Rick Harmsen was an energetic promoter of the Baha’i Faith for four decades in the United States and for two years in The Gambia. He strove for a life of service amid personal difficulties. He was an educator in printing and graphics technology during one of the most rapid periods of change the field has ever seen.
He passed away December 28, 2011, at age 60. He lived most recently in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was a longtime resident of greater Buffalo, New York, and Big Rapids, Michigan.
A letter from the Universal House of Justice expressed condolences to his family and added, “Rest assured of its supplications at the Sacred Threshold that he may be the recipient of divine grace and progress throughout the heavenly realms.”
In its turn, the National Spiritual Assembly praised “his palpable sincerity, generosity, integrity, humility, assiduousness, and radiance of spirit” and added, “Rick evinced remarkable steadfastness and was manifestly one of those of whom it can be said: ‘The gentle breeze wafted from the garden of their hearts shall perfume and revive the souls of men, and the revelations of their minds, even as showers, reinvigorate the peoples and nations of the world.’”
Herbert Richard Harmsen Jr. was born in 1951 and brought up in Amherst, New York. As a youth he desired to become a Christian minister but his minister discouraged him.
Attending the State University of New York at Brockport, he embraced the Baha’i Faith in 1970, the first in his family. Eventually his whole family became Baha’is, his father at age 80.
As a new Baha’i he traveled to South Carolina to assist in growth and development of the Faith there.
He moved to Alaska in 1972 as a Baha’i pioneer, responding to an appeal for youth to help set up a Baha’i college club at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. His future wife, Joyce Engen, responded to the same advertisement.
After one semester he left school for full-time Baha’i teaching and consolidation work under the auspices of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Alaska. He flew to remote villages above the Arctic Circle and in southeast Alaska, and later spent four months assisting Baha’i communities in Europe.
After Rick and Joyce married he started studies in fine arts, excelling in portrait paintings, but it was in media studies that he earned a degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
In 1976 the young family, which included a newborn and toddler, ventured to The Gambia. Through 1978 he oversaw a printing and graphics operation for a USAID agricultural development project.
Rick traveled extensively to assist the growth and development of dozens of local Baha’i communities and promote literacy in Gambian villages. He helped a group of neighborhood boys form a football team, also coaching them to memorize verses from the Baha’i sacred writings.
He served for a year as secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of The Gambia. He also served on the Gambian National Literacy Advisory Committee, designing and illustrating their first literacy primer.
After the family’s return to New York state, Rick earned a master’s degree in printing technology at the University of Rochester. In 1981 he took a teaching post at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he taught printing management. He also served on the Baha’i District Teaching Committee serving South Dakota, with services involving travel to Native American reservations.
In 1983 the family settled in Big Rapids, Michigan, as homefront pioneers assisting local development of the Faith. His three children grew up there.
Rick taught for 23 years at Ferris State University in the Department of Printing and Digital Imaging. He maintained a “hands-on” stance in working and teaching as the field became ever more advanced and computerized. He organized a series of conferences and seminars and published articles in printing trade journals. He served on the campus Diversity Council and was campaign chair for the United Way in his department.
He traveled often for the Faith in western Michigan, served as an assistant to an Auxiliary Board member, and presented programs at Louhelen Baha’i School. He worked with the local interfaith peace group, organizing annual peace festivals, and helped form a “Healing Racism” group forum. He championed interfaith dialogue workshops, the equality of women and men, spiritual education of children and firmness in the Baha’i Covenant.
The Harmsen home was open to a steady stream of traveling Baha’i teachers, fireside gatherings and eventually the core activities of devotionals, children’s classes and study circles.
Health issues and the desire to help care for his ailing parents prompted Rick to retire early and move with Joyce back to the Buffalo area. He served the Faith as secretary of the Spiritual Assembly of Amherst, as training institute coordinator serving the area and as an assistant to an Auxiliary Board member, as well as being active in core activities.
He volunteered in a soup kitchen and taught English to foreign students, including youths in Iran over the Internet.
“He considered himself a world citizen and had friends from all corners of the globe,” Rick’s family writes. “He was a humble, generous, and compassionate man, always lending a hand to those less fortunate than himself. His home was open to everyone, and many looked upon him as a spiritual father and counselor. He was a friend and advocate especially to the poor, new immigrants, single mothers, the mentally ill, wrongly incarcerated.”
He was known for taking a scholarly approach to the study of Baha’i writings, the Baha’i Covenant and early religious history. A few of his articles were published, including one in The American Baha’i about the negative effects of media on children.
After the passing of his parents the Harmsens moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be near their daughter and grandchildren.
“Of him it can be said, ‘many a night (he) spent in deep communion with Thee,’” his family says. Suffering from post-traumatic stress in his last 16 years, he was sustained by deep prayer and often shared special Baha’i quotations that brought him consolation. “His desire in life was to be a consecrated soul and to live a life of service to his Beloved.”
In addition to his wife of 39 years, Joyce Harmsen, Rick’s survivors include a daughter, Tajalli Harmsen-Ball of Michigan; two sons, Navid Harmsen of Oregon and Nehemiah Harmsen of China; a sister, Holly Strzelczyk of New York state; three brothers, Jack Harmsen and Craig Harmsen of Massachusetts and Eric Harmsen of Puerto Rico; and three grandchildren.
Information from Joyce Harmsen and family and from the U.S. Baha’i Office of International Pioneering