400 gather at restored gravesite to honor first American Bahá’í
By Lawrence E. Dotson
It is not often that the words “celebration” and “cemetery” are linked together, but it was indeed a celebration that brought 400 people to the Inglewood Cemetery on a bright September Sunday afternoon.
People gathered at the recently beautified gravesite of Thornton Chase, in Inglewood, California, on September 24 to commemorate the remarkable life of the first American to embrace the Bahá’í Faith, a man whose example and contributions continue to inspire people of many faiths and backgrounds.
Thornton Chase was born into an English Baptist family in 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He embarked on a journey of self-discovery and exploration at an early age and became a life-long spiritual seeker.
Chase served as an officer with two regiments of the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War. His name is included on the Wall of Honor of the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
After the war he lived and worked in several states as a businessman and concert organizer. He performed as a singer and was published as a writer of prose and poetry.
Chase was nearly 50 when he joined the Bahá’í Faith in 1894 and is recognized as the first person in the United States to embrace the religion.
After becoming a Bahá’í, Chase dedicated his life to promoting the Faith. He used his ample skillset to advance the organization of Bahá’í communities, especially in Chicago and Los Angeles. In 1910, he was elected to an early Bahá’í governing board in Los Angeles. He was also instrumental in developing the first national attempts at circulating news and guidance related to the Bahá’í Faith.
Chase died in Los Angeles on September 30, 1912. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the leader of the Bahá’í Faith at that time, was on a train enroute to northern California when He got news of Chase’s passing. He immediately changed His plans and went to Los Angeles to visit Chase’s gravesite. There, He highly praised Chase’s qualities and identified the gravesite as a sacred place. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá instructed Bahá’ís to hold a commemoration of Thornton Chase annually at his grave.
The annual memorial serves as an opportunity for people from various backgrounds to come together and celebrate unity–fostering a sense of harmony and understanding–and gather like family with loved ones who may see each other only during a seasonal affair.
This year’s program started with prayers in Spanish, English, and Persian. A land dedication honored the Tongva, the original inhabitants of this area of Los Angeles. People of various ages, races, and cultures participated, creating an atmosphere of joy and inclusivity expressed through music, poetry and storytelling. Reflections of the life of Thornton Chase were delivered by the youth.
One speaker at this year’s event was Ruhiyyih Yuille, of Monrovia, California. She reflected on Chase’s noble principles and that his life serves as a reminder that despite our differences, we are all part of one human family. “We live to assert our spiritual identity as fearless fighters in a new day where the idea of oneness is a real goal,” she said.
The committee that plans the annual commemoration, along with the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Los Angeles, arranged for a recent beautification of the site. Landscape designer, Ferraby Lizarraga, created an exquisite tribute to Chase, who was named a Disciple of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
Lizarraga had visited the site repeatedly over several years. “It never occurred to me that it could be anything different,” he said. But he was inspired by other Bahá’í gardens, such as those at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel. “I felt like it was possible to really take the design someplace,” Lizarraga said.
The restoration project was an opportunity for local friends to offer service. When the new flora were planted, they needed to be watered every day. In a show of unity, people signed up and the plants were watered until the roots were firmly established.
“The first time I came here was with my future wife,” said Juan Pacheco, who served as master of ceremonies at this year’s event. “Now we have three children and live in a community that’s only five minutes away from this beautiful site.”
One couple was even married at the site. “My wife and I were married here on Bahá’u’lláh’s birthday,” said Nicolas Birondo.
“It’s such a calm and serene and spiritual place to visit,” Juliet Mathenge said of her experience tending the site.”I really just feel like it connects me with my choice of being a Bahá’í .”
Inscription on gravemarker:
THIS IS THE ILLUMINED RESTING
PLACE OF THE HOLY SOUL
WHO IS SHINING IN THE
HORIZON OF ETERNAL LIFE
EVER LIKE A STAR
‘Abdu’l-Bahá recited these words as part of a prayer commemorating America’s first Bahá’í :
“O my God! O my God! Verily, this is a servant of Thine, who did believe on Thee and in Thy signs; verily he hearkened to Thy summons, turned to Thy Kingdom, humbled himself at Thy holy threshold, was possessed of a contrite heart, arose to serve Thy cause, to spread Thy fragrances, to promote Thy word, and to expound Thy wisdom. Verily he guided the people to Thine ancient pathway and led them to Thy way of rectitude. Verily he held the chalice of guidance in his right hand and gave unto those athirst to drink of the cup of favor.”
For families: Read more about Thornton Chase in Brilliant Star Magazine. The story includes a photo of Chase with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Egypt.