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Eighty-seven-year-old Ethel Henderson has been known by several nicknames in her Baha’i community in Philadelphia. “Mother Ethel” served on the elected Baha’i council, Philadelphia’s Local Spiritual Assembly, for 45 years. During those years, Ethel, who had a phenomenal memory for names and dates, was dubbed the “Memory of the Assembly.”
As for herself, Ethel says she prefers to be known simply as someone who encourages others to offer service to the Baha’i Faith.
“She’s a moving force in this community, a very vibrant part of this community. Everybody knows her,” said Vernessa Hassan, another Baha’i in Philadelphia. “She has a hand in every undertaking. She makes sure people are taken care of in different ways. She’s an amazing person.”
“Ethel makes sure things are running well in the Baha’i Center, which is not an easy thing,” says Hassan. The welcoming old building with a broad front porch and tree-canopied lawn that houses the Philadelphia Baha’i Center used to be the summer home of the toy-manufacturing FAO Schwarz family. The Philadelphia Baha’is acquired the property in the early 1990s as space for community activities and administrative offices.
Ethel Henderson was born in Philadelphia and grew up there. She went to Vaux Junior High School, where she made friends with some members of her debate team. Years later, it was these friends who introduced her to the Baha’i Faith. That was in 1967.
“I became enchanted with the Baha’is’ simplicity of doing things and not being fanatical about anything,” Ethel says, “and they were always willing to share. What you didn’t understand, they explained and always told me to search further.”
“I had so many questions,” Ethel says. “For example, why were so many of the Baha’is I met, and the people they associated with, vegetarians?” That question led to conversations about the economy of a plant-based diet versus one that was meat-based. While the Bahá’í Faith does not prohibit the consumption of meat, it envisions a future where humanity will transition to a plant-based diet. “In 1967, being a vegetarian was a radical thing,” Ethel explains.
Even more radical was the way she, as a black woman, was welcomed like family into white Baha’i homes. “I wasn’t treated like company. At their house, it was an open door. They were so patient with me and my questions. I could stay at their house until the early morning hours.”
“People who were sitting on the porch in my neighborhood would just stop and stare when my Baha’i friends came to pick me up. When the Baha’is came, it was always a mixed group. That was radical in those days, and in some ways, it still is.”
After high school, Ethel and one of her classmates moved to Camden, New Jersey, to study nursing at Cooper Hospital. “We broke the color line,” she says. “We were the two black students in the class.” Ethel worked as a nurse for her entire career.
In her early days as a nurse, Ethel was a member of the Catholic Church. She saw countless babies being born and witnessed as many people dying. She says she used to have “burning questions” about what role she might play in the end-of-life passages of her patients.
“I don’t have burning questions anymore,” Ethel says of her acceptance of the Baha’i view of the afterlife. “The soul gets to where it is supposed to be.” Ethel has assisted with the death and burial of a number of Baha’i friends and family. “We were there with them when they passed and helped bathe the body and wrap it to present it to the family,” she says, “and some of those passages have been profound.”
Her belief in a joyful afterlife was a huge comfort to Ethel when she lost her own son, Robert. Robert surprised his mother when he became a member of the Baha’i community, too, in 2007.
“On one of the Baha’i Holy Days,” Ethel relates, “the host said, there is someone here tonight who would like to become a Baha’i. I saw my son there with a heavy overcoat on and I thought, oh that’s nice, he’s going to escort the person.”
“When he got to the front of the room he said, ‘I want to thank you for helping me find the Faith.’ And I sat there with my mouth open. I never in a million years thought that my Bobby, who I used to think of as ‘wine, women and song,’ would become a Baha’i, but he did!”
Does she have fears about her own death? “Not about death, that finality. I have a little trepidation about that transitional period, and fear being uncomfortable and in pain. Old age is not for sissies,” she says emphatically. In the meantime, Mother Ethel is going strong, reliving happy memories of her Baha’i life.
One of her favorite stories is of being on a chartered boat to Jamaica when she and others, including the musicians Seals and Crofts, went on a “Baha’i teaching trip.” “We took over the ship,” Ethel tells with a gleam in her eye. “We closed the gambling casino and started calling the ship the Baha’i Star instead of the Bahama Star.”
Kingston, Jamaica, was the site of an international Baha’i conference in May 1971 and was influential in many Jamaicans first learning about and then later becoming members of the Baha’i Faith.
In more recent years, Ethel appreciates the energy of the students who come to the Philadelphia Baha’i Center from local colleges and universities. Her advice to them is to be open to one another. “Do not be fearful of anybody who is not like you,” she tells them. “The problems we are having in the world today seem small if you put them against the standard of time.” And Mother Ethel has lived long enough to know.
Rory is a fuzzy little orange 5-year-old with blue hair who lives in a guitar case. He is vulnerable yet bold and curious about the world around him. Children love calling out with him as he exclaims, “My name is Rory. Raaauuur for Rory!”
“It’s sweet how much the children love him,” says Faye Dupras. “He gets lots of hugs at the end of each show when I bring him out for the children to meet up close.”Max Weigert and Rory the puppet perform a scene from the Cozy Corner series. Photo courtesy of Faye Dupras
Rory is a puppet, as you likely guessed. He’s a star of Cozy Corner, an interactive multi-episode puppet and music project Dupras and a team of Baha’is and friends are developing and testing through staged productions. With lively music and the help of a host of puppet and human friends, Rory learns about gratitude, compassion, love, kinship with all humanity, and other spiritual values.
“Parents and children seem to hunger for this content. Parents continually come up to us and express their amazement at how focused even their youngest child was during the show,” says Dupras.
A rewarding response, because Cozy Corner was designed from the start to help fill a need parents have expressed for “programming with spiritual content,” she says.
Cozy Corner is one of several theater projects Dupras, a Baha’i in Somerville, Massachusetts, has produced over the past two decades in a quest “to have my artistic practice be firmly grounded in my spiritual practice and my commitment to community engagement through the arts.”
Collaborative process of learning
The core group developing Cozy Corner includes Jason Slavick, a veteran of Boston theatre; musician Max Weigert, a Baha’i in Somerville; children’s book writer Patti Tomarelli, a Baha’i in Boston; and accessibility specialist Mia Branco.
Dupras and Slavick have been collaborating on each other’s projects since 2013.
Last year Slavick conceived and directed A Story Beyond: A Musical Fable, which ran two weeks at the Boston Center for the Arts with Dupras as puppet designer/director.
From an interview with Dupras, a report about that production on public radio station WBUR’s website began with a quote from Baha’i literature on the power of the stage as “the pulpit of the future.”
Cozy Corner is Dupras’ and Weigert’s second project together. Their first project, I Spy Butterfly, got a big impetus from their involvement in the summer 2016 session of Spirit of Children, an arts development program based at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine.Faye Dupras in I Spy Butterfly. Photo by Graham Gardner
She and Weigert had already started developing the play through a series of community-engaged workshops in Somerville. When they brought it to the Spirit of Children group, she says, “we asked for support to pull apart the work in order to look for opportunities to infuse and/or maximize the integration of spiritual principles into the fabric of the play.”
The team later spent a week as artists-in-residence at Green Acre working with children to further develop the intentionality of the script. “The play is steeped in spiritual principles of love, service and selflessness,” she says.
Weigert serves as the Northeast coordinator for the Baha’i-initiated junior youth spiritual empowerment program. His experience in that realm is extensive and, although the demographics are different, enriches and informs his contribution to the work, in particular his songwriting.
“I can still remember sitting with Max on Green Acre’s Reimer Porch digesting the summer’s reflections and sketching out the final arc of the play,” Dupras recalls.
I Spy Butterfly has since played to hundreds of families in venues throughout the eastern United States and up into Canada.
“My favorite pre-performance routine is to sing the prayer ‘O God! Educate These Children’ with Max to help set the intention of the work before we step on stage.”Children at Green Acre Bahá’í School watch Faye Dupras and Max Weigert perform I Spy Butterfly. Photo courtesy of Faye Dupras
Enlarging the vision, seeing the influence
Cozy Corner started as a spinoff to I Spy Butterfly and was born out of a curiosity to explore the question of what programming would look and feel like if its main focus was the spiritual education of children.
Central to the work is the desire to inspire the hearts and minds of both children and adults. “If we relate only to the children, the dialogue ends the moment the families leave the theater,” says Dupras. “Our hope is if we can engage the parents, too, they can support the learning beyond our limited time together.”
With this in mind, four episodes were created with support from the Somerville Arts Council and the Boston Foundation, first through a development period in local libraries followed by a series of work-in-progress showings in more traditional performance venues.
While the first audiences were “mostly preschoolers and caregivers,” the production gradually expanded to families with older children. As word of mouth spread, audiences grew beyond the original venue’s capacity. That forced the project to move to a larger space and “we ended the year with a sold-out weekly performance at the Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline.”
An encounter with a couple from out of town who had brought a grandchild to a Cozy Corner showing in April 2018 illustrates the impact on audiences.
When the couple returned in October, Dupras relates, “they approached us before the show and shared that they had recorded Max singing ‘We Are Drops’ [a song about unity] back in April but had only managed to record half of the song, which their grandson had since memorized and sang regularly.”
They weren’t planning on it, but how could they refuse? “We did a pre-show special and Max taught the room of 80-plus people how to sing ‘We Are Drops.’”
Ultimately the team wants to move the project from the stage to a medium that hits a wider audience. Dupras is researching possibilities that include pitching the production to a television network or web-based presentation.
Meanwhile, the development process continues this year with episodes five through eight planned in partnership with the Cambridge Friends School. Dupras reflects, “The Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship that the school is founded on are so in line with our goals.”
Learning about putting Baha’i teachings into practice
Tomarelli is not the least surprised by such a deep connection with audiences. “I think we are learning how to put what Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, has taught us about the reality of man and the nature of the soul into everyday lives of, specifically, young people.
“We ask ourselves what does it mean to ‘grow, develop and appear in the utmost beauty’ when you’re struggling with sharing or loss?” she reflects, referring to a phrase from the “Educate these children” prayer. “How does a young spiritual being express gratitude, compassion and love? When we think about a huge concept such as the oneness of mankind, … how does that find expression in the life of 4- and 5-year-olds?”
Tomarelli says guidance from Baha’i institutions on building community “shapes and influences the scripts and music. Particularly, our individual experiences … have influenced how we think about the spiritual destiny of children. What we do should prepare them to be of service now and in the future.”
Weigert says the team focuses on how young people are noble beings and gems. Baha’i-inspired materials on children’s spiritual education are an invaluable resource in that effort.
For example, he says, Episode 1 of Cozy Corner explores our capacity to reflect virtues; Episode 2 explores that this capacity needs nurturing and support in order to grow; Episodes 3 and 4 explore seeing beyond yourself. “You can’t grow in a bubble. Growth happens through service.”
Rory the puppet is the character “most in a state of learning,” says Dupras. “Rory is the child engaging in the lessons and Max is the teacher/animator accompanying Rory through the journey of growth.”
Trudy, a human character Dupras plays, is slightly older than Rory. “She is often engaged in a more sophisticated version of whatever theme the episode is exploring,” Dupras relates. “If Rory is learning about the idea of nurturing, Trudy is learning that nurturing is a repetitive motion.”
Trudy (excited): “I think I know the equation now.” Max: “Really, what is it?” Trudy: “Nurturing + Patience = Growth.”
Dupras says that as she and Tomarelli collaborate on honing the scripts for Episodes 5 through 8, the same spirit is in play.
“It’s wonderful to work with [Tomarelli] because we both reach to the same source for inspiration, and our common vision helps us have very direct and fluid consultations,” she says. “It also means our process can be very intentionally steeped in prayer and reflection.”
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Artist and actor Jacqueline Claire Leal loves to connect people to the Baha’i writings through paintings. So she has begun offering shows in many settings where guests discuss quotations from The Seven Valleys and relate them to her “mystical landscapes.”
“There is something about directly sharing the Writings of Baha’u’llah but in a uniquely personal way — an artist talking about her life and painting — that is proving very approachable and appealing to diverse groups of people,” says Leal, a Baha’i in San Antonio.
People who have had little or no exposure to the Faith are responding positively to this form of engagement, she says. Some of the feedback she has received includes:
- “We all want to be our best selves. This event really got me thinking about that.”
- “I walked away with a sense of joy. It was a spiritual experience for me.”
- “I had never heard of Baha’u’llah before. I want to learn more about these teachings.”
Leal’s fellow Baha’is are finding the experience rewarding as well.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, but it really got me reflecting on my life and my path. I actually started crying on the way home. And, yes, you inspired me to start reading The Seven Valleys again. I’m so excited to share that with others,” said one after an event in Austin.
The Seven Valleys is a mystical essay revealed by Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Faith, after He had lived two years in seclusion. It follows the path of the soul through different stages of a spiritual journey, from this world to other realms that are closer to God.
Leal invites those attending her shows to take half of a quotation from one of the Valleys — Search, Love, Knowledge, Unity, Contentment, Wonderment, and True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness — and find whoever holds the other half.
It’s an ice-breaking technique Leal has used at her birthday parties, and she says it’s proving just as effective in larger settings.
“Though often [attendees] are in no way familiar with the passages, they always seem to recognize their match,” she says.
At that point the two “become a team,” she says, “and select a painting, from a series of seven mystical landscapes, they feel correlates best with the quote.”Jacqueline Claire Leal reads from The Seven Valleys at one of her talks. Photo by Randall L. Ricklefs
Then Leal weaves those quotes into a fabric of the work as a whole.
“Whether it is a large or small group, it always has a special ‘campfire’ feeling,” she relates, “and I share personal stories and reflections about my experiences and artwork, connecting it all with larger concepts of life as a spiritual journey.”
That leads to an exploration of The Seven Valleys, during which each team is invited to share the artwork it correlated with the quote.
“I can’t explain why exactly. Perhaps it has something to do with people feeling welcomed and valuable from the beginning, or with my personal sharing and stories,” reflects Leal. “But even very shy people almost always engage in this portion.”
What follow are “beautiful, profound and insightful things based on personal understandings of Baha’u’llah’s Words.”
“For example, someone pointed out that ‘seeing the end in the beginning’ as we might in the Valley of Knowledge is a limited human perspective, for there is only God and oneness,” recalls Leal.
“Someone else reflecting on the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness pointed out that their family love relationships are so strong that they could have nothing and still feel cared for spiritually. Another pointed out that we as human beings are ‘tiny and cosmic’ at the same time.”Portions of quotations from The Seven Valleys are matched at a show hosted by artist Jacqueline Claire Leal. Photo by Randall L. Ricklefs
Leal believes attendees’ willingness to freely tap into their inner thoughts “has something to do with a balance of sharing very directly — everyone who attends knows I am Baha’i and that the work we are exploring is a mystical Baha’i text — but also sharing gently in a mode of storytelling and shared wisdom.”
It’s not surprising, then, that many attendees respond warmly to invitations from Leal to engage with Baha’is in other settings, including Baha’i-initiated core activities of community building at the neighborhood level.
“At each event, receptivity has been discovered and some people have started attending regular core activities,” says Leal. “At a university, interest was so high we are planning a regular on-campus interfaith devotional in spring semester.”
Leading her to conclude, “People are open to and actually really want to talk about Baha’u’llah and the Baha’i teachings when they are introduced to the topics and are invited to participate in a way that is engaging and meets them where they are.”
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People go to dance lessons or socials at the Aroha Arts Collective seeking liberation and community, says owner and instructor Adalia Ellis.
“The majority will say, ‘This time is for me,’” she says. “This time is for me to get to relief, relax, be creative, be social.”
Some also turn to the Florence, South Carolina, studio in a time of loss such as divorce or the death of a family member.
And for some African Americans, the experience helps cement identity.
“One of my dance students said it best,” Ellis recounts. “She was like, ‘For those of us who have felt such a longing for connection to our African roots, coming in and doing dances is a way to find a connection to that reality.’”Adalia Ellis (right) teaches a dance class at the Aroha Arts Collective in Florence, South Carolina. Photo courtesy of Adalia Ellis
Ellis says for South Carolinians the feeling is acute. Charleston was a principal point of entry for people who were taken from Africa and transported either directly to the United States or via the Caribbean.
“So there’s a lot of healing that can happen” from hearing more of the story, she says. “We actually had a history before our ancestors were brought here as slaves.”
The dances Ellis teaches are African — kizomba, for example — or rooted in Africa and infused with Latin influences — think salsa, bachata, cha-cha and merengue.
“Some of the movement actually can be connected directly to the physical bondage that the slaves were in,” she explains. “The bachata and merengue are related to the restriction of movement because of the shackles on the feet.
“When you see them now you don’t see the connection because the merengue is a happy, very upbeat style of dance. The bachata is like ‘Oh, she broke my heart,’” she says, chuckling.
Regardless, they’re “beautiful dances of defiance and survival. They’re very rooted in Africa.”
They’re also bringing people of all cultures together. Ellis, a Baha’i in Florence, has always hoped for that and can bring it to fruition now that her studio has opened in the Gould Business Incubator.
“I had wanted my own space for a long time and everywhere I looked was so expensive,” says Ellis. “It’s been a long journey, so when I say this I’m saying it very deeply that [the incubator] was a godsend.” Not only is it affordable, but the incubator aims to “help businesses succeed” through advice and services for entrepreneurs.
The tools provided by Gould and the Baha’i writings on rectitude of conduct also have helped Ellis navigate situations in which some “people don’t do business with the intent to be authentic and truthful and supportive.”
The central Baha’i principle of the oneness of humanity also is guiding the development of Aroha as a means for people of all backgrounds to find unity in diversity and has led to some meaningful conversations about the teachings of Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith.
That’s been true from day one, a grand opening that “was for me way more than I expected,” she recalls. “It was a magical spiritual experience and it was one that people left feeling that it was the most special thing they’d been to in a while.
“And, honestly, that magical spiritual experience was connected to the community that is being built and created through Aroha Arts Collective — through the dance classes, through the events that that we have, through the students that come.”
As Ellis describes the scene, “Everyone was so warm and friendly and everyone danced with everyone and talked. I had a whole other space, the reception area, with tables and food, and people all sat down together and got to know each other over food.
“That obviously carried over into the studio, where they were dancing together and watching other people dance and just really enjoying being in this space where this family community energy was so palpable.”
Aroha Arts Collective continues to hold socials at the studio and at Soulé — a café that is considered “the spot to be if you want to meet people and hang out” and is owned by an African American musician who was “the first one that gave me a chance here in Florence.”
Sunday afternoon socials she holds at Soulé are family-oriented, says Ellis. “Children are always welcomed with open arms and everyone dances with them.”
Then there’s the Afro Latin Soirée, which is a bit more formal — dress is typically African-inspired or “black and bling” — and, with a 10 p.m. starting time, is aimed at adults.
“At some point, these people all intersect” at Aroha’s studio, she says. “We all end up dancing together.”
But as fulfilling, and perhaps exhausting, as that busy schedule is for Ellis, she’s carving out time for two other important initiatives.
She recently was given approval to lead a course on the history of Afro Latin dance at Francis Marion University, where she teaches public speaking part time.
And she is putting together a weekend workshop called the Convergence Symposium for people who are “truly interested in the intersection of the arts and social action and how it can unite communities, how it can educate communities, how with can provide momentum to communities.”
The symposium will honor the life of Muhiyidin El Amin Moye (known widely as Moya Moye or Muhiyidin D’baha), a Baha’i and Black Lives Matter activist from South Carolina who was slain in New Orleans on Feb. 6, 2018. Ellis says participants will be “really calling him into this space and really wanting his spiritual energy in the space the entire weekend.”
Just as spiritual energy imbues all the endeavors of Aroha Arts Collective.
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Without doubt, building unity across racial divides is a complex process. Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, advised eight decades ago that it takes “genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort.”
Now a task force is developing a program for Baha’i seasonal schools across the country, starting in summer 2019, to encourage systematic unity-building work within and around Baha’i communities.
With the working title “Achieving Race Unity,” the program will be aimed at helping people explore, with humility and in a learning attitude, how to enter into conversations about race unity as part of day-to-day efforts to build community.
Right now, the task force is striving to learn “how to nurture … the capacity to create an environment that will allow for the beginning of the healing journey for achieving race unity within the light of Baha’u’llah’s teachings,” according to a statement from the task force shared by Ymasumac Marañón-Davis, one of its members.
Friends of the Faith as well as Baha’is will be invited. Locations and dates for school sessions offering the course will be shared starting this spring.
“In an environment of love and trust born of common belief, practice, and mission, individuals of different races will have the intimate connection of heart and mind upon which mutual understanding and change depend.”
—Universal House of Justice, global governing council for the Baha’i Faith
Baha’i seasonal schools, often held during winter and summer breaks, take place at community centers, college campuses, and other locations around the country. Generally lasting a few days to a week, they offer informal, family-friendly spaces to deepen friendships and learn more about the Baha’i Faith.
This new program will offer the chance to examine Baha’i community efforts to contribute to race unity and to publicly share Baha’i perspectives on the oneness and equality of humanity. Participants will have opportunities to express what they learn through dramatic and hands-on artistic activities.
The task force sees the program as an invitation for friends to participate in a process that allows them to open up the discourse on the impact of racial prejudice. Therefore the whole process requires great care — not only in developing materials and structure for the program, but also in identifying and training facilitators.
“Any space in which injury has occurred requires a gentle hand and a great deal of love and patience,” the task force’s statement notes. One objective for the program, therefore, is to “create a systematic approach to transformation in light of the Baha’i writings, and in the face of adverse effects of racial prejudice.”
The hope is that people of all ages at the Baha’i schools can “explore the guidance and reflect on the implications for change in their own lives and how they have been impacted by racial prejudice, and build their capacity to continue this conversation once they go back to their communities.”
From there, participants may be able to “draw on fresh insights and capacities to form spaces in their homes and community where genuine friendships advance learning … and widen the vitality of community life,” says Jeff Albert, director of the Office of Education and Schools, which oversees Baha’i seasonal schools.
“Nobility of the soul and resilience of the spirit” are two key themes, Albert says. So a crucial question is, “In these sessions and in the communities, how will we see these principles and beliefs being translated into the reality of unity and empowerment, accompaniment and collective service?”
The seven task force members were chosen from a diverse range of cultural and racial backgrounds by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. The group includes people with experience observing and advising Bahá’í communities.
To complement the seasonal schools’ program, Brilliant Star children’s magazine is preparing a special edition for the May/June 2019 issue.
“We are learning that when all age groups study the same materials at different levels of comprehension, then families can also continue the learning, and communities can talk among multiple families on the same topic,” Albert says.
Follow the Events Calendar for upcoming seasonal school sessions and other events.
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“Every choice a Baha’i makes — as employee or employer, producer or consumer, borrower or lender, benefactor or beneficiary — leaves a trace.”
— Universal House of Justice, global governing council for the Baha’i Faith
Baha’is working for Intel Corp. have gained a seat at the table for events aimed at fostering diversity and inclusion. Next step is to learn how to be effective participants in those discussions.May Mowzoon prepares for a recent Intel Corp. diversity fair to start. Photo courtesy of May Mowzoon
The effort to contribute a Baha’i perspective began after May Mowzoon, a Baha’i in Chandler, Arizona, wandered through an Intel diversity fair in 2017 and felt something was missing.
“I smelled Indian spices from the Indian Culture booth, saw thoughtful tips on parenting at the Parents at Intel booth, and heard drumming at the Native American booth,” she recalls.
“But … where were the Baha’is?” She felt it was only natural that Baha’is contribute to such an event. “Surely there were enough Baha’is among the 100,000 Intel employees to support a booth at an event that was so clearly in the Baha’i psyche.”
Mowzoon inquired and was told that to have a booth, there had to first be a Baha’i Employee Resource Group (ERG).
Easier said than done, as it turns out. Organizers had to define the group’s mission and recruit 20 members from Intel facilities worldwide. The Baha’is also had to clarify that the Faith is an independent world religion.
In the end, the group was approved — in time for the 200th anniversary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Faith in October 2017. “We thought it poetic to have the ERG’s inception 200 years after the beginning of it all,” says Mowzoon.
Its mission: “Be a catalyst for a cohesive global workforce that cherishes diversity and is skilled in consultation, cooperation, critical thinking, and community building through mutual trust and respect; celebrate peace and oneness of all religions; and provide a framework for service to the community at large.”
Now the Baha’is are included in Intel conferences and discussions about diversity and are beginning to learn how to use their newfound voice to bring Baha’i principles on diversity, justice and equality into those conversations.
Mowzoon has discovered that “for the most part the audience doesn’t know that the individual is specifically from the Baha’i ERG but a leader of ‘an ERG.’ So, I’m not sure if they associate the input as a Baha’i view.”
But Baha’is gained greater visibility through the latest local Intel diversity fair.
“We had a booth with hundreds of pamphlets and documents that got swept away by the 1,000 fair attendees,” says Mowzoon. Many expressed the Baha’i principles that underlie the Faith’s beliefs in race unity, equality of women and men, and unity in diversity.
“This is only the beginning of the ERG. We have a lot of potential. Inside Intel now, we will leave a trace.”
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A television program celebrating the birth of modern-day Romania a century ago gives prominent place to Queen Marie, the first member of a royal family to embrace the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
Produced by the Association of the Romanian Communities Abroad, the Arca TV program features stunning photographs and archival film of the queen and her family. The narration, in Romanian, was written and voiced by Mioara Gram, a Baha’i in Houston.Queen Marie of Romania, the first member of a royal family to embrace the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Photo from National Baha’i Archives
Born in England, Marie was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria on one side and of Tsar Alexander II of Russia on the other. She married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania in 1893 and they ruled as king and queen from 1914 until his death in 1927. During World War I, Marie endeared herself to Romanians as a nurse to wounded soldiers. After her husband’s death, Marie served as queen dowager until her passing in 1938.
The program’s narration tells how Marie’s “heart was touched by the Message of Baha’u’llah” and how she enjoyed “12 years of close relationship,” starting in 1923, with Baha’i traveling teacher Martha Root. She also corresponded with Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i Faith at the time.
In God Passes By, his 1944 history of the first century of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi describes Marie: “… [P]ossessed of a charming and radiant personality; highly talented, clear-visioned, daring and ardent by nature; keenly devoted to all enterprises of a humanitarian character, she, alone among her sister-queens, alone among all those of royal birth or station, was moved to spontaneously acclaim the greatness of the Message of Baha’u’llah.”A handwritten note from Queen Marie of Romania to Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i Faith. Image from National Baha’i Archives
And in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, a 1938 collection of letters and messages, he quotes Marie as saying: “The Baha’i teaching brings peace and understanding. It is like a wide embrace gathering together all those who have long searched for words of hope. It accepts all great Prophets gone before, it destroys no other creeds and leaves all doors open. Saddened by the continual strife amongst believers of many confessions and wearied of their intolerance towards each other, I discovered in the Baha’i teaching the real spirit of Christ so often denied and misunderstood: Unity instead of strife, Hope instead of condemnation, Love instead of hate, and a great reassurance for all men.”
Gram previously contributed material about Queen Marie to Radio ProDiaspora, a Romanian-language station based in Germany, and has hosted a show, “Art, Science and Religion: In Search for the Common Road,” on Radio ProDiaspora since February 2018.
She met Lucian Blaga, director of the Houston-based Arca TV, a year ago and “had some of the brightest discussions with him about Baha’u’llah’s Message and Its transforming power for mankind” in the months leading to the program on Romania’s centenary.
“Lucian Blaga’s action and vision of life is already a Baha’i one — that is to say, one of transformation and unification of the world,” says Gram. “I consider him as being an extremely valuable human resource, as well as a very well-motivated soul in life.”
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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.