Andrew Bowen was wrapping up a whirlwind month of immersion in the Bahá’í Faith.
Within hours he would be diving into Zoroastrianism, the next leg in a yearlong spiritual journey he has dubbed Project Conversion.
Its purpose? Not to convert or gain conversions, despite the title.
Rather, to “increase understanding [of] and appreciation for the various religions,” says his Bahá’í mentor, Carolyn McCormick, who lives just down the road from Bowen in the southeastern North Carolina community of Lumberton.
Before turning the page to March, Bowen had one last task: Speak to the “Intro to World Religions” class at Robeson Community College, where the 28-year-old studies.
As he finished the talk, something happened that he says “made this whole month worth the effort.”
A woman approached and asked to fill out the Bahá’í interest card he had shown alongside a registration card. She also indicated a wish to contact McCormick.
“I was floored,” Bowen wrote in his blog. “This was the spark I was looking for. The spark that could become a new Bahá’í.”
A gift for his mentor
When he called McCormick with the news, Bowen could “feel the joy flowing off her voice.”
“Not because she might get the chance to ‘convert’ someone,” he noted, “but because she gets the chance to share her faith.”
Consider it Bowen’s gift to his mentor — a gift that got better weeks later when the woman declared her belief in Bahá’u'lláh.
“I wanted to do something for [McCormick] to repay her for the kindness and dedication she showed for me and Project Conversion,” he wrote.
“I wanted to give her a Bahá’í community of her own.”
Bowen explained McCormick is the “only Bahá’í that we know of within many, many miles. She is a diaspora all to herself.”
McCormick, he said, would light up each time he arrived at her home for study circle, “ready to share the wisdom of her faith.”
He recalled how they “laughed over tea and delved into the teachings of Bahá’u'lláh.”
And the way she “interacted with her Bahá’í family” on a trip to Cary, an hour and a half north, for Feast.
“I could tell there was something missing [from her life]. It was like a family reunion with gatherings too rare for comfort.”
Journey begins at a crossroads
One could say the same, perhaps, about Bowen, a writer, husband and father of two who says he launched Project Conversion at a “crossroads” in his life.
“Everything in the news regarding religion and spirituality was just bad and it was always someone doing something crazy,” he recalled during an early February conversation with The American Bahá’í.
“I got to the point where I was thinking, ‘OK, which way am I going to go here?
“‘Is faith or religion really obsolete, and that’s why everything’s going on? Do I need to start going down the militant atheist path and say let’s just do away with it because it does more harm than good?
“‘Or, is there hope for faith? And if there is, what can I do to be a part of that solution?’”
Bowen chose for his journey faiths he knew little about, figuring that others might also be curious about them.
In the months leading up to 2011, he lined up mentors and learned from each the basics of a faith he would soon be living.
And he devised a plan: The first week of each month focus on religious practices, worship and ritual; the second week, culture and art; third week, social issues and conflicts; fourth, reflection on the experience.
The result he describes as total immersion — following its precepts and practices every waking hour of every day.
An aim of inspiration, maybe even healing
“I’m putting on the clothing of the faiths and living my life in an attempt to understand the points of view of people who come from these faiths, and there’s no other way to do that,” Bowen noted.
“If I want to understand how a Bahá’í feels, I’ve got to live like one. It’s completely 360 [degrees].”
And his goal?
“I’m trying to cover all this so that people get an interest in it and then dig a little deeper for themselves,” said Bowen. “That ‘aha!’ moment is what I’m hoping to inspire in other people.
“Even if it just changes their perspective — I’m not going to judge this person or this type of person anymore just because of what they look like or how they worship. … That’s where healing starts.”
Perhaps Bowen didn’t count, however, on just how difficult the transition between faiths would turn out to be for him.
When we spoke in early February, he acknowledged not being able to sleep the first two nights of the month.
“I had to force myself to think outside of Hinduism just when I was getting in the habit of doing it,” he noted. “I had to pack my Hindu stuff away and just kind of decompress in preparation for what midnight Tuesday brought.
“I’m still trying to get myself out of it.”
Bahá’ís walk the journey with him
But the support of Bahá’ís across the globe for his journey quickly revived Bowen’s spirits.
“As soon as Bahá’í went up on the [Project Conversion] site,” the number of online page views “just blew the hinges off,” he recalled.
“Whenever I look at the map and see who’s been there — they have computers there? some dot in the Pacific?”
Many more followed his journey on Facebook, leading Bowen to exclaim, “You guys are the social network!”
Closer to home, Bowen was enveloped in love on his trip to Cary in the Triangle cluster for Feast.
He was deeply touched, in particular, by the stories of Iranian Bahá’ís’ steadfastness and radiance in the face of persecution.
Indeed, a week’s worth of posts on the Project Conversion site comprised first-person accounts of believers who experienced persecution themselves and have family members still enduring imprisonment and other privations.
Artistic impression within the Faith also captured Bowen’s imagination.
“I’m a big fan of Bahá’í architecture,” he enthused, “like the Temple of Light that’s … going up in Chile.”
And as the calendar was about to turn, Bowen reflected on his learnings.
Chief among them:
- “The concept of progressive revelation.
- “The importance of community involvement (both with other Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís), and
- “The art of long-suffering and perseverance.”
Gratitude for life — minus the “sugar coat”
He took away as well a renewed sense of gratitude for life itself.
“I am participating in the very journey Bahá’u'lláh talks about in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys,” he blogged. “You are here with me, participating as fellow oarsmen in this quest for understanding.
“Is the fact that we have this capacity — this ethereal curiosity — not a reason to give thanks?”
Or, as Bowen expressed to The American Bahá’í:
“Every day is a surprise. It’s like attaining enlightenment over and over and over again.”
How does he reconcile that sentiment with the overall bleakness, albeit with streaks of light, of his novella Triune, which came out midway through February?
Would the book read differently if Bowen were writing it today?
Not really, he answered our query without missing a beat.
“In my fiction I am purposefully ambiguous,” noted Bowen.
“Think of the news. We are inundated with negativity each and every day.
“However, if we take a moment to look below the surface, we see those rays of sunlight Bahá’u'lláh frequently spoke about.”
One thing Bowen said he will not do is “sugar coat” the world.
“My purpose is to face it head-on and work for change,” he said. “This is a lesson I’ve learned from the Bahá’ís.
“Triune was the depiction of the world and what could happen. The reader is challenged to take action to ensure these negative outcomes are avoided.”
Now there’s an “aha!” moment.