It was a look back at a pivotal point in development of the fledgling national Baha’i community of 1912. It was an assessment of where that community stands. And more: a glimpse at next steps in applying the teachings of Baha’u’llah in the building of a humane, ever-advancing civilization.
In music, stagecraft, inspirational talks, a tone of encouragement, and the stately ambience of the Chicago Theater, the April 28 centenary event “Awakening America to the Power of Unity” — observing the 100th anniversary of the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to that city — was a celebration, above all, of His vision for this country’s spiritual destiny:
“Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees. … Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.”
A diverse audience of nearly 3,000 from across the country and beyond converged on downtown Chicago for the evening. Special guests included a member of Congress; the president of the Village of Wilmette, home to the world’s holiest Baha’i House of Worship; the city manager of neighboring Evanston; an editor from the Theosophical Society, which hosted events during ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit in 1912; and numerous current or retired members of international Baha’i institutions.
(This event was followed by another centenary event at the Baha’i House of Worship; click here for details. Also, click here for a story on a May 12 centenary event in Washington, DC. In addition, click here for a story on a June 16 centenary event in The Bronx, New York.)
In welcoming remarks, Jacqueline Left Hand Bull — chair of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States — told briefly of the eight-month visit to America by the son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith. While dedication of the House of Worship site on May 1, 1912, was a highlight, in a larger view His journey rallied people of all walks of life around a set of teachings including the oneness of God, the need to unite humanity and eliminate prejudice, the equality of women and men, and the role of religious faith in guiding our planet toward a lasting peace.
But she added about that visit: “Even 100 years later, we are still only beginning to comprehend its import.”
From varied angles
Guest speakers examined different facets of that legacy.
Rep. Robert Dold of Illinois, co-sponsor of a U.S. House of Representatives resolution condemning the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, the country of the Faith’s origin, praised the Temple as a symbol of positive values as well as a point of pride for the metropolitan area.
Noting that the Temple “has no fence” to keep people out, he also pointed out a highly symbolic role: For military and passenger pilots, the Temple is a reassuring landmark, “a place where people can find where they are in the landscape.”
And he saluted the efforts of the Baha’is — even those under persecution elsewhere in the world — in “promoting cooperation and unity and striving to build a better world.”
Other Congress members from Illinois who conveyed messages included Sens. Mark Kirk and Richard Durbin and Rep. Janice Schakowsky.
S. Valerie Dana, deputy secretary of the National Assembly, related how ‘Abdu’l-Baha used development of the House of Worship to rally followers of the Faith across the continent and forge a common identity for Baha’i communities in the United States and Canada.
He took the then-unthinkable step of appointing a woman to spearhead the project. “It was an important learning for the young Baha’i community,” she said, because few Baha’is had grasped how the principle of equality was to be reflected in its governance.
And His assurance that “The Temple is already built” — when, physically, only the cornerstone had been laid — continues to inspire a far-seeing vision for Baha’is.
J. Douglas Martin, former member of the Universal House of Justice, the world governing body of the Baha’i Faith, enlarged on the spiritual and social mission ‘Abdu’l-Baha envisioned for the United States.
Our country’s leadership throughout the 20th century in work for a stable, peaceful world has gained it much admiration. It’s inevitable that some resentment comes with that, Martin noted, but by and large America serves as a worldwide beacon of hope: “‘Abdu’l-Baha’s vision of America holds as true today as it did when He spoke here 100 years ago.”
Still, he said, the country’s people have arrived at a historic fork in the road. And it’s possible that in the middle of our “long, thorny and tortuous” path, the nation might concede moral defeat.
To help society stave off such a failure of character, he urged the Baha’i community to intensify its community-building work and “have the courage of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s convictions.”
Borna Noureddin, a member of the Continental Board of Counselors serving the Baha’is of the Americas — who, like Martin, hails from Canada — focused on “unity in action,” practical steps in furthering that vision at the grass roots.
Baha’is worldwide, he reported, are developing the devotional character of neighborhoods and villages; tapping into that spirit to help children build virtues and young people strengthen capacity for service; and creating a culture of study, reflection and action that sustains the process among all ages.
“This work is still only beginning,” he said. But as that process advances in many localities with the power of unity at its core, he said, the Baha’i House of Worship envisioned for every city and town “begins to function even before it is built.”
Music and dramatizations interlaced throughout the program. Grammy-nominated jazz singer Tierney Sutton, guitarist Jamie Findlay and bassist Kevin Axt gave spare but powerful readings to such traditional tunes as “Amazing Grace” and “America the Beautiful,” as well as the contemporary “Pure Imagination” and “The Song Is You.”
The Baha’i House of Worship Choir, setting the tone in the costumes of early 20th-century society, sang such sacred pieces as “Nearer My God to Thee”; the venerable Baha’i hymn “Benediction,” beloved by ‘Abdu’l-Baha; and a modern gospel setting of a Baha’i scripture passage, “Love Me That I May Love Thee.”
A dramatic reading from the diary of Louise Waite, a Baha’i and music composer, focused on her attempts to describe ‘Abdu’l-Baha, which she admitted was “as impossible as to try to paint a sunbeam. … The light of infinite love was radiating from His countenance, majestic yet sublimely tender. …”
Images projected onto a stage backdrop throughout the evening reinforced themes being spoken or sung onstage: ‘Abdu’l-Baha meeting followers, places He visited and other scenes of 1912 America, views of the House of Worship at various stages of history, and more.
A rare few minutes of film showing ‘Abdu’l-Baha in New York held many enthralled, especially Baha’is, who revere Him as the first and most distinguished believer in Baha’u’llah and the perfect human example of His teachings.
But arguably, the most tears were drawn when Unity in Music, a troupe of 20 young people ages 6–18 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dramatized a story of a gang of New York street children who were ushered into a home to meet ‘Abdu’l-Baha — and the transformation of hearts when He showered kind attention on a small African-American boy, a “Black Rose.”
After all, the refrain they sang throughout their presentation — “We are one world” — is at the center of the vision ‘Abdu’l-Baha offered on his journey through America.
- Temple echoes with strains of a century ago
- Centenary Press Coverage
- Baha’is Celebrate Centennial of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to America in 1912