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Northern Illinois Bahá'ís

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National Convention 2018: sense of urgency, focus on empowerment

US Bahá'í News Service - Tue, 06/19/2018 - 11:51am
Delegates from across the country listen to comments made during Convention consultation. Photo by Jasmin Kemp

Light shone in many directions at the 110th United States Baha’i National Convention:

  • From prayers and songs that drew on Baha’i sacred verses, seeking God’s guidance in helping people and communities learn to transform themselves for the better.
  • From the focus of more than 160 delegates as they spoke and listened, examining human conditions and how Baha’is are working with others in cities, towns and neighborhoods to improve their lives and society.
  • From their eagerness to use their scant free time to hear each other out, especially on learning to weave elements of racial justice and other imperatives into all of Baha’i community life.
  • And from the earnest atmosphere of devotion in which the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States was elected to steer the U.S. community’s course in the year ahead.

Radiating through the Convention, May 24–27 at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, was an urgent, heartfelt conviction that this country, now more than ever, needs the power that the teachings of Baha’u’llah can lend to building bridges and unifying communities.

Counselor Mark Sisson. Photo by David Smith

Particularly acute is a priority for individuals to move where there is need. “Go into those communities and call upon the friends and families that live there to help you help them, help one another, to build a world community,” urged Counselor Mark Sisson on the final day of Convention. “The means to do it is in our hands. All we have to do is apply it.” Sisson is a member of the Continental Board of Counselors, appointed to advise Baha’i institutions in North America.

He and Counselor Farah Guchani-Rosenberg were on hand to provide perspective on the current blueprint for that transformation — the Five Year Plan for development and growth of the Baha’i community, 2016–2021 — and on what is being learned in those efforts.

The National Spiritual Assembly offered reports on the community’s activities and finances, and members answered questions and concerns as needed.

Kenneth Bowers, secretary of the Assembly, said that even as the Plan’s framework for action embraces a variety of gatherings — to teach the Faith, pray and discuss together, and carry out spiritual education at a variety of age levels — it’s essential to think of Baha’u’llah’s vision “in terms of hearts and souls entering community life and making contributions to the uplifting of society.”

Last fall, 171 delegates were elected by Baha’is in geographic units from coast to coast. Exercising one of their two sacred duties at the Convention, 163 of them voted in person for the National Assembly on May 26 and the rest cast absentee ballots. Fully 35 were serving as delegates for the first time.

Most of the Convention was spent on their other duty: to inform the incoming National Assembly, through consultation, on the progress of the Faith. Topics for that consultation broadly outlined the priorities of the Plan:

“Movement of Clusters Along the Continuum of Development,” a look at how patterns of community life gain vitality through planning and collaboration within local clusters of communities.

“Strengthening the Training Institute,” concerned with children’s classes, junior youth groups and study circles, especially as spaces for people to accompany each other in learning to serve humanity — and to build people’s capacity to create other opportunities, such as devotional gatherings and home visits.

“Enhancing Institutional Capacity,” the things Spiritual Assemblies and other institutions are learning as they work to channel resources into service and foster healthy community life.

“Involvement in the Life of Society,” on finding and utilizing opportunities to take part in public discourses and meaningful social action.

A concern touching on all those topics emerged from the hearts of delegates: the “most vital and challenging issue” of racial prejudice and how Baha’is and their friends can work through local community-building processes, public discourse and social action to create a coherent force for healing of racial rifts at every level.

Many participants remarked on the high level of substance, maturity and mutual respect all through the weekend’s discussions.

As a delegate noted during the consultation on racial prejudice, “This is a blessed moment right now. A learning moment for us, for our community. A snapshot moment, where we get a look at ourselves.”

Obviously, though, this crucible of thought will gain greater meaning as it gives Baha’is and their friends encouragement over the next year to get into spiritual and uplifting conversations that can lead to service, empowerment and transformation.

Counselor Farah Guchani-Rosenberg. Photo by David Smith

Fortunately, resources to make that easier have appeared over the past year, such as the revised The Baha’is magazine and the online films Light to the World and A Widening Embrace, Guchani-Rosenberg pointed out. “Now, more than ever before, we have so much to work with.”

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Cohorts of university students inspired to act

Bahá'í World News Service - Tue, 06/12/2018 - 11:00pm
Baha’i-inspired educational program helps young adults study, consult about social transformation.

Advancement of women and girls featured at major forum on development

Bahá'í World News Service - Wed, 06/06/2018 - 11:00pm
The BIC contributed to this year’s European Development Days, which focused on women’s empowerment and rights.

Counsellors’ conversation on spiritual transformation and social change: Part 1

Bahá'í World News Service - Wed, 05/30/2018 - 11:00pm
Reflecting on spiritual and moral education programs for youth, Counsellors describe the transformation of communities.

Photo Gallery: Baha’i National Convention Day 4

US Bahá'í News Service - Tue, 05/29/2018 - 5:39pm

Images from day 4 of the U.S. Baha’i National Convention, May 25, 2018. View gallery on Flickr.

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Photo Gallery: Baha’i National Convention Day 3

US Bahá'í News Service - Tue, 05/29/2018 - 5:24pm

Images from day 3 of the U.S. Baha’i National Convention, May 25, 2018. View gallery on Flickr.

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Baha’is offer a model of spiritually based elections

US Bahá'í News Service - Sun, 05/27/2018 - 1:57pm



Imagine an election without nominations, candidates or campaigning—an election that operates in a spiritual atmosphere and is based entirely on principled conduct.

To those who equate elections with divisiveness, mud-slinging and taking sides, the Baha’i system of elections may seem like an unattainable ideal, but it was demonstrated in action at the Baha’i National Convention.

On May 24th, 2018, Baha’is representing localities from across the United States gathered at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois for the 110th Annual Baha’i National Convention. They elected the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, the nine-person assembly that will guide the affairs of the national Baha’i community for the coming year.

This lay council fosters the vibrancy of Bahá’í communities and strengthens their participation in the life of society. This is how the Baha’i Faith is organized without clergy.

Baha’is come from virtually every ethnic, racial and tribal background, and the delegates reflect this diversity. They come from 171 geographic units across the United States. Each delegate was elected to represent their district in a “unit convention” held the previous October.

Delegates may vote for any adult member of the American Baha’i community who possesses the necessary qualities of selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability and mature experience.

Delegates and those elected to serve on local and national Baha’i institutions offer this service as volunteers and are generally not compensated.

Most years, National Conventions are held in late April during the 12-day Festival of Riḍvan, which commemorates Baha’u’llah’s announcement in 1863 that He is God’s Messenger for this era.

Every five years—and 2018 was one of them—the National Convention is held in late May due to the international convention at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel, where embers of more than 180 National Assemblies from around the world gather to elect the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith.

The election of the first Universal House of Justice in 1963 very likely constituted history’s first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of delegates, representing a cross-section of the entire human race.

At a time when trust in government is eroding everywhere in the world, and when the electoral process in many nations has become discredited due to corruption, this new model of governance serves as an antidote to apathy, alienation, and despair.

It is a model for a positive and practical means of governing a just and unified global society.

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National Spiritual Assembly elected

US Bahá'í News Service - Sat, 05/26/2018 - 6:24pm

In balloting on May 26, 2018, delegates to the 110th U.S. Baha’i National Convention, gathered at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, elected the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.

The elected members are Muin Afnani, Fariba Aghdasi, Kenneth E. Bowers, Juana C. Conrad, S. Valerie Dana, Robert C. Henderson, Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, Kevin Trotter and David F. Young

Members are elected to one-year terms.

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For delegates, casting ballots brings honor, joy, relief

US Bahá'í News Service - Sat, 05/26/2018 - 4:48pm

The hour was early. The sky was clear. The sun was warm and bright.  The Saturday morning election of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States started with 20 minutes of prayers and choir music in the Auditorium of the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. It was the third day of the 110th Baha’i National Convention.

Delegates then took their seats in Foundation Hall, in the Temple’s lower level. The announced voting instructions were both practical and inspirational. Excerpts from Baha’i scripture were read that emphasized the solemnity, responsibility and spiritual significance of the voting.

Except for the rustling of paper ballots, scritch-scratching of pencils and sealing of envelopes, the room was silent for the next 18 minutes. The hall’s singular acoustics made these tiny sounds seem like light raindrops falling.

Each delegate was called up in alphabetical order to place their envelopes in the Lucite box at center stage. Some kissed the envelope before dropping it in the box.

When the convention secretary announced that all 171 delegates had voted, they gave one another a standing ovation. Then the group spontaneously began singing “Allah-u-Abha,” meaning “God is Glorious.”

There were 35 delegates who cast ballots for the first time. They were 20 percent of the 171 who represent localities across the country.

One of these first-timers was Swati Shevate Justice from Greensboro, North Carolina. She was brought up in Mumbai and has lived for eight years in Greensboro, where she serves on her Local Spiritual Assembly. She was visibly moved both during and after the election.

“I feel so overwhelmed to be given this honor,” she said. “I am so humbled.”

Ten years ago Shevate Justice served as an usher during an election of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Faith, at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel.

“At that time I thought if anybody needed a proof of the truth of the Faith they need to witness this,” she said of welcoming delegates from all over the world. Through tears, Justice said that today’s voting took her back to that emotional time and gathering at the World Center.

“This balloting, this voting, was no less special than the International Convention. It had the same kind of power, the same kind of impact. It was very special.”

The process was not all solemnity, though. As Joel Nizin of Richwood, New Jersey submitted his ballot, the delegates emitted a round of laughter. Nizin explains:

“I’ve been a delegate now 28 times. Historically there was a green metal voting box, and when it came to my name — I’m usually the 110th or 120th out of the 171 — that box, which was much smaller, would get full and I would have to shake it to get my ballot in the box. Now that they’ve switched to this clear plastic box, I still shake it. Everybody expects me to do it.”

Even after 28 years of attending the National Convention, Nizin says it’s an honor to be here. “It is so wonderful to be part of the consultation, to meet these incredible Baha’is who live throughout the United States and to have the honor of electing my National Spiritual Assembly.”

Nizin started preparing for the National Convention in October right after he was elected to be a delegate through his local unit convention. “I spend the next six months thinking about what my delegate report will look like, talking with people and visiting. It’s really a year-long activity; it’s not just a few days or a few weeks.”

“I usually have a list of 15 or 20 people I think I want to vote for, I subtract, I add, I keep winnowing it down, usually within a day or two before the election, I get to my final nine,” Nizin said. Other delegates intentionally avoid considering specific names until the inspiration and the actual moment of voting comes.

Delegates have the freedom to vote for any Baha’i residing in the United States who is 21 or older. The Baha’i writings encourage them to select “those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.” Delegates make efforts to become familiar with Baha’is active in local, regional and national community efforts.

Greg Hatayama, another first-time delegate, from Denver, was impressed by the gathering itself.

“It is so cool to see how strong the Baha’i community is across the country. From the big cities to the rural clusters, it sounds amazing that we’ve progressed so far,” Hatayama said.

This was not the first time he had been in a large gathering of Baha’is. “I went to a winter school in Kuala Lumpur that had a thousand people in it. That was amazing.” In 2013 Hatayama also traveled to Portland, Oregon, for one of a series of youth conferences sponsored by the Universal House of Justice.

How did he feel after the voting? “I feel a little bit of relief, actually. There was a lot of tension and thought. Just a lot of the weightiness of the task was difficult to sustain for the last few days.”

A past delegate from a nearby area had prepped him for what to expect of the voting. “I felt fairly ready for the process,” Hatayama said. “He even informed me that Joel was going to shake the box!”

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Photo Gallery: Baha’i National Convention Day 2

US Bahá'í News Service - Sat, 05/26/2018 - 11:08am

Images from day 2 of the U.S. Baha’i National Convention, May 25, 2018. View gallery on Flickr.

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Photo Gallery: Baha’i National Convention Day 1

US Bahá'í News Service - Fri, 05/25/2018 - 8:11pm

Images from day one of the U.S. Baha’i National Convention, Thursday, May 24, 2017.

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ABS conference explores social identity, race amity, arts and media discourse

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 05/24/2018 - 2:02pm

How can Baha’i thought influence the way we see our place in the world? The ways we conduct ourselves in our occupations and artistic expressions? The ways people from diverse backgrounds relate to each other?

And how might such influences already be working?  

These are some of the fascinating explorations behind the headline sessions, participatory workshops, research presentations and other gatherings at this year’s 42nd annual Conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies–North America (ABS), Aug. 9–12 in Atlanta.

The annual conference is open to anyone interested in how people are applying the power of Baha’u’llah’s teachings to lives, communities and society as a whole.

Main sessions of the ABS conference are a gathering place for the more than 1,000 attendees each year, as in this scene from 2016. Photo by Dylan Sheper

For the first time, youth ages 15–18 will have a dedicated conference at the same time and venue, with unique sessions, arts, music, discussions and workshops.

In another first for this popular conference, facilities will include spaces for children too young for the established children’s program: a run-and-play room and a quiet place for nursing mothers.

May 31 is the deadline for maximum discount on advance registration through the ABS website. Act quickly to reserve one of the fast-moving discounted rooms at the Sheraton Atlanta.

Main sessions will feature:

  • Firaydoun Javaheri, a former member of the Universal House of Justice, the worldwide governing body of the Baha’i Faith.
  • Shahrzad Sabet, visiting assistant research professor for the Baha’i Chair for World Peace program at the University of Maryland, on “Social Identity and the Oneness of Humankind: Reconciling the Universal with the Particular.”
  • Jesse Washington, senior writer for ESPN who has co-created The Undefeated series of video stories on the intersection of race, sports and culture.
  • Masud Olufani, artist-in-residence at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, whose awards include the 2016 Southern Art Prize for the state of Georgia.
  • A panel presentation on the documentary film An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition, featuring William Smith, executive director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College in Boston, and Craig Rothman, director of U.S. Baha’i Media Services.

A number of the presentations and sessions are the fruit of year-round collaboration within ABS working groups that look at learning within specific fields. Current working groups are focused on agriculture, economics, education, law, health, indigenous studies, media, organizational development, religion, science and technology.

Workshops will cover core concepts surrounding participation in society’s discourses, including currents of thought within professions and academic disciplines.

Other sessions offer the presentation of original research by young scholars, professionals and artists on themes across diverse subjects.

Please like and follow the Association for Baha’i Studies on Facebook for updates leading to the conference. To subscribe to the ABS mailing list, please fill out this contact form.

Sponsored by the Baha’is of Canada and supported by the Baha’is of the United States, the association creates programs for a growing number of participants to explore the implications of the Baha’i teachings for a variety of disciplines, professions and fields of inquiry.

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Delegates from across the United States gather for the 110th Annual Baha’i National Convention

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 05/24/2018 - 11:46am

Delegates to the 110th U.S. Baha’i National Convention are convening today at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, for four days of convention proceedings from Thursday through Sunday, May 24-27.

The 171 National Convention delegates, elected last October in electoral units across the United States, will take up two principal tasks:

  • Prayerfully elect the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly who will guide the affairs of the Baha’i Faith in this country over the coming year.
  • Consult on the progress of the Baha’i Faith in the United States and offer suggestions and recommendations to the incoming National Assembly.

The Baha’i National Convention is taking place only weeks after the Universal House of Justice was elected during the Twelfth International Baha’i Convention at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel.

Here, in brief, is the agenda of the Baha’i National Convention.

THURSDAY

The day will start with a deepening for delegates, conducted by members of the Continental Board of Counselors, on the purposes of National Convention and delegates’ role in it, followed by a devotional program.

Once in Foundation Hall in the Temple’s lower level, delegates will be seated and proceed to address the organization of Convention. They will elect Convention officers, approve the agenda and adopt procedures for consultation.

Reading of the 2018 Riḍván message of the Universal House of Justice will be followed by thoughts of the Counselors present on the message and delegate consultation on topics related to it. That evening a newly released film will be viewed. A Widening Embrace captures insights and experiences of Baha’is and friends worldwide in their efforts to contribute to the well-being of their communities and the advancement of society.

FRIDAY

Presentations by the National Assembly’s secretary and treasurer expanding on key points in that body’s Annual Report will be followed by questions from delegates.

That afternoon, delegates will consult on topics relating to the growth and development of a vibrant pattern of Baha’i community life at the local level, including “Movement along the Continuum of Development” and “Strengthening the Training Institute.”

SATURDAY

Solemn balloting for the National Assembly will be overseen by the Counselors and observed by Convention visitors.

Consultation will continue, with “Enhancing Institutional Capacity” as the scheduled topic. The Convention photograph will be taken outside the Temple or, if the weather is inclement, inside Foundation Hall.

SUNDAY

Consultation will continue, with “Involvement in the Life of Society” on the agenda as one topic. To conclude Convention, the Counselors will offer final remarks.

Log-in to the 2018 Baha’i National Convention website for full coverage (Baha’i Online Services account required).

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Common questions about the Baha’i National Convention

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 05/24/2018 - 11:43am

Each spring, Baha’is representing localities from across the country gather at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, to elect the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. This nine-person assembly guides the affairs of the national Baha’i community for the coming year.

Delegates at the 109th Annual Baha’i National Convention in 2017

Delegates attending the National Convention come from one of 171 geographic units. Each delegate was elected to represent their area in a “unit convention” held the previous October.

Q: What’s the purpose of National Convention? 
A: The primary purpose of the convention is to enable delegates to meet, deliberate freely upon the affairs of the community, and cast their ballots for the National Spiritual Assembly for the coming annual term.

Q: When is National Convention held? 
A: Most years, National Convention is held in late April on an extended weekend during the 12-day Festival of Riḍvan. This festival commemorates Baha’u’llah’s announcement that He is God’s latest Messenger. Every five years–and 2018 is one of them–National Convention is held in late May. Those are the years when the international governing council, the Universal House of Justice, is elected at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel. Since that election takes place in April, the National Convention is held in May to enable the current National Assembly members to attend the International Convention.

Q: Who attends? 
A: The relatively small number of seats in Foundation Hall at the Baha’i House of Worship limits the number of people who can attend the National Convention. Delegates are guaranteed seats.  Members of elected and appointed Baha’i institutions, a small number of Baha’i National Center staff members and guests, such as delegates’ family members, also attend.

Q: How do delegates prepare for National Convention? 
A: To assist new and returning delegates in preparing for participation in the Convention, they are provided with many writings from the Baha’i Faith relating to Convention. Election materials, the National Spiritual Assembly’s Annual Report, and a preliminary Convention agenda also are provided. On the morning National Convention begins, a study session for delegates on the significance and purpose of the National Convention is facilitated by members of the Continental Board of Counselors.

Q: Who may speak at National Convention? 
A: The privilege of the floor is extended to delegates, members of the Continental Board of Counselors, and members of the National Spiritual Assembly. Occasionally, other Baha’is are invited to deliver reports or share information that will inform the delegates’ consultation.

Q: Who may serve as a National Convention officer? 
A: Any delegate present for the proceedings may serve as Convention chair or secretary. The body of delegates elects officers by secret ballot in the opening session of the Convention.

Q: How is the National Convention agenda decided? 
A: A preliminary agenda is presented by the National Spiritual Assembly to the delegates. Delegates are free to propose changes to the agenda and have them adopted by the body of delegates.

Q: How is consultation conducted at National Convention? 
A: The exact manner of consultation, such as how long each delegate may speak, is decided by the body of delegates at the beginning of Convention. Each delegate has a number and raises that number to be recognized by the Convention secretary. The secretary lists the delegates in order of recognition and that list can be seen by all on monitors placed on the wall above the stage. When the time comes near for a delegate to speak, he or she moves to the front of the hall and awaits his or her turn, at which point he or she stands at a lectern and speaks at a microphone. Delegates may offer insights on the topic of consultation for that session and may offer a suggestion or recommendation to the National Spiritual Assembly for its consideration. Suggestions require no vote of the body of delegates. A recommendation is consulted on and the body of delegates decides by show of hands whether to pass it along to the National Assembly.

Q: Are recordings made of the proceedings?
A: Portions of the proceedings are audio or video recorded and highlights are made available for use by delegates when they present their reports back to their local Baha’i communities.

Q: How is the National Spiritual Assembly elected? 
A: On Saturday morning of National Convention, the delegates gather—in a session monitored by the members of the Continental Board of Counselors present and witnessed by registered non-delegates—to vote prayerfully by secret ballot for the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly. Delegates who cannot attend Convention may vote by absentee ballot. A ballot that contains more or fewer than nine names is invalid. A vote for a person ineligible for election is not counted. The nine individuals who receive a plurality of the votes are elected to serve on the National Assembly for one year. In case of a tie, preference is given to minorities.

Q: With no candidates, campaigning or nominations, how do delegates know who to vote for?
A:  Delegates have the freedom to vote for any Baha’i residing in the United States who is 21 or older. The Baha’i writings encourage them to select “those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.” Delegates make efforts to become familiar with Baha’is distinguished for their service to the Faith at the local, regional and national level.  

Q: How are election results reported? 
A: The manner of reporting the results, beyond the names of the nine elected members of the National Spiritual Assembly, is decided by the body of delegates on the first day of Convention.

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Vernessa Hunt-HassanPhiladelphia

US Bahá'í News Service - Sat, 05/19/2018 - 10:58am

I love studying religion, and I love talking about religion—all religions.

My family says that I was always searching spiritually. I have four brothers and two sisters—seven of us all together—and when we were growing up in Philadelphia we went to Baptist church and Sunday school.

We were, and still are, very diverse in our spirituality, and my family has always been very accepting of whatever any of us do. My oldest brother is an evangelical Christian. I used to go to church with him.  Two of my younger brothers got involved in the Nation of Islam. I also had a Catholic friend who took me to church and a Catholic overnight camp with her.

I got married right out of high school. My ex-husband was a Jehovah’s Witness. When we were dating he invited me to go to the Kingdom Hall with him, and his sister invited me to study the Bible with her. I became a Jehovah’s Witness and was married for ten years.  

I was dis-fellowshipped from Jehovah’s Witnesses when I divorced my husband without their permission. Divorce is allowed only in cases of witnessed adultery or death.  They wanted me to go back to a marriage where there was adultery and physical abuse but I didn’t want my daughters to see it and think the abuse was okay. My kids are still Jehovah’s Witnesses, and although I tried to go back afterwards, for me it just wasn’t fitting. I felt judged by the elders. We moved to Chicago to make a fresh start.

In one of my undergraduate college classes we had to do a research paper about a religion we didn’t already know about, and I picked the Baha’i Faith. I studied hard—to get the grade. Then it was out of my mind. I didn’t imagine I would ever become a Baha’i.

A number of years later I was making a telephone sales call when I casually asked one of my clients,
“So, have you started your Christmas shopping yet?” Her reply was, “Well, actually, I don’t celebrate Christmas. I am a member of the Baha’i Faith.”

I remembered my college research and became very curious about the Baha’i Faith again. We met for tea and I got to ask her all kinds of questions about her religion. I started to connect the dots to what I already knew about other religions and from being a Jehovah’s Witness. Everything was clicking and making sense to me.  

Jehovah’s Witnesses really study the Bible and believe that it says that we are in the last days, and that paradise—the new day, the promised day—is coming, and we would be alive to see it.  

To me, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were teaching me what was going to happen, and then the Baha’i Faith was showing me how it was going to happen.

For example—Jehovah’s Witnesses say in order for one world to end and the new world to come in, all of the main institutions—political, economic, religious—have to crumble. In my head I thought that meant that suddenly all these people were going to die out and—boom—there was going to be paradise.

But the Baha’i Faith shows how a new world is actually already unfolding.  We are already in transition, and you can see it happening.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that in the new world order, “scrolls would be open.”  That means multiple scrolls, not just a single book. I believe the hundreds of Baha’i Writings are what they were talking about!

I felt blessed to have been a Jehovah’s Witness, that I had all of that prior knowledge. The Baha’i Faith was a confirmation to me of what I already knew.

I investigated the Baha’i Faith for a long time. I read, I talked with Baha’is, and I went to meetings and discussion groups called Firesides. The thing that finally made me want to become a Baha’i was when I learned about the Baha’i financial contribution system of Huququ’llah, which will eventually take care of the huge disparity of wealth in society. For me that was the light bulb going off that said “I know this is it!”  {editors note about Huququ’llah]

When something makes that much sense and covers all these areas—you know that is coming from God. No man could put together something this thorough, this crystal clear. I don’t care how smart and powerful he is. No person could ever cover so many details without divine intervention.

Also, as a dis-fellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness, I got confirmation that I was forgiven—that it was not a group of elders—a group of men—but it was my God who had forgiven me, and I was going to live to see a new era—paradise.

All this while, I was studying to become a teacher and working in schools in south suburban Chicago. It was a very diverse neighborhood, with children from all different backgrounds, and I loved that.

While I was working on my master’s degree in education, I decided that I’d like to teach in other countries where they don’t take education for granted. I learned about a school in Honduras that Baha’is were running, and I spent two school terms living and working there until I had to return to the United  States, to Philadelphia, to take care of my aging mother.

I was disappointed to leave peaceful Honduras and be back in Philadelphia. My brother’s friend, who I knew from childhood, offered to cheer me up by showing me some new sites in Philly. The rest, as they say, is history. I fell in love with this man, Halim, who just happened to be a Muslim imam!  

Halim had helped me earlier when I was struggling to understand some passages of the Baha’i Writings that reference the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book. I had shared Baha’i beliefs about the afterlife when his wife died the year before. Then we started spending time together and realized we had so much in common.

He loves his faith. I love my faith. We were not going to try to convert each other. He is known as the Interfaith Imam who works to bring people of various faiths together in service to humanity. What I’ve learned from him about Islam and the Qur’an has helped me to love my religion, the Bahá’í Faith, even more.

 

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Gregory LawtonGrand Rapids, Michigan

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 11:26am
Dr. Gregory Lawton, center, with graduates of the Blue Heron Academy.

My early experiences with religion were interesting. My uncle, Addison Lawton, was an influential Presbyterian minister. When I was 5, my family visited him, and on Sunday I was brought up to the front of the church. Reverend Lawton lifted me up in front of the congregation to baptize me, but I reached and grabbed him by the wrist. “Watch it, Buster,” I said. “What do you think you’re doing?” Even at 5, I didn’t believe in compulsion in religion.

My father’s job took us to a new city every year. My parents were not religious and did not attend church. Wherever we lived, however, I would be sent to the nearest church on Sunday mornings. From that, I learned the differences between denominations, and that there was something similar about all of them — they each had “the real truth” that the church down the street didn’t.

When I was 11, we lived in Dubuque, Iowa. An Indonesian Muslim exchange student was staying with the minister at the local church. The two of us became good friends. One day I was in the church and the minister grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me into a corner.

“This person is a heathen,” he said. “We believe in Jesus. He’s going to hell, so you can’t be friends with him.” That was my last day in church.

In the fall of 1965, at the age of 17, I joined the U.S. military because I was unhappy with my situation at home. I expected to go to Vietnam, but at 17 I was too young to serve in a war zone.

So while the rest of my company went to Vietnam, I was given an opportunity to become a test subject in experiments on chemical warfare at a facility called Edgewood Arsenal. Although most people might not want to participate in that kind of experiment, to me it was fortuitous.

Back when I was 8 years old and playing a game of war with some neighborhood kids, a friend “shot me.” While I lay in the grass, pretending to be dead, I said a prayer asking God that I would never have to go to war or take a human life in battle. At Edgewood, I could risk my own life, but I didn’t have to take a life.

During the four months that I was stationed at Edgewood Arsenal, I was subjected to four different chemical warfare experiments. One of the side-effects was difficulty breathing, leading to pulmonary arrest, which resulted in near-death by suffocation. The medical staff worked hard to revive me.

That brush with death was a very profound spiritual moment for me. When I was discharged in 1968 at the age of 20, I was seeking answers about God and religion. I visited my parents in Michigan, and we sat around the kitchen table and talked about faith. It was there my father mentioned the word “Baha’i.”

I had never heard of the Baha’i Faith. He told me he had had a conversation with a Baha’i in the 1950s that made a big impression on him. He said if he were going to become any religion, he would have become a Baha’i. I had to know more about it.

My mother mentioned that the Baha’is in the area ran an ad in the paper every Friday. I called the number in the ad and went to a gathering, or “fireside.”

I had written down what I thought a religion should be — a list of about 12 different things — and put them in my pocket. The Baha’is at the fireside answered everything on my list and I never even took it out of my pocket. I decided then and there to become a member of the Baha’i Faith.

I learned that in the Baha’i Faith, two occupations are held in high esteem: teachers and doctors — those who help to educate children for the future, and those who help people with pain and suffering. I decided to pursue both.

Because the Baha’i writings on health care refer to vegetarianism and holistic and herbal medicine, I decided to pursue alternative medicine. In addition to other trainings, I became a licensed chiropractor.

I have also been a lifelong student of martial arts which complemented my study of traditional Asian healing arts. I was working as the vice president of a large psychology firm when psychologists started referring some of their female patients to me because of my expertise with martial arts.

The first patient was a woman who had been raped at knifepoint in front of her husband and child. She wanted to learn how to defend herself. As I worked with more and more of these kinds of patients, I realized that many of them were divorced, single mothers with kids, who needed jobs and careers. That’s what led me to start the Blue Heron Academy of the Healing Arts — to teach people skills that could lead to careers.

That was almost 40 years ago, and we’ve had close to 12,000 students go through the school since, getting degrees in massage, acupuncture, holistic healing, herbal medicine and nutrition.

My mission has been to take the pseudoscience out of alternative medicine and improve education and training for practitioners based on good research. The Bab, the Forerunner of Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith, tells us that we should so elevate the science of medicine that we should heal by natural means. How do we do that? Through research and education.

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John DavidsonGrand Rapids, Michigan

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 11:23am

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.

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Erin WagnerWaseca, Minnesota

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 10:49am

I came across the Baha’i Faith while serving as a missionary for the Mormon Church. Religion had always been a part of my daily life and included scripture study, prayer, church attendance and serving the congregation.  

The residual blessings of church involvement were obvious because there was not an aspect of my family’s lives that was not affected by us being Mormons. We benefited socially, spiritually, financially, educationally and physically.

My mother’s side of the family had been Mormon since the church was founded. My father converted when he was a teen, and his participation allowed him to be a better husband and father than he would have been otherwise.

I chose to serve a mission because as a Mormon, I wanted to be able to look honestly at any other religion and say, “We have all those good things and more,” and because I believed there must be more people who, like my father, would find greater happiness living greater truths, if only they knew where to find them.

While knocking on doors near Minneapolis, Minnesota, my missionary companion and I were surprised to be warmly greeted by a couple who said they would be happy to listen to our message if they could share about their faith—Baha’i. I almost salivated!  It was a religion I’d never even heard of! 

After presenting a brief history of the Baha’i Faith, they explained progressive revelation, [INSERT EXPLANATORY NOTE]  which hit me like a locomotive. Mormon doctrine holds that other religions may contain elements of truth, but because they no longer have living prophets to share ongoing revelation, they have devolved. For Mormons, revelation was restored with the founding of the church and remains intact through its priesthood.

My study of the Qur’an and other belief systems had convinced me that there was more at play, though I didn’t know what. The paradigm of progressive revelation shared by this Baha’i couple was an elegant reconciliation of doctrinal teachings with my own personal experiences.

I remember thinking as I left that night that my entire universe may have just been turned upside down, but felt reassurance that this was neither the time nor the place to pursue what I’d learned. I would know when I needed to answer the “Baha’i question.”

Two years later, after I finished my mission and returned home to Utah without any further contact with the Baha’i Faith, my boyfriend was deciding whether or not to convert to Mormonism. He expressed regret at not having investigated multiple religions, but was unsure where to invest his time. Like an involuntary reflex, I heard myself say, “That’s easy. It’s Mormonism or Baha’i.” It was instantaneously clear that it was time for me to address the issue.

I got my hands on some introductory books and was impressed to find that the teachings seemed watertight. One particular teaching helped me overcome my lifelong bane of anxiety. I heard a description of the Baha’i interpretation of sin—not that we do good or evil, but that we are always pursuing God, sometimes by looking to the heavens, and sometimes by looking to the dust. The peace I felt as I considered the idea is hard to describe.

I studied the Faith on my own for three months, then contacted the closest Baha’i community.

I tried to be 100% Baha’i and 100% Mormon for another three months, at which point I knew where I belonged. I went from almost weekly temple worship, 30 minutes of daily study from Mormon scripture, full activity in my congregation, regular prayer, three and a half years of perfect church attendance, and an almost-completed degree from Brigham Young University, to becoming a member of the Baha’i Faith.

I informed my immediate family and a few close friends of my decision. After the initial shock, they all expressed full support. In some ways I feel I never left Mormonism. My beliefs were already Baha’i. Leaving the church community, though, was like getting divorced from a spouse that I was truly in love with.

That turned out to be a time of massive transition for me personally. In addition to becoming a Baha’i, I graduated from school, quit my job, moved to Minnesota, started a business and got married. In retrospect, that was probably too much change in too little time! Learning the subtleties of involvement in Baha’i communities has also been a challenge. I had been accustomed to the more-developed structure of Mormon congregations. However, I have never looked back. I’m blessed with daily confirmations that I made the right choice, and I’ve found ways of using my religious and spiritual education to make my unique contribution.

Most importantly, I have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of family members (like my father and my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather) whose courageous decisions to join a little-known spiritual movement have impacted generations to follow. Of all my blessings, I am most grateful to know that my own children will be raised steeped in the teachings of Baha’u’llah.

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Mojdeh StoakleyChicago

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 10:41am

If you ever find yourself with artist Mojdeh Stoakley, you won’t wait long before hearing her utter, “and all the things,” a phrase that seems to be a cousin of “et cetera.” But “all the things” is a metaphor for Stoakley’s character and the philosophy behind her practice as a member of the Baha’i Faith.

Mojdeh Stoakley is an activist, poet, educator, bandleader, entrepreneur, researcher, painter when nobody’s looking, writer, daughter and sister. Through “all the things” she is a Baha‘i, and fervent devotion to each is the way she adheres to her faith.

Being born into a Baha’i family and raised in a majority Christian community led Stoakley to ask many early questions about religion. She spent a part of her adolescence researching many of the world’s faiths to determine whether some of her peers were correct when they asserted that she wasn’t a part of a “real” religion.

She found that few religions openly taught, as the Baha’i Faith does, that men and women are equal, that all races are equal, or that there should be a balance between science and religion. Whether by community or family culture, or personal worldview, she decided that these seemed to be the kinds of universal truths that couldn’t be argued.

Stoakley has blazed her own path in nearly every aspect of her life. She withdrew from public high school at the end of her freshman year to homeschool herself, and graduated two years ahead of her peers.

She studied at the College of DuPage, and was accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2008, she arranged to forgo her final exhibit for her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree to instead launch Lethal Poetry Inc., a for-profit business designed to support nonprofit organizations.

During its time, Lethal Poetry successfully created cross-discipline arts initiatives that were used to break down barriers that previously confined artists to their respective scenes.

“I have this idealistic belief that the populations with the greatest ability to make social change are artists, educators, and people who own their businesses,” said Stoakley. “If we’re talking about artists as pillars of potential for social change, shouldn’t all of them be talking to each other? Every single one of our initiatives incorporated some sort of creative community fusion.”

For the five years of its existence, Lethal Poetry hosted more than 300 events composed of one-off shows, showcases and festivals. Its main monthly event, Words That Kill, was a poetry and comedy showcase that benefited a local women’s shelter.

Stoakley, whose parents met in Ghana and married in Sierra Leone, was raised in an interracial family (her mother is Persian and her father is African-American) with a strong tradition of service and active involvement in the Baha’i community.

“I like the idea of being of service all the time. That sounds awesome! But how do I also pay my bills, how do I also care for myself and care for my parents as they get older, and contribute to my brother’s career and things like that as we get older? It occurred to me that if I just embed the Faith into my decision-making throughout my career, then I could really do those things in a much more holistic way,” said Stoakley.

As far as service goes, Stoakley’s most impactful responsibility might be her role as an educator, implementing writing, performance, and HIV prevention workshops for youth and children, who she refers to as “kiddos.” 

“I never expected to be an educator. As an artist when someone offers you a freelance position that is even remotely related to any of the things you do—even if you don’t know if you can do it—you’re like, “Absolutely! No problem! I can totally do that,’” said Stoakley.

She strives to have her workshop conversations challenge social and emotional issues; weaving principles of the Baha’i Faith into her work in order to combat harmful prejudices, misogyny and the effects of personal and community violence. Through her work Stoakley believes she is fulfilling her creative, spiritual and professional needs.

“As Baha’is we’re actually called upon in the Writings to have some kind of profession that serves humanity … even if it’s to be a cashier or a dog walker or whatever. Regardless of our economic status we’re supposed to have some kind of work; work is considered a form of worship. That’s been in my mind for all of my formative years,” said Stoakley.

“If work is worship, and engaging in the arts is a form of prayer—if I can ‘work’ in prayer—that’s great! So it’s kind of exciting to be an artist who is spiritual—at least from the perspective of the Baha’i Writings, because I’m enacting my connection with God every time I create.”

Stoakley focuses on sharing her Faith through action. “I have more conversations with individuals about the Faith than I ever did when I was very straightforward about saying, ‘I’m doing this thing because I’m a Baha’i; a Baha’i musician, a Baha’i whatever.’ I’ve found it much more meaningful to just be good,” she said.

Stoakley’s current projects involve the Interfaith Poets, a touring ensemble that aims to promote unity in diversity while also creating healthy frameworks for people of different faiths to understand each other. She’s finishing a new album with her band »radiant devices«, is a teaching artist who brings enrichment programs into schools for Chicago Slam Works, and is also a board member for Surviving the Mic, an organization that seeks to nurture safe spaces within arts communities for victims of sexual and domestic violence.  

by Troy Brundidge

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Lunda people draw on Baha’i teachings to transform culture, music

Bahá'í World News Service - Wed, 05/16/2018 - 11:00pm
A remarkable process of social transformation is underway among a segment of the Lunda population in Zambia, which is reflected in changes in their music.

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