Profile: Alabama couple with deep church roots find inspiration in Baha’i teachings

February 24, 2022
Profile: Alabama couple with deep church roots find inspiration in Baha’i teachings

In 2016, Jennie Colbert-Kennedy and Dennis Kennedy celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. That was also the year that they became Baha’is. The spiritual journey that ultimately led this loving couple to embrace the Baha’i Faith began in their childhoods, when they attended Baptist churches in Augusta, Georgia, one of which was a church Jennie’s great-great-grandfather founded and pastored. 

As for Dennis, beyond church life, he had a connection to Augusta’s longstanding Baha’i community through Ruby Bentley, one of the area’s first African Americans to join the Faith. He was friends with her seven children and recalls, “We used to go down to their home and have refreshments, do some reading.”

In high school, Dennis and Jennie were sweethearts. After graduating in 1962, Dennis joined the military and served in the Vietnam War. When he returned, the couple wed, and they had one daughter. The Kennedy family moved to Dennis’s military posts—he continued to serve until 1982—which included a five-year tour in Panama, where there was a continental Baha’i House of Worship. Meanwhile, Jennie earned a master’s degree in human relations and pursued a career in counseling.

During these years, the family attended nondenominational military chapels. Says Jennie, “I got exposed to knowing about different religions—that different nationalities all go to service and worship the Lord.”

Once they left the military, the couple settled back into Baptist church life, where they held leadership positions. Jennie served as a secretary, usher, and deaconess, and Dennis as a superintendent and deacon. Church life, Jennie says, instilled her with the belief that “you have to serve people, you have to serve your community.” Dennis adds, “It was a very good solid foundation” that church gave him from childhood onward.

A Search for a New Spiritual Home

Yet, Jennie and Dennis began to yearn for something more. They joined a Presbyterian church but still felt unsatisfied. As Jennie explains, while the ministers emphasized “the rules in the Bible,” she felt that the “spiritual base” was missing—and she wondered why these clergymen could claim a special “ability to interpret the Scripture.” She was also irked by their differing expectations for men and women.

They settled in Hinesville, Georgia, near Savannah.  The Kennedys were in contact with Ruby Bentley’s daughters Gwendolyn Clayborne and Patricia Steele and their husbands David and Lavont, all of whom were Baha’is. On phone calls and visits, they talked at length about “the beliefs of the Baha’i Faith.”

Jennie recalls how, during a walk in Savannah, Patricia was explaining Baha’i beliefs that religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights and that there is no contradiction between true religion and science. 

“When she hit the one about science and religion, it struck me, because I was a social worker, and I can see how science has migrated to a different level. It helped me understand how it works together.…. When she said that, and when she talked about how men and women should be equal, I kept telling her, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready. I believe the Baha’i Faith gives you the direction to get to peace.’”

For Dennis, it was the Baha’i emphasis on unifying humanity that compelled him. “Going to war in Vietnam was among the cruelest things I experienced in my lifetime…. Before, world peace was just a fairy tale; now, I see it’s a reality, it can be done! If there’s anything I can work for in my spiritual life—my ultimate truth—it’s for that cause.”

When the Kennedys declared their faith in Bahá’u’lláh in 2016, Baha’is in the Savannah area embraced them. “The welcome was overwhelming,” reminisces Dennis. “It’s automatic family.”  Jennie adds, “It was just what we needed. We felt at home.”

Contributing to Community Life in Montgomery

In 2019, the Kennedys relocated to Montgomery, Alabama, to be near their daughter and son-in-law. Montgomery is famous as the location of the bus boycott of 1955 to 1956 that launched the Civil Rights Movement.

The struggle for racial reconciliation and parity there is ongoing, spearheaded by organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative and supported by the small but active Baha’i community. In this history-steeped city, the Kennedys threw their energy into serving their new neighbors.

Jennie was elected to the city’s Local Spiritual Assembly followed by Dennis a year later. Dennis also serves on two other institutions. Beyond their Baha’i service, Dennis and Jennie seek to engage with the wider Montgomery community. For example, Dennis co-chairs Interfaith Montgomery.

In addition, with fellow Montgomery Baha’is Enid Probst and Grace Okia, the Kennedys recently led a children’s storytelling and art camp, hosted at a YMCA and funded by the city’s Art Council. The team had studied the Ruhi Institute’s materials on children’s classes and crafted a virtue-based curriculum. They would read an inspiring story to the kids, who would then make artwork related to that story. “At the end of our project, we had the children invite their parents to come and see the artwork, and the kids just loved it! They were anxious to show their parents and remembered the stories,” says Jennie.

Looking back at their spiritual journey, Dennis recounts, “I really can’t express how much it means to be a Baha’i. We get affirmations every day from it. Right now, we are learning how to become good teachers of the Faith.” He says “There are challenges here and around the globe, but we need to start in the communities, with individuals.”

 


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