By Caity Bolton
Knots of people streamed from the subway to gather outside the doors of the Lehman Center in the Bronx, eager for the start of the June 16 centenary commemoration of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visits to New York City.
For some it was their first time to the Bronx, just as it was a century ago for early New York Baha’is Edward and Carrie Kinney who ventured north of Manhattan to attend some of the city’s first Baha’i meetings.
Welcomed by live jazz performed by the Centenary Ensemble, more than 2,000 souls were swiftly ushered in to fill the concert hall.
Among the opening prayers and readings was a passage from the first public address that ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave in America, given at the home of the Kinneys on the upper West Side of Manhattan.
It was read in Persian and in translation as the early believers would have heard it: “I am greatly pleased with the city of New York. … I hope … that this city may become the city of love and that the fragrances of God may be spread from this place to all parts of the world.”
The theme of this commemorative evening was “The Power of the Covenant,” that unique feature of the Baha’i revelation that ensures the enduring unity of the Baha’i Faith.
It was in New York City in summer 1912 that ‘Abdu’l-Baha proclaimed in the West that He was the Center of the Covenant, appointed by Baha’u’llah upon His passing to interpret His Writings and guide the global Baha’i community.
This theme was introduced in a play written and directed by Kristina Golmohammadi and Mehr Mansuri-Ghavidel. In it young Miguel, a Baha’i youth living in present-day Bronx, speaks with the spirits of early Baha’is Howard McNutt, Lua Getsinger and Juliet Thompson.
They appear to him while he is struggling to invite his friends to a Baha’i gathering, and he asks them, “Didn’t you always know what to do? The Master was always there guiding you. …”
They answer that each generation has its own struggle, and theirs was to remain firm in the Covenant. At that time, there were many trying to sow discord in the community, one even laying claims to independent leadership of the western Baha’is.
“People had trouble understanding the station of ‘Abdu’l-Baha,” Howard McNutt tells Miguel. Howard was tasked with traveling to Chicago to tell some among the community there that they were misguided, and to draw them back under the protective wing of the Covenant.
It was to Lua Getsinger and Juliet Thompson that ‘Abdu’l-Baha proclaimed Himself as the Center of the Covenant, while Juliet was painting her portrait of the Master on West 78th Street in a home rented for ‘Abdu’l-Baha. He appointed Lua as the Herald of the Covenant and told her to “go forth and proclaim, ‘This is the Covenant of God in your midst.’”
After narrating some of their own struggles, the early American believers tell Miguel that ‘Abdu’l-Baha is always among us — wherever there is unity and love among the friends, you will find Him there.
Embolded by this knowledge, Miguel garners the courage to invite his friends to take part in the community-building activities in which Baha’is are engaged globally, a plan of action directed by the Universal House of Justice, inheritor of the mantle of head of the Faith within Baha’u'llah’s Covenant.
As the play comes to an end, Lua reminds Miguel — and us: “We are making history, Miguel. Remember, you are one of the early believers, too. …”
The theme was continued with a talk in which former member of the Universal House of Justice Glenford E. Mitchell described the Covenant as the “axis of world unity.”
“The circle of unity has gradually been widened,” he said. Successive stages of human development established unity at the level of family, tribe, city-state and nation-state. Now, at this key “milestone in the evolution of human society,” the human race is called upon to recognize its fundamental oneness.
That oneness, said Mitchell, is “the central principle of the Baha’i Faith” and consummation of human evolution, marking the end of the adolescence of the human race and the dawn of the age of fulfillment.
And the Covenant, he said, is that “providentially ordained instrument through which this unity is to be achieved.” Its purpose is to “renew the human connection with the divine reality” and our connection with the one faith of God — manifested in stages according to the circumstances of humanity at the time of revelation.
The Covenant, moreover, ensures our continued connection to that divine guidance through not only the appointed Center of the Covenant but through the institutions delineated by Baha’u’llah Himself, said Mitchell.
“The axis of the oneness of the world of humanity is the power of the Covenant and nothing else.”
The evening drew to a close with a slide show depicting a Northeast U.S. Baha’i community active in service today and through the years to a century ago.
The photos were underlaid with the soft music of live cello and violin, and the memorable words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
“O that I could travel, even though on foot and in the utmost poverty, to these regions, and, raising the call of ‘Ya Baha’u'l-Abha’ in cities, villages, mountains, deserts and oceans, promote the divine teachings! This, alas, I cannot do. How intensely I deplore it! Please God, ye may achieve it.”
At this, an audience member joyfully exclaimed, “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha!” and the auditorium erupted in applause, singing along with the Centenary Ensemble, “Look at me, follow me, be as I am. …”
Such was the centenary celebration of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visits to the City of the Covenant and His wishes for this metropolis, as voiced in a Tablet:
“Bless Thou, O King of Kings, the city of New York! Cause the friends there to be kind to one another. Purify their souls and make their hearts to be free and detached. Illumine the world of their consciousness. Exhilarate their spirits and bestow celestial power and confirmation upon them. Establish there a heavenly realm, so that the City of Baha may prosper and New York be favoured with blessings from the Abha Kingdom, that this region may become like the all-highest Paradise, may develop into a vineyard of God and be transformed into a heavenly orchard and a spiritual rose garden.”