Race unity. Economic equity. Interfaith understanding.
The more Baha’is contribute to public discourse and social action on these and other often-intertwined issues, the more they learn.
Welcoming, celebrating interracial families
Sahba Jalali of Columbia, Missouri, is tapping into opportunities to engage — and serve the needs of — interracial families.
“It is my anecdotal impression that we are sitting on a great opportunity,” says Jalali, who spoke on on the subject during consultation at the recent 104th U.S. Baha’i National Convention.
“When I look at the Baha’i community in which I reside, over half of the couples are interracial and intercultural, ethnic, national,” he says.
“Our Baha’i family is one of only a few communities that celebrates interracial children. It is one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s legacies.”
All couples experience challenges, notes Jalali. But “differences of culture can make the difficulties seem greater or in shaper contrast.”
He points to a neighbor couple. Ed is African-American and Marlene is white.
“We were exploring doing neighborhood core activities with them,” relates Jalali.
“Marlene went to a ‘mega-church.’ Ed would never go. She said Ed never felt welcome. I promised Ed and Marlene would be welcomed with open arms in the Baha’i community.”
“Mixed-race couples have more difficult time finding a community that tells them they are doing the right thing being together.
“Also, in most communities there is not a strong emphasis on elimination of racial prejudice. So even if the community is not in opposition to interracial relationships, there will be individuals who are uncomfortable with such a family and will make it undesirable to be in the community with them.”
He sees a need for support mechanisms such as couples’ groups or marriage wellness workshops. These might include pre-marriage classes and follow-up education and training.
“The Baha’i spiritual experience can offer practical solutions and hope during the difficult time.”
The subject of intergenerational poverty also weighs heavily on Jalali. On his mind recently, he says, has been a particular quotation from Shoghi Effendi:
“Every child without exception must from his earliest years make a thorough study of the art of reading and writing, and according to his own tastes and inclinations and the degree of his capacity and powers, devote extreme diligence to the acquisition of learning, beneficial arts and skills, various languages, speech, and contemporary technology.
“To assist the children of the poor in the attainment of these accomplishments, and particularly in learning the basic subjects, is incumbent up the members of the Spiritual Assemblies, and is accounted as one the obligations laid upon the conscience of the trustees of God in every land.”
To Jalali the quotation is very direct, especially in its use of the words “incumbent” and “members of the Spiritual Assemblies,” as opposed to the body itself.
It identifies the children of the poor specifically, he says, and extends responsibility not just to spiritual education of these young people but to their social and economic development.
Learning how to ask questions
Fellow National Convention delegate Fred Delgado of Portland, Oregon, has learned much about sharing the teachings of Baha’u'llah from, paradoxically, a situation in which no attempt to persuade is allowed.
Last fall, Delgado and another Portland Baha’i, Loie Mead, participated in a small-group discussion organized by the Inter-Religious Action Network in suburban Washington County.
“Its purpose was to learn about some the religious beliefs of the Faith of each of the participants,” he recounts.
“The format of each meeting consisted of topical areas which asked participants to consider based on their understanding of the doctrine of their faith tradition.”
- How we know God or that which we sense as larger than ourselves
- Differing views of salvation (or actions and consequences)
- Social justice
- From exclusivism to parallelism — teachings about truth and who has it
The emphasis was on listening, learning, and appreciating how each faith tradition understands these topical areas. A ground rule was that there would be no attempt at persuasion.
What was Delgado’s takeaway?
“I found that by responding to the topical areas I could share a great deal of Baha’i doctrine,” he says.
“The participants asked many excellent questions, and the resulting responses led to further sharing of Baha’i doctrine.”
One realization was that “these are the same sorts of individuals who we may think have no interest in religion.”
“I benefited greatly from the experience of raising awareness of Baha’i doctrine in this structured setting,” says Delgado.
“It reminded me that there is openness to discussion of religious topics among people who otherwise may not be thought of having interest.”
Which got him thinking about his approach to people he meets elsewhere.
“More than anything, this experience showed the utility of approaching the discussion of the fundamental verities in the manner found in The Dispensation of Baha’u'llah [one of the major letters of Shoghi Effendi],” he says.
“This experience has led me to consider the role of asking questions of people I may encounter which may lead to an opening to sharing the Faith.”
Finding a partner for service to community
Racial justice is an arena in which the Baha’is of El Paso, Texas, are immersing themselves. And they’ve found the YWCA to be a perfect venue for their efforts.
“In looking about the community … for like-minded organizations with similar objectives,” says Susan Cangurel, Baha’is were introduced to the YWCA of El Paso.
This YW, “one of the largest in the world, serving approximately 70,000 persons,” has an active racial justice program in addition to its fitness and other offerings for all ages.
The program “recommends, plans, coordinates and expands educational endeavors and events to heighten awareness for appreciation of differences among all people,” says Congurel.
Congurel, who serves as corresponding secretary of the El Paso Spiritual Assembly, once was the YW’s human resources officer and oversaw the direction of the racial justice program and committee.
In 2004, Nosrat Heidarian, a Baha’i, became a member of the committee and recently was nominated for an award for his service.
Heidarian has been able to coordinate presentations on the imprisoned Baha’i leaders in Iran through the committee.
The first was held at the Holocaust Museum and Study Center. Another is planned for a YW branch location.
Along with other local Baha’is, he has spearheaded the racial justice program’s annual Prayer for Peace and Imagine Peace events, which include panel discussion by representatives of various faiths, and the annual Cultural Experience Celebration.
Baha’is also have participated in activities during the committee’s Week Without Violence.
And a number of Baha’is have received certification as racial justice facilitators. That enables them to conduct programs on such topics as personal belief, life experiences, diversity awareness, cultural understanding, cross-cultural communication skills, and change agent behaviors.
“Ongoing cooperation and collaboration with the YWCA has blended well with the principles of the Baha’i Faith,” says Congurel.
“The YWCA’s philosophy of dignity, freedom, justice and peace for every individual, along with their advocations of ‘no one is born a racist’ and ‘the color of a person’s skin reveals only one thing, the color of a person’s skin,’ has been an ideal partnership for our Baha’i community.
“Individuals who were previously unfamiliar with the Baha’i Faith became acquainted with Baha’u’llah and some of His writings and prayers, have attended Ruhi courses, have participated in Holy Days and events, and have even became members of the Faith.”
Putting an emphasis on young people
Public collaborations for or involving young people have been carried out recently in Washington, DC, and Key West, Florida, and hold a promise of future explorations.
In our nation’s capital, artist in residence Jack Gordon organized an interfaith, multicultural celebration of spring hosted by the Brookland Artspace.
The free event featured local musicians, poets and dancers and offered games for kids.
“The goal of this event was to celebrate the beginning of spring by bringing together DC’s diverse cultural and religious communities to learn from one another and enjoy the talents of local artists,” says Gordon.
Gordon, who also represents the Baha’i community on the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, organized the festival under the banner of his multimedia project Faith in Action DC, which celebrates religious diversity and community service.
“The timing of the event was in honor of Naw-Ruz, a spring holiday originating in Persia that is now celebrated by people of diverse religious and cultural traditions around the world,” he notes.
“As part of the program, representatives of Baha’i, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Zoroastrian faith communities spoke about the meaning of spring in their traditions.”
Comedian and journalist Elahe Izadi, a Baha’i, emceed the festival. Other Baha’is involved included poet Sahar Sattarzadeh and members of a drum circle. Baha’i entrepreneur Faith Holmes supported the event with desserts from her business, Faithfully Sweet.
“For most guests, this was their first time involved with anything related to Naw-Ruz, and for some the first time even hearing about the Baha’i Faith,” says Gordon.
A previous collaboration with Brookland Artspace was a concert by a local musician.
In Key West, Baha’i junior youths Gannon and Bronza Fox and Kylan Schutze made signs and marched in an interfaith community parade for justice and race unity.
“The signs were a very powerful statement with many people taking pictures of them, and they are going to be featured in a major weekly magazine here and possibly another,” says Carl Schutze.
The parade addressed racial profiling and the need for justice and an end to racism, says Schutze.
It ended at a Catholic church where statements and prayers were delivered.