Indianans “Light Up the Night” for racial justice
By Layli Maria Miron
Harrison Hill is a historic residential neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It is home to people of diverse ancestries — and for many that’s a cause for celebration. The decades-long marriage of two of the neighborhood’s residents, Gayle and Akinlana (“Akin”) Bevill-DaDa, exemplifies the possibilities for interracial relationships. Gayle is white and Akin is Black.
Gayle is also a longtime Baha’i. While Akin supported her activities for many years, he says that until recently he didn’t feel ready to enroll in the Faith.
That changed after the couple attended a nine-day study of The Dawn-Breakers, a book about the earliest days of the Baha’i Revelation, in 2019. Akin decided it was time to fully embrace the Baha’i community, telling Gayle, “My goal is to be the best Baha’i I can be.”
Indeed, Akin threw himself into spearheading Baha’i-sponsored community-building activities with Gayle. In February 2020, the pair attended a conference at Louhelen Bahá’í School in Michigan. On the drive back home to Indiana, they held a three-hour planning session in the car and decided to launch a junior youth group in their own neighborhood.
The next month, however, the pandemic engulfed the country, upending their plans. Nevertheless, their neighbors still found ways to connect. They started a “neighborhood wave” in which residents greeted one another from the ends of their driveways at 7:00 each evening. It was during the neighborhood wave one night in May that the spark for what would become “Light Up the Night” was born.
George Floyd had just been killed, and Gayle and Akin suggested to their neighbors that the community should hold an event to bring people together in this time of nationwide distress to commemorate the lives that had been lost to police brutality. The neighbors responded enthusiastically, with one telling Gayle, “I’m getting goosebumps!”
From there, the idea “moved like wildfire,” says Gayle, fueled by the support of many community members.
Among those supporters were Caitlin and Alex Krouse, a couple who serve as vice-president and president of the Harrison Hill Neighborhood Association Board. Caitlin says that the board, excited by Gayle’s proposal, “immediately” jumped into action, tapping into the talents of various neighbors to plan and promote the event, which would feature food trucks, music and a candle lighting on a boulevard closed to traffic.
They scheduled the event for July 11. The big day arrived along with about one hundred attendees (masked and physically distanced). A Christian minister opened the gathering with a prayer. Akin and other musicians performed, including songs from Africa and the Caribbean. Gayle read excerpts from the statement “Forging a Path to Racial Justice,” issued by the national governing council of the Baha’is of the United States. A Baha’i prayer for unity was also shared.
As candles were lit, each participant holding one, the song “I Am Light” by India Arie played with attendees singing along. “That image in my head is still so pretty with everyone singing the song with candles lit,” Caitlin Krouse says. “It was a community celebration where fellowship was the main idea.”
This night of fellowship even played a role in Akin and Gayle’s granddaughter’s decision to become a Baha’i shortly afterward.
“Light Up the Night” has been followed by other opportunities for fellowship in the Fort Wayne neighborhood. For example, the Neighborhood Association organized a sidewalk chalking event with the theme of celebrating diversity. At the Bevill-DaDa house, small groups of neighbors have been gathering in the driveway, where Akin leads drumming sessions, which include prayers and spiritual discussions. As the colder months arrived, the community gatherings moved online to virtual “coffeehouses.”
Many neighbors put up yard signs she created with the Bahá’í-inspired message “We are leaves of one tree, flowers of one garden, waves of one ocean.” That passage echoes a beloved quotation from Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith, and Gayle says she is elated at her neighbors’ receptivity to the Baha’i message of unity.
“I’m not going to rest,” she says, “until the name of Baha’u’llah is emblazoned on the south side of town.”