“I am transformed.”
Those were the words of a descendant of an early Washington, DC, Baha’i as a program on Saturday, May 12, commemorating ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visits a century ago to our nation’s capital drew to a close.
More than 30 family members of the city’s first Baha’is were among 2,000 people transfixed by “A Vision of Race Unity” that was advanced in an afternoon of talks, readings, devotions and artistry at the landmark Omni Shoreham Hotel.
But the weekend wasn’t over at that point. A sunshine-splashed Sunday of graveside ceremonies and a self-guided tour of sites associated with the eldest son of the Baha’i founder, Baha’u'llah, awaited those fortunate to stay the entire weekend.
The two days gave participants a fuller sense of the impact this holy man from afar had on what was an overtly segregated community — and how His teachings and example can inspire individuals and society to bridge today’s more insidious divides.
(This event was preceded by centenary events in Chicago and at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois; click for details.)
Talks bring mission into focus
Three current and former members of senior elected Baha’i institutions took attendees on a spiritual journey.
Robert C. Henderson, chairman of the Faith’s national governing body, laid out the broad strokes of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s 1912 sojourn in America.
He recalled ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s assertion that God created on these shores a nation destined to become the most powerful in material and, ultimately, spiritual degrees.
We need but look, he said, at the noble intentions of America’s founders.
Inspired by a spiritual renewal of which they were only dimly aware, they enshrined principles later echoed repeatedly in the Baha’i writings and modeled by ‘Abdu’l-Baha throughout a ministry aimed at transforming spirits and habits.
The promotion of happiness, the condition of the poor, the power of humanity’s eternal Covenant with God — these and more ‘Abdu’l-Baha asked people to bear in mind, said Henderson, as they work in neighborhoods and beyond to build unity.
Moreover, he said, ‘Abdu’l-Baha infused within Americans and their nation’s leaders the spiritual purpose, vitality and stamina that will be needed to turn principle into reality.
We look around and don’t see a nation capable of doing this, Henderson concluded. But in time it will happen and there will be a part for everyone to play.
The debilitating impact of racial inequality is among the foremost of those challenges, and Dorothy W. Nelson zeroed in on what it will take to overcome that scourge.
Storyteller that she is, the renowned jurist and former member of the national governing body recalled how she and her beloved late husband, James, were “loved into the Faith” by those such as Henderson’s grandparents.
It all was set in motion, she said, because a fellow University of California-Los Angeles law student rallied his colleagues to shun the existing student association, which didn’t allow women or blacks, and form their own.
Her colleague’s motivation, it turned out, was the vision being instilled in him as he attended informal “fireside” talks on the teachings of the Faith. He invited the Nelsons to attend, too, and the rest is history.
‘Abdu’l-Baha had that same impact on those He encountered on His travels, said Nelson. Even the Baha’is of the time had erected barriers to integration, and it took ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s words and personal example to reorient their thinking.
She recalled His talks to foremost thinkers and visits to the long-suffering of society; His nudges to bring black and white together through the union of Louis and Louisa Gregory, the first interracial marriage in the Faith; His equally portentous placement of Louis Gregory, an African-American, at His side at a luncheon, eschewing protocol; and His embrace of a young boy He termed a “black rose.”
The full implication of such acts undoubtedly escaped ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s listeners within and outside the Baha’i community of the day, said Glenford E. Mitchell.
But ‘Abdu’l-Baha persisted, he said, knowing that the seeds He sowed eventually would sprout. It’s in the context of the unification of the world’s peoples — the fulfillment of a purpose that has been evolving from the beginning of human life — that the meaning of those actions can be found.
And two simultaneous processes are at the heart of that growing unity, said the former member of the Faith’s world governing body: in the Baha’i community the conscious effort to share the teachings of Baha’u'llah and build sturdy administrative structures, and in the wider society the Hand of God bringing about an eventual alignment of governments and people.
Though many reversals will be suffered before their realization, noted Mitchell, Americans can take heart in the words of Shoghi Effendi, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s successor as head of the Faith, that this “great republic … will continue to evolve, undivided and undefeatable, until the sum total of its contributions to the birth, the rise and the fruition of that world civilization … will have been made, and its last task discharged.”
A variety of artistic expression touches hearts
Excerpts from talks ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave 100 years ago in the homes of two early Baha’i families added layers to the theme, as did devotional prayers recited in English, Spanish and Persian.
But not just minds were reached in this three-hour program. The power of the arts to touch hearts was brought to bear in varied delightful forms.
People of all backgrounds wearing period dress mingled on stage to set the mood of the program.
Rare video of ‘Abdu’l-Baha alighting from an automobile and greeting young and old, black and white, was shown.
Images of ‘Abdu’l-Baha flashed on the twin screens as well when the Centenary Choir sang “Look at Me, Follow Me” to words He uttered.
Donna Denizé recited her poem “The Difference,” which asserts, “There is but one color, and that is the color of servitude.”
Jublee proclaimed, in four-part harmony, “What a Wonderful Day” this is.
Children representing the many hues of humanity recited ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s prayer for America and, as the choir sang “Let All Associate,” one by one placed roses in a wonderfully multi-colored arrangement.
And the choir sent the audience back into the world with the strains of “Love Me” and its repeated response, “I give up on hate.”
Tour follows ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s footsteps
The next morning, many of those attendees fanned out, maps in hand, to sample 41 sites the host local governing body had marked as significant to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit.
A description of each site could be found with the map and on the website www.dcbahaitour.org, and an audio tour was available to those calling a phone number and keying in the site number.
Homes, halls or churches where ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke and national landmarks He visited were among the sites. Some sites are in a very different form today, such as the 1912 Baha’i Center that’s now a Thai restaurant.
The current Baha’i Center held a special exhibit of artifacts of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit that could be enjoyed, too.
A few wanderers were lucky enough to tail Lex Musta, an area Baha’i who was to a great extent responsible for the tour.
He began the day sharing prayers and stories graveside with descendants of several early Baha’i families of the area.
He then led an exhaustive — and exhausting — walking tour of several sites that picked up more and more followers with each stop.
Musta’s passion was much of the draw.
Estonian by heritage, Musta embraced the Faith in the mid-1990s and immediately was drawn to the parallels between the long oppression of his people and the African-American experience.
He thus made it his mission to research Washington Baha’i history. Out of that came to light many early believers whose life stories are not fully recounted in the more well-known diaries of the time.
Among those was Alan Arthur Anderson, an African-American train porter whose infant child was blessed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha and given the name Mobarak, “Blessed.”
At Musta’s urging, several generations of Andersons attended Saturday’s program. And it was a member of that family who was so moved he felt transformed.
‘Abdu’l-Baha’s journey had come full circle.