Remembrance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to America is, naturally, a source of joy across the whole country in this centennial year — not just at the sites of the five nationally sponsored observances.
Reports of local remembrances of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit continued to reach The American Baha’i late in the centenary year, focusing on the continued ties between churches where the Master spoke and Baha’i communities.
Nov. 11, 2012: Common heritage of Baha’is and Unitarians in Baltimore, Maryland. When area Baha’is wanted to publicly observe the 100th anniversary of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s talk at First Unitarian Church in Baltimore, the church’s minister leapt at the opportunity to host a joint celebration.
The result was a special Sunday service blending prayer and scripture with historical scene-setting from the viewpoint of both faith traditions. The centerpiece was reading of excerpts from the talk ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave in the church meeting hall on Nov. 11, 1912, addressing the oneness of God, the common origins of all revealed religions, the oneness of humanity and the urgency of peace and amity among peoples.
Instrumental music included chamber selections from Bach and Handel as well as classical Persian pieces on santour. The Metropolitan Washington Baha’i Chorale, the First Unitarian Church Choir and several soloists offered songs of benediction, devotion and a spirit of unity. After the service the two groups mingled in fellowship, and information about the Baha’i Faith was offered for a variety of ages.
The event, which attracted people from both faith communities, was in part a fruit of friendships between Unitarian Rev. David Olson and many Baha’is over the years. A year earlier the minister had invited a Baha’i to address his congregation on the anniversary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah, and the church bulletin included a substantial account of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit and the newspaper stories surrounding it. In past years Olson had collaborated with Baha’i communities — as well as representatives of two permanent Baha’i schools — while serving at churches in Flint, Michigan, and in New England.
Three local Baha’i communities in the Baltimore cluster contributed to planning. “We were quite pleased with the enthusiasm and support for commemorating the centenary of the visit,” said Chris Seubert, a member of the co-sponsoring Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Baltimore. It pointed up, he said, that “that the realization of the importance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit extends beyond the Baha’i community.”
April 14, 2012: The first church to play host to the Master in New York City. Anticipating the large-scale June 16 centenary observance in New York sponsored by the National Spiritual Assembly, local Baha’is participated in a preliminary event at the Church of the Ascension, the first public place where ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke in the United States on April 14, 1912.
With packed pews, and calla lilies adorning the sanctuary just as they had 100 years earlier, the Rev. Andrew Foster welcomed attendees. Gilbert Smith’s remarks on behalf of the Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is addressed the historical significance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s time in New York, the city where He spent more time than any other on His U.S. visit, tirelessly spreading the message of love, unity, and oneness of humanity enshrined in Baha’u’llah’s teachings.
After further historical context on the occasion from Kathryn Hogenson, the full text of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s speech was read aloud, following the hymn “Jesus Lives!” and a passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, both of which had also been shared 100 years ago. Prayers and music on flute, organ and voice closed the program.
All through the year, Baha’i communities on and off the path of the Master’s journey came together in celebration of the anniversary and of the profound impact the visit had on this country’s spiritual destiny. Here are a few examples:
Local anniversary observances
Three anniversary dates: Boston, MA. On the anniversaries of three occasions when the Master visited the Boston area in 1912, local Baha’is arranged events with three emphases: following in the footsteps of the Master, letting His example be our guide in building community, and commemorating the occasion formally at a historic site.
- May 27: Dozens met at the Boston Baha’i Center for a walking tour to places ‘Abdu’l-Baha visited in downtown Boston: Franklin Square, the Boston School for Girls, the former sites of Huntington Chambers and the Kensington, the Twentieth Century Club, Ford Hall and the former Hotel Victoria. The last stop was Tremont Temple, where the group was reminded how ‘Abdu’l-Baha was introduced to the Unitarian Convention by the state’s lieutenant governor: “It really is a great happiness and supreme honor that this blessed being has graced our meeting with His presence.”
- July 22: A special commemorative devotional gathering on the theme of teaching the Faith, with stories and readings focusing on the actions and words of the Master, was designed as spiritual preparation for the beginning of a program-of-growth cycle.
- Aug. 26: An outdoor celebration at the former home of early American Baha’i Maria P. Wilson in suburban Malden, where ‘Abdu’l-Baha stayed for a week in 1912, included selections from the Master’s writings on unity and diversity, talks on the Faith and on the significance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, and musical and dramatic performances. In remarks reported in The Malden Advocate, Mayor Gary Christenson said the Wilson House “stands as a reminder of Baha’u’llah’s vision of a land free of prejudice, and there is no better place than the diverse city of Malden for such a symbol.”
May 12: Centennial of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s speech at Lake Mohonk, NY. Held near the anniversary of the Conference on International Arbitration held May 14–16, 1912, the centennial gathering drew 250 people to Mohonk Mountain House, where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had delivered a stirring speech on the spiritual underpinnings of world peace.
A talk on the Master’s mission to the United States was framed by devotions, short films on ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, and a variety of music including songs by the Children’s Theatre Company of Peekskill. A special highlight was participation by grandchildren of Douglas Smiley, one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s hosts at Mohonk: Gerow Smiley, who spoke about his Quaker family’s role in promoting peace, and Sandra Smiley, who showed guests the Persian rug that ‘Abdu’l-Baha presented as a gift to the family.
June 3: Centennial of the Master’s visit to Milford, Pennsylvania. About 40 people participated in a picnic and commemorative activities at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, then toured the nearby Grey Towers mansion, a building ‘Abdu’l-Baha visited.
June 9: “A Celebration of Unity,” Philadelphia, PA. More than 200 people joined in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Master’s visit to Philadelphia. Temple University’s Performing Arts Center rang with music by such performers as Eric Dozier, JB Eckl, a children’s choir and many others; dramatic narrative; and contemplative devotions. Dozens of people pitched in on the preparations, according to a pictorial blog prepared for the event (http://acelebrationofunity.blogspot.com).
A celebration picnic followed at the Philadelphia Regional Baha’i Center, and the next day the Center was the jumping-off point for a tour of places ‘Abdu’l-Baha visited, including the former Baptist Temple, a former Unitarian church and the home of early Baha’i Mary J. Revell.
June 30: Centennial Unity Picnic, Teaneck, NJ. More than 700 people gathered at this event for food, music, prayers in three languages and the annual reading of a 1912 talk that ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave in the same spot, reaffirming that we live in a new Day of God.
Held in the verdant setting of the Wilhelm Property, it was the 100th such gathering in honor of the June 29, 1912, unity feast addressed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who later wrote to encourage holding that event each year as a “souvenir” of His visit.
Sept. 9: A century’s progress and new commitment, Niagara Falls, NY. Touching recollection of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s words and acts of love and service during His two days in Buffalo and Niagara Falls was an important part of this luncheon gathering at a conference center. But just as significant was the signing by most of the 250 Baha’is and guests of a scroll pledging to “rededicate our thoughts and our efforts, to arise and act in His Name for the progress of the Plan He authored — that priceless and everlasting bequest.”
Recollections and pictures of many Baha’is who had lived and served in the area were displayed on the dining tables, and an archives exhibit provided perspective on the tremendous growth and expansion of the area’s Baha’i communities in the past century.
Sept. 15: Centennial Celebration of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, Kenosha, WI. Baha’is from many communities in southeastern Wisconsin helped organize two programs that drew hundreds of attendees for prayer, reminiscences, history and music at the onetime home of the Goodale and Voelz families, visited in 1912 by the Master and currently under a lengthy renovation guided by area community members. Kenosha is the site of one of the earliest organized Baha’i communities in the country, and a history of that community recounted at the event stretched back to the 19th century.
Vocal and instrumental music and recitation of a talk by the Master were interspersed with reminiscences by longtime Kenosha Baha’is as well as descendants from as far away as Florida and Nevada. The program closed with prayers in the upper room where He stayed. Visitors also had the opportunity to pay respects at the gravesites, decked with flowers for the occasion, of many of those early believers.
Sept. 23: Celebration of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s legacy in Lincoln, NE. Baha’is in Nebraska’s capital celebrated ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit a century earlier, taking note of His brief but cordial association with one of the state’s most famous sons, William Jennings Bryan. A number of people visited the former home of the statesman and orator, where ‘Abdu’l-Baha had visited members of the Bryan family in 1912 and left a prayer inscribed in the guest book. Bryan had been interested in some of the teachings of Baha’u’llah and, in mid-political career, met ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Palestine while traveling the world in 1906.
Later, a formal event at the Lincoln Woman’s Club saw a gathering of 75 people, including some from neighboring states. Prayers were offered, as was music by University of Nebraska students, sharing of a letter from U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, storytelling by Joyce Stohr, and remarks on the significance of the visit. “We just feel so blessed that ‘Abdu’l-Baha passed through our city and our state,” event coordinator Katie Cervantes was quoted as saying in an article in the Daily Nebraskan, the university newspaper.
Sept. 27: A pageant of all ages in Sacramento, CA. Young and old, people of many ethnicities and nationalities, all played a part at a gathering of about 300 at the California Museum that recalled the visit by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Sacramento on Oct. 25–26, 1912. Some of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s eloquent speeches were shared, prayers were recited or sung — including a contribution by a junior youth group — and stories were told of His life of service despite severe hardship, particularly His extensive travels late in life. A children’s class presented stories and photographs of prominent Baha’i women who promoted Bahá’í principles such as elimination of prejudice and equality of the sexes, and many historic photographs were projected to set the tone. The program climaxed with some of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s calls to action to help America fulfill its spiritual destiny.
“There were many positive comments from the attendees and there seemed to be a renewed sense of commitment and a better understanding of the extent of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s purpose and extraordinary effort in making this journey,” said a member of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Sacramento, which oversaw an intercommunity committee organizing the event.
Sept. 27–28: Interfaith celebration in Salt Lake City, UT. A public gathering at the Salt Lake City Public Library, and a more formal dinner event at the state Capitol Rotunda, each drew well over 100 people and bolstered the Baha’i community’s long-standing relations with local religious and civic institutions. Advance publicity included a two-page package of articles and photos in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Robert Stockman, author of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in America and director of the Wilmette Institute distance-learning center on the Baha’i Faith, was a principal speaker for both events, sharing perspectives on ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to this continent and its enduring meaning. Guests each received an attractive booklet offering an overview of the 1912 visit and a map illustrating His activity in downtown Salt Lake City on Sept. 29–Oct. 1.
The Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable and the local Baha’i community co-sponsored the public event on Sept. 27, 2012, which attracted an overflow audience at the library. The next day at the invitation-only Community Leaders Centennial Celebration at the Capitol, music from more than 20 youth volunteers — who also assisted serving dinner — welcomed many local leaders, including Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert’s chief of staff; Mayor Ralph Becker; M. Russell Ballard, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, plus local leaders of Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Episcopal, Orthodox and Quaker faith groups; and a number of business owners.
Sept. 29–30: Devotional and artistic power in Glenwood Springs, CO. More than 230 guests from 15 states and beyond experienced a weekend immersion in devotional and artistic expression at the Glenwood Springs Community Center, in tribute to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s recuperative visit to this redrock-canyon resort, Sept. 26–27, 1912.
- Prayers were chanted or otherwise offered in English, Persian, Navajo and other languages in several sessions. The historic Hotel Colorado, where ‘Abdu’l-Baha stayed overnight, was the scene of recitation in English and Arabic of the Tablet of Visitation — a special prayer He asked to be read at events remembering Him — followed by the audio recording of His voice. “Tears were shed,” a local account of the visit notes; “the presence of the Master was so strong, real and powerful.”
- African drumming, Native American and classical flute, guitar, fiddle, singing and other musical expression embellished several sessions of the event. A performance by the NINE Youth Workshop painted a vivid image of current challenges and hope for the future.
- The history of the Baha’i Faith came to life through stories, skits and video. Kathryn Jewett Hogenson, author of Lighting the Western Sky, vividly shared stories of the beginnings of the Faith in the United States, while Bushra Bruss shared some brief but intimate stories about ‘Abdu’l-Baha. A video by Richard Stamats charted the Master’s journey across the United States, and a visually rich work-in-progress film about ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s American travels, The Luminous Journey, was shared and discussed by its producers, Anne and Tim Perry, with selected stories from the era also acted out.
Other learning activities
February through May, Edmond, OK: In observance of the centenary, local Baha’i Taraneh Angier offered a series of presentations for weekend adult classes at the Edmond Baha’i Center on “‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Journey.” Some 25–30 people attended each of 10 sessions presented in winter and spring, and the series is expected to continue this fall. Angier says these educational sessions cover the Master’s talks and Shoghi Effendi’s comments about the significance of His visit, as well as a timeline of events and some “Did you know” facts, and have lent inspiration to fireside gatherings and the Race Unity Day observance.
May 26, Whitewater, WI: Based on the words and example of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, a program on Baha’i activism was offered at the Baha’i-inspired Buryat Retreat Center. It focused on action for social good in the light of Baha’i teachings to avoid partisanship and politics, to eschew aggressive action, and to choose appropriate organizational partnerships.