguished by their ability and their discipline to reflect on action and learn from experience.”
Team members have encouraged others to hold similar devotionals in their own homes, Siegel says. They also support each other’s initiatives while accompanying the 20 or so devotional participants on their spiritual journeys.
What the team did in a recent meeting offers a glimpse into its process and scope:
- Read and discussed a reference to devotional gatherings in a recent message from the Universal House of Justice.
- Consulted on a suggestion by two attendees that the Baha’i readings they heard on the harmony of science and religion be shared with area religious and scientific groups.
- Planned a fireside talk for the public, in hopes it will be the first of a series that engages artistic/musical members of the community.
- Discussed how to assist with the physical and spiritual needs of a friend of the Faith who has been unable to regularly attend the devotional.
- Shared such individual initiatives as a neighborhood devotional, conversations with co-workers, and a weekly discussion group.
It’s all part of learning “how to continue the conversation beyond Sundays,” sums up Siegel.
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Prayers and songs based on Baha’i texts were among those from dozens of faith traditions incorporated into a work of art by James Webb being exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago through the end of 2018.
Seven Baha’is were recorded reading and singing in the Auditorium of the Baha’i House of Worship in September for the project. These 17 selections became part of “Prayer,” an ongoing artwork that Webb has remade around the world since its first presentation in his home city of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2000. The Chicago version is the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America.Recorded prayers play simultaneously in the gallery installation. Photo courtesy of the Art Institue of Chicago
The work consists of unsynchronized layered vocal recordings of human voices in prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual groups in Chicagoland, according to information from the Art Institute. The prayers and chants included in the Baha’i selections were in a variety of languages, including Persian and Arabic
Listeners are invited to remove their shoes and walk the length of the carpet, composing their own arrangement of voices as they go, or to kneel or otherwise lower themselves next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers. The spare though colorful installation has the austerity of a work of Minimal Art and the enveloping richness of a choral concert.
Larry McGhee, a Baha’i who attended the opening of the exhibit, was one of several hundred people who listened to the artist’s presentation and then viewed the gallery.
“I believe that they’re trying to share the different ways prayers can be conveyed so people can have an appreciation for how other people practice,” McGhee says. He goes on to articulate one of the Baha’i views of prayer, that it need not be confined to a particular place. “It is a worthwhile venture,” says McGhee, “because wherever the mention of God is being made and His praise glorified is a blessed spot.”
All of the Baha’i selections were of prayers revealed by one of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith — the Bab, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Such prayers are considered by Baha’is to be the Word of God and spiritually powerful.A visitor to “Prayer” leans in close to listen. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
The artist, an experimental musician and visual artist with a degree in comparative religion, initiated “Prayer” in Cape Town five years after his country ended its practice of apartheid. The word apartheid means segregation; Webb has created a work that strives to bring people together. His goal in some ways echoes the mission of the Baha’i House of Worship as a place that brings together people of different faith backgrounds in common worship.
“Prayers articulate a basic wish for communion and often serve to solidify a community of faith in a place of worship,” the artist writes. By deliberately gathering prayers from a variety of neighborhoods and spiritual practices and naming each of the participants and congregations, Webb aims to join together inhabitants of his host city.
The process for creating “Prayer” is collaborative and rooted in the place where it is installed. All participation by faith members is voluntary, and each community receives a copy of the recording for their own use. Listen to the recordings made at the Baha’i House of Worship: https://bit.ly/2qsv2UZ
–Installation details, links and photos courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 62 singers coached by Van Gilmer, Music Director of the Baha’i House of Worship, will assemble with other musicians from around the world in a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“We are now frantically working on the nine pieces we will sing for the Messiah,’” says Gilmer who is hosting advance rehearsal time for singers who live near the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. Gilmer is also coordinating with Baha’i singers from across the country and from a few other countries who will meet in New York.
The Baha’i contingent — one of the largest to participate in the event — will be part of a massed choir performing the first half of the towering work by George Frideric Handel; a similar choir will perform the second half. Eighteen faith communities in all are contributing about 250 singers this year.DCINY Messiah…Refreshed! Jonathan Griffith, Conductor. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer
The invitation to participate came to Gilmer nearly a year ago after event coordinators at Distinguished Concerts International New York City saw YouTube videos of the Baha’i Festival Choir performing the best-known piece from the Messiah, the “Hallelujah” Chorus.
“At first, I was overwhelmed by the invitation and not certain if it was real,” Gilmer said. “Once I read about these annual concerts, I immediately started to see if I could gather enough of the past Baha’i Choral Festival Choir members to join with the Baha’i House of Worship Choir to be able to commit to this very special invitation.”
The spring 2018 festival became part of the preparation. That program included two sections from Handel’s oratorio: “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” and “And the Glory of the Lord,” giving a head start to many of the singers who plan to participate at Carnegie Hall.
For the annual festival — as for other public performances — Gilmer requires singers to memorize their parts, an unusual and often remarked-upon feat for the choristers. For the Carnegie Hall event, however, they will be using sheet music.
“It, of course, will be different for our choir to sing with the scores,” Gilmer said, “but everybody feels relieved to know that we will not have to memorize the nine choruses that we will sing during the first half of the concert.”
Another difference is that music in the Auditorium of the Baha’i House of Worship is always a cappella, without instrumentation. The singers at Carnegie Hall will be accompanied by a 100-piece orchestra.
Conductor Dr. Jonathan Griffith will conduct the 1959 re-orchestration by Eugene Goossens. The performance, which in years past has played to sold-out audiences, takes place in the soaring 2,804-seat Isaac Stern Auditorium.
The singers will spend five days in New York City, with “approximately 9-10 hours in rehearsals,” said Griffith. The concert organizers will also be hosting a farewell gala dinner for the participants.Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer
Carnegie Hall, a National Historic Landmark, is named after philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who funded its construction in midtown Manhattan. It is one of the most prestigious venues in the world for both classical and popular music, and since its opening in 1891, musicians the world over have aspired to sing there.
It will be Gilmer’s third time singing in Carnegie Hall. “I had never imagined that I would appear on the Carnegie Hall stage,” he said.
“The first time I sang in Carnegie Hall was in 1992 with a group of 40 specially chosen Baha’i singers for the official opening of the Second Baha’i World Congress. It was an honor in many ways.”
Ten years later, he was a featured soloist with the Voices of Baha, an international Baha’i touring choir under the direction of Tom Price. “This time, I sang the solo for “Amazing Grace” with the 200-voice choir.”
So how is he feeling about his third appearance? Still excited. And he is also happy to facilitate bringing other singers to Carnegie Hall. “It is so special to sing on this, one of the finest stages in the world. I’m also a little bit anxious about my group getting the music right.”Deborah Good-Krochock (center) follows the direction of Van Gilmer (right) during a featured ensemble performance at the 2017 Choral Festival Concert at the Baha’i House of Worship.
One singer joining Gilmer is Deborah Good-Krochock, a member of the Baha’i House of Worship Choir who regularly sings with the spring Choral Music Festivals. A French and English teacher who enjoys singing in many styles, Good-Krochock went to Paris last year as a participant in the Chicago-Paris Cabaret Connexion Singer Exchange and took master classes. She also took part in a choir assembled in 2016 for the dedication of the new Baha’i House of Worship in Santiago, Chile, and sings for monthly Spanish-language devotions at the Temple in Wilmette.
Good-Krochock said she is excited about the trip. “I love the energy of New York. I am ecstatic about the chance to join with singers from around the world in performing the Messiah at Carnegie Hall.”
Learning the music for the Messiah, she said, presents some special challenges. “The music is very intricate and requires lots of agility in mastering the complex runs. There are several musical motifs that keep popping up where you think that something is being repeated, yet it is changed by only a note or two, making it very hard to master.”
Handel composed the English-language oratorio in 1741 for a modest number of singers and a small orchestra. After his death, the work was adapted for giant orchestras and choirs. It has been revised frequently, with recent trends favoring a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions.
Although its structure resembles that of opera, there is no dramatic action or direct speech. Instead, the text is an extended reflection on Jesus as the Messiah called Christ.
Part I begins with biblical prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the Annunciation to the shepherds, the only passage taken from the Gospels. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part III he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.
These passages take on additional significance for Baha’is who understand that their inherent prophecies also apply to Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith.
“While most people generally associate the holy scriptures of the Bible with the Messiah,” said Gilmer, “they seem to Baha’is to announce the coming of the Messenger of God for this Day Who is Baha’u’llah, Whose Arabic name means the Glory of God.”
Gilmer points out lyrics relating to Baha’u’llah. “We will sing ‘Glory to God in the Highest,’ ‘And the Government shall be upon His shoulders,’ ‘the King of Kings,’ ‘the Lord of Lords,’ ‘Blessing and Honor, Glory, and Power be unto Him, Amen’.”
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A record-breaking 3,490 people visited the Baha’i House of Worship on Oct. 13-14 for the Chicago Architecture Center’s “Open House Chicago,” a free public festival that offers behind-the-scenes access to more than 250 buildings. It was the second year the Temple was included in the annual weekend event.
According to Eric Rogers, manager of Open House Chicago, the attendance at the House of Worship was well above the average of 1,300 per site. “In fact, it looks like it was our busiest site outside of the immediate Loop area,” he notes.“Chicago Open House” visitors stroll inside the Temple Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chapman
Many first-time visitors said they didn’t know they were welcome inside the building until they read about it in the Open House guide.
One draw for many enthusiastic amateur photographers was that during the event they were given special permission to take pictures in the Temple Auditorium. Photography is generally not allowed inside, to preserve a serene atmosphere for those who are praying and meditating.
Except for the 20 minutes midday when prayers were read aloud, visitors could click away to their heart’s content. They captured images of the soaring 138-foot dome, where recently added lighting fixtures in the balconies cast gleaming highlights onto the lacy interior ornamentation. They used cell phones or video cameras to record the uplifting spiritual quotations that frame each of the nine doorways. People took selfies, too.Fall gardens abloom. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chapman
The clear, crisp fall weather was perfect for those who wanted to stroll in the gardens, which had been planted with hundreds of fuchsia, russet and ochre-colored chrysanthemums, deep purple ornamental cabbages and other fall foliage in time for the event.
From her sunny station near the main entrance, Jennifer Chapman served as a guide on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, answering questions and showing people into the Auditorium. Chapman cheerily estimates that she welcomed more than 1,200 people. What comments did she hear from visitors?Symbols on Temple pillars spark interest. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chapman
“People were amazed at the concept of a house of worship that is open to all religions,” Chapman says. “Many people asked about the symbolism above the entrances and the quotes inside the Auditorium, amazed that we are so inclusive.”
In the words of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, one quote advises: Consort with the followers of all religions with friendliness. Another: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. The symbols of other religions carved into the pillars of the temple illustrate the Baha’i Faith’s embrace of others.
“There was one lady from China who said she was excited to be in a place where she could worship freely, that she hadn’t been able to do that for many years,” Chapman said.
Several people who had lived in the area as children said they used to drive by the Temple with their parents and had always wanted to come in, so now they were happy to visit as adults. “And,” Chapman adds with a bright smile, “many people said they would come back.”
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Irfan Colloquium, a friendly gathering held several times a year in an informal and collegial atmosphere, provides unique opportunities for meeting and associating with people interested in Baha’i studies.Participants at the October 2017 ‘Irfan Colloquium sessions at Louhelen Baha’i School. Photo courtesy of Iraj Ayman
The colloquium program includes presentations by scholars from different countries on systematic studies in fundamental principles of Baha’i beliefs, the Writings of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith, and the interface between the Baha’i Faith and current intellectual and religious trends. Participants receive a free set of recent ‘Irfan publications.
Schedule of sessions for 2019:
- May 23–27: 157th (Persian) and 158th (English) ‘Irfan Colloquia, Bosch Baha’i School, Santa Cruz, California
- June 20–26: 159th Irfan Colloquium (Persian), Center for Baha’i Studies, Acuto, Italy
- June 27–30: 160th Irfan Colloquium (English), Center for Baha’i Studies, Acuto, Italy
- July 18–21: 161st Irfan Colloquium (German), Tambach Seminar Center, Tambach, Germany
- October 3–6: 162nd (Persian) and 163rd (English) ‘Irfan Colloquia, Louhelen Baha’i School, Davison, Michigan
Program information and registration:
Mail: ‘Irfan Colloquium
c/o Baha’i National Center
1233 Central St.
Evanston, IL 60201-1611
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It’s likely they weren’t totally surprised, though, given how far the association has come in helping Baha’is engage meaningfully in the issues of the day.
After all, “This is not just any academic conference,” the 1,400 people meeting Aug. 9–12 in Atlanta, Georgia, were told at the outset. It’s a message the association has been sending for years — that the conference is not just for academics.
But the focus, in more spaces than ever before, was on both the acquisition and application of knowledge by all. Participants were aided in attaining the skills and confidence to contribute Baha’i concepts of civilization building to the discourses of their professional and educational fields and of society as a whole.
Its location at the first hotel to be integrated in Atlanta, hub of the civil rights movement, made it altogether fitting to shine a bright light on bringing about nonviolent social change through constructive resilience in the face of oppression.
Fulfilling the vision of a “beloved community”The Rev. Andrew Young (right) talks informally between conference sessions as Counselor Nwandi Lawson looks on, during the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
In welcoming the conference to her adopted hometown, Counselor Nwandi Lawson, an appointed adviser to Baha’i institutions in the Americas, noted that spaces were available for attendees of all ages to help move toward solving society’s ills, thanks to a first-ever youth conference and classes for children.
Additional opportunities for collaboration, she added, will come from ABS-initiated seminars throughout the year.
“We know with great confidence that the world we know today is not the world that will exist in the future,” said Lawson. “But it isn’t enough for us to sit back and watch as the process unfolds. … We have to figure out together what these principles look like in action.
“This is not just any academic conference.”
Kenneth E. Bowers, speaking on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, echoed that sentiment.
Recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” Bowers said the ultimate goal of living together harmoniously resonates with the teachings of Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, and “the true spirit of religion down through the ages.”
When translated into action, said Bowers, such a vision “ensures that every child of whatever background has equal access to education and opportunity. That women and men enjoy equal rights. That people of every race and creed are equally able to benefit from and also to contribute to the advancement of society.”
It also means, he said, “that a balance is struck in our economy that avoids the extremes of deep poverty and want for some and excessive wealth for others. And, finally, that a culture of competition and conflict gives way to one of compassion, of mutual assistance and collaboration.
“But given these noble ideals, the actual work must be done,” Bowers said. “And to this work we have to devote not only our hearts but also the full power of our intellects.”
Sharing experiences, learning from others
Enayat Rawhani, speaking on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada, noted that ABS allows attendees of all backgrounds to both share their own experiences and learn from others.
“It isn’t that certain people are coming in to participate because they are in the forefront of activities, but that we all participate and we work together,” said Rawhani.Joy DeGruy, an author and researcher on race relations, offers a thought during a breakout session she conducted along with Arta Monjazeb on the history of racial injustice in the United States as a context for understanding Baha’i writings on this most challenging Issue, at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
“That’s one side,” he said. “The other is to engage in the prevalent discourses of society — bring principles into the arena of conversation throughout the world.
“Here, we can undergo intellectual and spiritual capacity raising and commingle those capacities.”
That was most evident in the conference’s strong and variegated thread of sessions addressing constructive resilience and social justice (see article, “Threads of resilience and social justice wend through ABS gathering”).
The thread began to be spun, says conference coordinator Nilufar Gordon when the ABS Executive Committee invited Firaydoun Javaheri, retired member of the Universal House of Justice, the Faith’s global governing council, to speak on how the Iranian Baha’i community has managed to not just survive but is able to contribute to society despite suffering from intense persecution.
Other strands of the thread came together quickly from there:
- A moving multimedia plenary, featuring video and solo vocals and spoken word, depicting healing through reclamation of forgotten pieces of the history of slavery in the United States.
- A talk on social identity and oneness, reconciling the universal with the particular.
- And one on navigating discourse on race within the politicized landscape of journalism.
- A panel on building community with refugee populations in Atlanta.
- Screening of a film on America’s oft-overlooked tradition of race amity.
- Breakout sessions on topics ranging from strategies to build relationships beyond diversity to the power of eloquent speech and women’s experiences in reaching out to “the other.”
- A visit by youth conference participants to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
- Uplifting devotions leavened with artistic expression and a stirring finale featuring the Atlanta Baha’i Choir.
- A bookstore featuring many works related to the themes presented.
- Lots of time to build relationships and exchange ideas between sessions and over meals.
Studying guidance so knowledge and action can followYoung and young at heart pose with Lakota hoop dancer and flutist Kevin Locke after he delighted them with an interactive performance at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Those conference elements and others — such as a discussion on neuroscience, ethics and religion that drew its panelists from area institutions — made extensive use of resources within and around Atlanta.
They also benefited from the year-round efforts of working groups formed to foster learning and discourse in several professional and academic disciplines.
And morning sessions devoted to studying guidance from the Universal House of Justice helped frame an understanding of what was to come. The first day, attendees studied letters on uprooting racism, eliminating racial prejudice, and climate change. The next two days, workshops were held on the topics of contributing to prevalent discourses and an evolving conceptual framework for personal and societal development.
An academic conference? Not in the conventional sense; rather, a conference that engages intellect and spirit, the entire human being, as it seeks to build the community’s ability to contribute more effectively to the betterment of the world.
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Resilience. In psychology, resilience is the ability to adapt well in the face of tragedy and stress. The Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith, uses the more specific term “constructive resilience” to describe a powerful response to long-term systemic oppression that can effect transformation in individuals and society.
Resilience — specifically constructive resilience — was uppermost in hearts and minds as the pursuit of social justice took center stage at the 42nd annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies–North America, Aug. 9–12 in Atlanta.
Attendees were moved as Dr. Firaydoun Javaheri, retired member of the House of Justice, described how the Baha’is in Iran are not just surviving but are able to contribute to society despite suffering ongoing persecution.
They listened intently as the Rev. Andrew Young, now 86, related stories from his involvement in the American civil rights movement and his later diplomatic efforts — both demonstrating palpably the power of learning to live and work together.
In a host of other talks, panels, breakouts and study sessions, they gleaned additional facets of the power of constructive resilience to fortify individuals and peoples and ultimately change hearts — nearly all couched within the framework of the resilience of African Americans in the face of horrors ranging from slavery to Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration.
And in a stirring conference-ending performance by the Atlanta Baha’i Choir, they heard the words and felt the spirit of generations of oppressed who have clung to faith, hope and love.
Andrew Young: “Stay calm … get smart”The Rev. Andrew Young, an icon of the civil rights movement and later a member of Congress, a diplomat and a mayor of Atlanta, addresses the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Magnanimity and perseverance were hallmarks of those whose example drove the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, said Young.
As students in Nashville, Tennessee, summoned the courage to launch the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins that would end up lasting three months, they “got up at 6 o’clock in the morning and read Gandhi for almost a semester,” he noted.
“The struggle was always an intellectual and spiritual struggle that had been carefully thought out,” he said, and the civil rights movement met success because demonstrators were “militant but not angry” — a lesson Young said he learned from his father at age 4 when the family lived 50 yards from Nazi party headquarters in New Orleans.
“My daddy told me, ‘Look, son, these are sick people. You do not get mad at sick people. You need every bit of intelligence you have to deal with them. … The best thing you can do is stay calm and don’t get mad, get smart.’”
Young projected that lesson to today’s racial environment, noting that “seldom has there been the complexity of sickness that we now find in our nation, and it’s spreading. And we’re a minority, people of color. We can’t win anything violent, almost anything confrontational. We’ve got to be smart.”
Learning to live and work with others is something that served Young well, he said, not only as a top aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but later as ambassador to the United Nations in the administration of President Jimmy Carter and as mayor of Atlanta.
Carter “always felt that we could make things a little better if we can understand each other,” said Young. The president sent him to meet with people who were blocking progress, such as PW Botha, enforcer of South Africa’s apartheid system of racial separation.
Young also told of meeting in the 1960s with the head of the chain that built this conference’s hotel. The man had not intended to hire any African Americans, but after meeting with Young and other city leaders he integrated the staff as well as the hotel — a first that helped point the way toward unprecedented prosperity for the city and, three decades later, its winning bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics.
The United States can make similar strides, he said, but only if “we have a common goal, and that goal I think is the message of your faith: that we are all children of God, one God, and that we have got to learn to submit to the power of the spirit in order to survive here in the flesh.”
Firaydoun Javaheri: “What can I plus divine assistance do?”Firaydoun Javaheri, retired member of the Universal House of Justice, addresses the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference on the topic of constructive resilience. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
In his own talk, Javaheri painted a picture of an Iranian Baha’i community so full of moral purpose and abiding love for fellow citizens that it has influenced millions of Iranians’ attitudes toward Baha’is and the Faith — even interrogators of those who have been arrested.
Despite the banning of Baha’i institutions and systematic government efforts to weaken it spiritually and economically, the community is distinguished by its “contentment, joy and conviction,” he said.
“What can I plus divine assistance do?” is the prevailing attitude, Javaheri said. These believers are striving to foster an advance in civilization, which they are certain will come about because the Baha’i revelation “rests on an unassailable foundation” and “can’t not succeed.”
“Don’t we pray for these capacities?” Javaheri asked. We’ll “have to work to develop them,” he added. “We’re all oppressed by forces of society … living in a society engulfed in materialism and traditions and assumptions has its own tests and difficulties.”
The example of Iranian Baha’is’ constructive resilience shows a “powerful mode of response coherent with the very aims of the Faith,” he said. It is “non-adversarial, violence-free” and shuns contention. At the same time it is “vigorous in pursuing every legal avenue for correcting injustice.”
Even while remaining “free of resentment and magnanimous,” however, Baha’is recognize that their fellow citizens are also suffering, and they refuse to criticize “those responding to oppression in other ways.”
“Undisturbed by prevailing chaos,” Iran’s Baha’is see “opportunities to promote divine teachings,” he said. As a result the Faith is a “source of inspiration to people who want to build a fair and happy nation.”
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