Spirit of quest for justice moves Baha’i to bring neighbors together
When Americans arose this spring to demand racial justice, Laura Hampton knew she “couldn’t wait any longer” to bring people in her neighborhood together.
Hampton, a Baha’i in the Hixson section of Chattanooga, Tennessee, “put on my mask and started walking around my neighborhood knocking on doors and hand delivering invitations to a devotional gathering in my front yard on Thursday, June 4.”
It’s something Hampton had longed to do since moving into her home in December 2018. She did meet some neighbors early on and shared a dinner with four of those families.
And this spring the national Baha’i governing council urged every Baha’i household to host a regular devotional gathering for sharing of prayers.
But she was unsure how to widen her efforts. Life’s everyday demands, she says, “kept my attention sidetracked from … building these relationships.”
The COVID-19 pandemic complicated things further. She works in health care with a “very vulnerable population, and I must be very careful in consideration of the risks.”
Then outrage arose over the deaths of African Americans including Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. “I knew I couldn’t wait any longer,” says Hampton.
She enjoys being outside and isn’t a fan of online conferences. So a devotional on a level patch of her yard, with safe distancing, seemed natural.
After printing invitations on bright yellow paper, Hampton hit the bricks and knocked on over 100 doors, leaving an invitation when nobody answered.
She did meet around 40 “mostly receptive” neighbors and “had numerous wonderful conversations with some really nice people.”
Standing six feet away and wearing a mask, she introduced herself as a neighbor. She explained her concern for the world “and that I want to try to do something to make it better, starting here in my own neighborhood.”
She noted in those conversations that “COVID-19 is scary enough, but the disease of racism is just as terrible and destructive to our nation and has kept us isolated for far too long.”
The day of the devotional gathering, Hampton set up chairs in a large oval in her front yard with the help of family, including her daughter — 39 weeks pregnant — and son-in-law who drove up from Atlanta to participate.
All told, 17 neighbors of varied races took part in the gathering of 25, with some carrying their own chairs. They included three of the families Hampton had visited earlier.
The devotional started with a sing-along led by her daughter, Jesse Nance Gilbert, “then everyone introduced themselves and said something about why they decided to come.”
Says Hampton, “Several people talked about how upset they were about the recent news and how they really needed something positive. They wanted to do something and set an example for their children.
“They believed that knowing and loving our neighbors is a good, practical way to start to be part of the solution, and coming together in prayer with others felt more effective than praying on their own at home.”
After several people offered prayers, there was more music; a “very brief” introduction of the Baha’i teachings on the oneness of God, religion and humankind; and the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the black national anthem.
Discussion continued on positive things neighbors are seeing “in the midst of all the pain and protests occurring around the country and even the world speaking out against racial injustice,” says Hampton.
When she suggested holding the devotional regularly, “everyone seemed supportive,” and a neighbor suggested a monthly gathering.
Before that happens, Hampton intends to visit many of the 100 homes she hadn’t yet gotten to and make return visits to neighbors with whom she had “particularly positive conversations” the first time around.
“I feel very excited and relieved to be given the answer to my confusion about how to host a regular devotional gathering … in the midst of global pandemic,” says Hampton.
“I can’t wait for the next one!”