Baha'i News -- At 159, It's a New Year For Baha'i Saturday, March 02, 2002

At 159, It's a New Year For Baha'i

embers of the Baha'i Faith, the world's youngest major religion, began the last month of the year 158 today, and at their New York headquarters, Lakresha Diaz is counting the days to 159.

This is not that easy for people who are not Baha'ists — their calendar has 19 months, each with 19 days. This makes 361 days, and so each year, there are four makeup days — five in leap years — that do not technically count on their calendar but bring Baha'ism into line with most other calendars. These four days, which ended yesterday, are intended to prepare the faithful for the required 19-day sunrise-to-sunset fast that starts today and leads up to the new year, March 21.

"It sounds more complicated than it is," says Diaz, 27, who became a member seven years ago and runs the office of the New York City Baha'i Center in Greenwich Village.

Although there are only about 800 members in the city, the church counts more than 5 million adherents around the world, among them perhaps 620,000 in the United States. The Baha'i Faith, as it is formally known, is listed as one of the world's fastest-growing religions.

It was founded in 1844 — thus, this year is 158 — in what was then Persia, by Mirza Ali Muhammed, a Sufi Muslim who declared himself the Bab (Arabic for gate), a new messenger from God. He was executed in 1850 as a heretic and rebel, but by then the seeds of his movement were planted. By the early 1900s, under the guidance of a Bab follower named Baha'u'llah, the movement was spreading around the world.

There are 13 essential principles, among them a single God, the oneness of all religions, equality of the sexes and races, compulsory education, a world court, abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty, universal peace and the adoption of a single language.

Baha'ism has been a part of the New York religious scene since 1898, and for the past couple of decades it has made its headquarters in a remodeled building that once housed a porn palace on E. 11th St. There, members-only worship services are held every 19 days, with less formal devotional gatherings every Sunday. These are open to the public. The late jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, a convert, was a regular.

There also are weekly get-togethers, called firesides, held in private homes around the city for people who are interested in Baha'ism.

Diaz, who lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, with her husband, Tommy, an actor, is the first paid, full-time manager of the New York center. "We used volunteers before," she says, "but with all the things going on now, we needed someone here all day, every day."

Diaz's other title is executive assistant to the nine-member Spiritual Assembly that governs the center. Members are elected once a year by the votes of all New York members on write-in ballots. There is no campaigning, and the council's role is more administrative than spiritual. It meets every 19 days as part of the formal worship service.

"We don't have clergy," she says, "and we don't take up a collection. So that alone makes us different from most religions." Members deliver talks, called devotionals.

A Spiritual Number

Nine is an important number because it was the number of years between the Bab's declaration of his mission and the start of Baha'u'llah's work. Temples are nine-sided, with nine doorways, and a simple nine-pointed star is the Baha'ist symbol. There are even nine coat hooks in the New York center's office for the members of the Spiritual Assembly.

Diaz grew up in a Pentecostal denomination called the Foursquare Gospel, which was founded by flamboyant 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Diaz's parents were traveling preachers in the Southwest and Canada. By her late teens, she says, she was seeking something else.

She discovered Baha'ism while working on a kibbutz in Israel by visiting the Baha'i shrine at Mount Carmel in Haifa, where Baha'u'llah is buried. She was intrigued and soon became a member — a matter of signing a statement declaring that she believed in Baha'ist principles and would study them in detail.

One unexpected benefit of converting was meeting her husband. "It was right here in the lobby one Sunday," she says. "I picked him out of the crowd and he picked me out."

©Copyright 2002, New York Daily News

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