Pupil of the Eye Conference spotlights station, mission of black Baha’is

February 14, 2020
Pupil of the Eye Conference spotlights station, mission of black Baha’is

Amid the disheartening signs of a nation’s spiritual apathy and a rise in anti-black sentiment, a conference held over Thanksgiving weekend spotlighted the special role Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, gave people of African descent in advancing civilization.

About 300 participants, primarily African-American Baha’is, met in Nashville, Tennessee, for the ARISE Pupil of the Eye Conference — so named because Baha’u’llah used that metaphor in likening black people to where “the light of the spirit shineth forth.”

Organizers Barbara Talley and Sue St. Clair envisioned ARISE as a “safe space,” says Talley, “to consult, connect, collaborate, and most importantly claim our role as pupil of the eye in the plan of God” guided by the Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith.

Young attendees address the ARISE Pupil of the Eye conference. Photo courtesy of Sue St. Clair

“It was from sharing our stories that we understand, learn, and heal,” says Talley, a Baha’i in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “The goal is that we all leave revived, inspired, healed or at least hopeful so that each of us could go back into our communities and transform them” using new insights to serve humankind.

It’s a process now well underway. In the months since November, conference participants have spread the message to dozens of smaller gatherings nationwide; undertaken a goal of performing 95 acts of service apiece; and infused the conference’s spirit into the neighborhood-level activities initiated by Baha’is and friends to build vibrant communities. 

Reviving the ‘many broken spirits’

When the attendees from 24 states and the District of Columbia streamed into the Nashville Baha’i Center the day after Thanksgiving, they were immersed in a program that relied heavily on the sacred writings of the Faith. 

The conference was filled with music, storytelling, eloquent speeches, heartfelt conversations, dramatic presentations, poetry, drumming and the spoken word working together to “revive the many broken spirits,” says Talley.

More than 200 of the participants had arrived early for a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Nashville Baha’i community. After dinner, they were treated to a talent show.

ARISE Pupil of the Eye conference participants praise God during devotions. Photo courtesy of Sue St. Clair

From there the program unfolded, says Talley:

“On Friday, the program began with music. And after the welcome from the organizers, National Spiritual Assembly member Rabi Musah read a beautiful letter from that body, and the first half of the day was spent sharing our successful teaching and community-building activities around the country. 

“In the afternoon, we discussed healing herbs, energy medicine, and benefits of a plant-based diet. In the evening, Ruha Benjamin spoke on ‘Race to the Future: Innovation, Inequity, and Moral Imagination in the Digital Age’ and Arta Monjadeb shared thoughts on how Persian Baha’is can foster race unity. Barbara and [her daughter] Radiance Talley each presented powerful and meaningful poetry.”

Van Gilmer (left), music director for the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, leads a breakout session at the ARISE Pupil of the Eye conference. Photo courtesy of Sue St. Clair

Saturday, “we were again blessed with lots of music” from vocal groups led by Van Gilmer and Eric Dozier, and solos from Sandy Simmons, Adrienne Ewing and Beverly Abercrombie. 

“This was followed by powerful presentations from Derik Smith, Richard Morgan and then Billy Roberts, who shared the story of the history of the Black Men’s Gathering [or BMG, an annual study and service effort held 1987–2011]. The evening program was blessed with the tap dancing genius of Karida Griffith and a talk by Joy DeGruy on ‘Spiritual and Cultural Insights into America’s Destiny and the Role African Americans Will Play.’

“Sunday, we had more music and meditations with Nancy Ewing and Ruha Benjamin, a history of the Sisters Gatherings and the Vanguard of the Dawning,” two earlier initiatives to bring African-American Baha’is together, “and a devotional hour with drumming and prayer” led by former participants in the BMG.

‘God took over’

The conference was conceived in May 2019 after Talley came across an account of 1927 conversations between Shoghi Effendi, then head of the Faith, and Sadie Oglesby, one of the first African-American Baha’is to visit the world center of the Baha’i Faith in what is now Israel. 

As they discussed the spiritual station of black people as Baha’u‘llah had expressed it, Shoghi Effendi asked Oglesby why more African Americans hadn’t embraced the Baha’i Faith and its vision of the oneness of humanity. 

Reading that, recalls Talley, “Something switched on in me, a calling, an uneasiness or excitement like I’d never felt before.” 

She had just returned from serving as a delegate to the 2019 Baha’i National Convention, and in conversations there some African-American delegates expressed longing for a conference centered on a “still unrealized” vision to “attract, keep and nurture more pupils of the eye and save humanity.” 

ARISE Pupil of the Eye conference attendees had opportunities during the weekend to break bread together in other settings. Photo courtesy of Sue St. Clair

A suggestion that the conference be held at the Nashville Baha’i Center led Talley to her eventual co-chair St. Clair, a member of the Nashville Spiritual Assembly, the local Baha’i governing council. 

“As Barbara began sharing her vision,” St. Clair recounts, “sending an initial [survey regarding] a possible Pupil of the Eye Conference in Nashville, asking questions regarding human resources in Nashville and so on, I became inspired … and wanted to help.”

Nashville’s Spiritual Assembly had decided a few years earlier to do all it could to address racism and promote racial justice. “Therefore, it was an easy role for it to assume and so it agreed to sponsor the conference,” says St. Clair.

The planning process was daunting, she says, but “God took over.” The two organizers had earthly help as well. A small army of unsung heroes emerged to take on the behind-the-scenes roles without which there couldn’t be any conference.

“As we progressed toward the countdown for the conference, many pupils of the eye nationally arose to offer various levels of assistance, encouragement and support” along with several other friends, she says.

Co-chairs Sue St. Clair (left) and Barbara Talley express their joy in the success of the ARISE Pupil of the Eye conference. Photo courtesy of Sue St. Clair

It was especially inspiring, says St. Clair, that white volunteers paid to travel to Nashville and register for the conference, only to spend the entire time laboring in the kitchen, cleaning bathrooms or setting up and breaking down rooms.

‘What they say matters’

Looking back now at the conference, Talley can say, “We brought in experts on various race-related topics, provided necessary guidance and encouragement, and most of all provided opportunities for over 50 [speakers] to be seen, to be heard, and to be assured that what they say matters.”

What’s more, “We wanted to encourage the youth to take a leadership role, share and present at this conference, and they did.”

Leaving participants energized to fan out in its wake and make a difference in their communities. 


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