City of the Covenant celebrates the Center of the Covenant
The Baha’i community of New York City used the occasion of Juneteenth 2021 to host an online celebration and to kick off a study circle initiative leading to the observance of the 100th anniversary of the Ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Baha on Nov. 28.
“This was a very special occasion,” Roxann Stafford, a Baha’i from Brooklyn, said about the June 19 event on Zoom. “Right before we had this commemoration, the U.S. formally recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday. And although there is so much that still needs to be done, even that small step and more people learning about the significance of this day is so important.”
Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of African American slaves from the heinous institution of slavery. The day has been celebrated in various parts of the United States since 1865 and became an official federal holiday only this year.
“I was so appreciative that our [Baha’i] community in particular understood that it is important as we continue to center on the pupil of the eye [people of African descent], as well as indigenous and immigrant populations in our work,” says Stafford.
The National Spiritual Assembly has in recent years encouraged teaching and community-building activity that especially focuses on people of African descent, whom Baha’u’llah addressed as like the “black pupil of the eye” through which “the light of the spirit shineth forth”; the Indigenous people of the Americas, who ‘Abdu’l-Baha said with education and guidance “will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world”; and immigrant populations that, in the National Assembly’s words, demonstrate “a great receptivity to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith.”
A letter by the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New York City, written for and read at the event, highlights a second aspect of this special day. In His will, Baha’u’llah had appointed ‘Abdu’l-Baha, His oldest son, as the authorized interpreter of His teachings and Head of the Faith. On June 19, 1912, during His historic visit to that city, ‘Abdu’l-Baha announced that He was fulfilling His father’s divine plan for leadership of the young Faith as the Center of the Covenant. It was to two early American believers, Lua Getsinger and Juliet Thompson, that He proclaimed, as recorded in Thompson’s diary:
“And I AM THE COVENANT, appointed by Bahá’u’lláh. And no one can refute His Word. This is the Testament of Bahá’u’lláh. You will find it in the Holy Book of Aqdas. Go forth and proclaim: ‘This is THE COVENANT OF GOD in your midst.’”
After this proclamation, ‘Abdu’l-Baha gathered the friends to listen to a new translation of the Tablet of the Branch in which Baha’u’llah confirms ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s station. Together they expounded on the implications of the Covenant. Following this event, ‘Abdu’l-Baha designated New York as the “City of the Covenant.”
On June 19, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Baha sat to have His portrait painted by artist Juliet Thompson. The original life-sized portrait has been lost, but there are original photographs of the work. He made a request of the artist: “I want you to paint my servitude to God.” https://www.bahai.us/a-portrait-of-servitude/
“It really was quite a spiritually significant day for the Baha’is of New York City,” says Luke Bolton, a current member of the Local Assembly. Bolton says that “with so much Baha’i history here,” community members, encouraged by the Universal House of Justice, became excited about possibilities for the yearlong focus on ‘Abdu’l-Baha and the Covenant.
However, as the Assembly’s letter attests, “Following this guidance during this unique year requires going beyond hosting special events celebrating these holy days, expanding our vision to include infusing this entire year with an approach based on building relationships founded on divine love.”
Bolton credits a group of enthusiastic study circle tutors with the idea of hosting the kickoff event to be followed by a wave of study circles based on Book 8 of the Ruhi Institute course sequence, The Covenant of Baha’u’llah. The materials begin with the study of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s station and of His Will and Testament, proceed
to focus on the Guardianship and end with an exploration of the station of the Universal House of Justice as an expression of the Covenant.
The 45 people attending the online celebration experienced uplifting prayers, music and storytelling, as well as testimonials from African-American Bahá’ís related to Book 8, and an invitation for people to take part in a Book 8 study circle. “It was a powerful program,” Bolton says. In two weeks, 18 people signed up. “The hope is to have participants from those go and start their own Book 8s,” he says.
Stafford, who is African American, shared her story at the kickoff. “I was a part of a really incredible group of Black Baha’is throughout the country who started studying Book 8 last year near the beginning of the pandemic. It was a transformative experience on many levels,” she says.
“Now there’s an opportunity to encourage folks who have had an opportunity to do Book 8 and those who haven’t to come together and do it in this really special way focused on a particular community that we’ve been asked to embrace even more so than ever,” Stafford says.
She says she is especially excited about teaching Black communities about Baha’u’llah. “It is so exciting for us to continue to deepen in the Covenant … making sure people know that this new day is not a hackneyed expression or a hashtag. This new day is possible. And we need everybody to be a part of it.”
For Stafford, it’s no coincidence that the two occasions—Juneteenth and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s proclamation—share the same date. “I feel like this is part of God’s plan,” she says, and that through the community’s online celebration, “what we were able to do is align what was happening in the historical events with current events.”
In addressing issues of race, “We are asked to look to the example of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and not to fall victim to the current precepts and frameworks,” Stafford says. “We look to the example of the Master and the Master is the Covenant, right? So it all comes together and it allows people to arise and serve, and do so in a way that is grounded in God’s will, grounded in our love for each other and with joy,” she says. “The spirit of the age, this divine message that Baha’u’llah is bringing is needed now more than ever.”