By Allen Goldblatt, Barbara Klingsporn and Deanne LaRue
On June 25, 1945 — a few weeks after the end of World War II in Europe and a few weeks before the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific — representatives of some 50 nations gathered at the San Francisco Opera House and voted unanimously to adopt the charter establishing the United Nations.
Addressing the delegates, President Harry Truman called this document “a declaration of great faith by the nations of the earth — faith that war is not inevitable, faith that peace can be maintained.”
At this historic structure, about 3,200 souls gathered on Sept. 9, 2012, for “‘Abdu’l-Baha: Pillar of Peace,” a commemoration of the centenary of the momentous visit to California by the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith.
The two-hour event incorporated talks, drama, storytelling, music and video to tell the story of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s unwavering message of peace and to challenge Baha’is to harness peace — at home, among friends, in their neighborhood — as an energizing factor as they continue building community and sharing the healing teachings of the Faith.
The program opened with the first of three dramatic vignettes telling the story of how the Faith was introduced in California and established through the counsel of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, venerated by Baha’is as “the Master.”
Actors in period dress portrayed Robert Turner, the first African-American Baha’i; Thornton Chase, the first American believer; Helen Goodall, called “Mother of the Faithful” by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and her daughter Ella Goodall Cooper; and John Bosch, the vintner whose philanthropy would later help establish Bosch Baha’i School in California.
Their moving stories helped the audience to “feel” what it was like to encounter the Faith for the first time, to share its teachings, to correspond and visit with ‘Abdu’l-Baha, to teach the Faith, and to take those first steps in establishing the administration of the Faith.
The audience was then shown a “video time capsule” about turn-of-the-century San Francisco.
Period movies and photographs revealed a vibrant, growing city, then the devastation of the great earthquake of 1906, followed by scenes of the community coming together to rebuild.
The focus then shifted to New York in 1912, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s ship docked and He began His travels across America. Glimpses of many newspaper clippings revealed the high level of interest His presence aroused. Among the many highlights was footage of the Master at several locales around the Bay Area.
Journey’s influence on America
Hooper Dunbar, a former member of the Universal House of Justice, put the centenary observance in perspective by recalling the profound impact of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s journey through America.
Despite the conflagrations visited on humanity during the past 100 years, he said, “peace we are assured will inevitably come and the senseless violence will end. … ‘Abdu’l-Baha will be heralded as its luminous pillar — leading the way out of this darkness of materialism, inspiring all with the vision of that Most Great Peace promised by His Father.”
Dunbar then prepared the audience to hear a most precious and rare recording of the voice of the Master chanting a prayer. Many said later they could really feel the presence of the Master in the auditorium.
Actors returned to the stage to continue the story in vignettes written for the event, and directed by Gary Bulkin.
Anthony Hamm as Robert Turner, Paul Bourque as John Bosch, Randy Dobbs as Thornton Chase, Nikki Gundry as Helen Goodall and Arria Bruss as Ella Goodall Cooper dramatized the excitement and worries as those early believers anticipated the Master’s arrival in their midst.
Chase felt unworthy. Bosch could barely wait. Some traveled east to meet the Master, afraid that He would not make the long trip to California.
Chase died in Los Angeles as the Master was approaching San Francisco. ‘Abdu’l-Baha traveled to Los Angeles solely to honor his devotion and dedicate his gravesite as a place of visitation for Baha’is.
The vision going forward
With his depth of historical scholarship and immense insight, Firuz Kazemzadeh offered a talk titled “’Abdu’l-Baha’s Vision of Peace.” Wilma Ellis Kazemzadeh, with characteristic humor and straight talk, addressed the present and future in her talk “Building Peace Today.”
Both are former members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States and have held a variety of leadership positions during their long lives of dedication to the Faith.
The program wove the arts throughout to move the story forward. In addition to the dramatic vignettes, 17-year-old Bay Area native Lauren Grieve performed “I Am Waiting,” a song she composed and arranged with inspiration from words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha later used in a letter by Shoghi Effendi and Lady Blomfield informing the western believers of the Master’s passing.
This song transitioned the program from this historical perspective to the present day: “Using Abdu’l-Baha’s example, where do we go from here?”
“Increase the Peace,” a short film, featured the service of junior youth groups from San Mateo, Los Altos, Hayward and Oakland, with participants describing their visions of peace and how to achieve it through service and dedication.
The filming itself was a service project as many junior youths, most who are not Baha’is, assisted in writing the interview questions, selecting the backdrops, holding the microphones, etc. — a profound experience for them and their advisers.
Equally profound was the reminder to the audience of the need for attention to children’s spiritual development, and that if the children can become agents of peace so can we all.
JB Eckl and Eric Dozier sang “As ye have faith, so shall your powers be …,” putting the Master’s words to music in an original arrangement.
Dunbar issued a call to action, urging those present to transform the words and spirit of this event into lives of dedicated work toward making the promise of peace a reality.
In closing, Sandy Simmons and John Davey-Hatcher sang a contemporary, collaborative arrangement of “Benediction” — a song by early Baha’i composer Louise Waite that ‘Abdu’l-Baha loved.
Accompanied by Eckl, Dozier, Grieve and Munirih Sparrow, they transitioned into the spirited “Now Is the Time!” with enthusiastic participation by the audience.
Tours and tributes
Also that weekend, about 120 people toured the burial places of early Baha’is Phoebe Hearst, Robert Turner, Helen Goodall and Ella Goodall Cooper at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, south of San Francisco.
To honor these stalwarts who established the San Francisco and Oakland Baha’i communities, the Baha’is of Pacifica offered the guided tour Saturday, Sept. 8, the day before the commemoration at the Opera House.
An estimated 100 people took self-guided cemetery tours using an interactive map created by Pacifica Baha’i Eric Lagerlof (posted on www.pacificabahai.org). The map also points to later Baha’i gravesites.
Another interactive map, created by Charleen Maghzi Ader, points to San Francisco locations where ‘Abdu’l-Baha stayed, spoke and greeted visitors. Though not all of the buildings are standing after a century, the map (available on www.sfbahai.org) offers descriptions of what happened at each location.
A commemorative picnic lunch attracted about 300 to a meadow near Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park, where the Master liked to walk. The Baha’is of San Francisco were hosts.
San Francisco Baha’is hosted guests all weekend at the Baha’i Center, turning the youth room into a welcoming tea room, keeping the bookstore open, and fielding questions of all sorts.
The Center was simultaneously the site of rehearsals and costuming for the commemoration. Hundreds attended a musical devotional gathering Sunday morning at the Center before making their way to the War Memorial Opera House.
Installed since February in the Baha’i Center lobby is an exhibit of photos showing people and places the Master encountered in California along with quotations expressing the station and manner of the Master and the message He was expounding. An accompanying video loop runs footage about ‘Abdu’l-Baha and His journey borrowed from YouTube and other sources.
The Baha’is of Oakland and San Leandro hosted a 3.2-mile walk around Lake Merritt on Saturday evening, Sept. 8, drawing some 250 walkers of all ages, including some in their 80s. The group circled the lake, stopping at the intersection with Jackson Street.
‘Abdu’l-Baha would walk down Jackson Street to the lake when He was a guest at the Oakland home of Helen Goodall, where countless gatherings were held to teach the Faith of Baha’u’llah, and where the Master sent messages to the Baha’is in care of Goodall.
Also that weekend, portions of the in-progress documentary film “Luminous Journey: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America, 1912” were screened and introduced by co-producer Anne Perry, in Richmond and later in San Francisco.