Baha'i News -- Faithful to their tradition -- Baha'is celebrate 75 years in Peoria

Faithful to their tradition -- Baha'is celebrate 75 years in Peoria

PEORIA - The practice of the Baha'i Faith in Peoria today looks a lot like it did 75 years ago.

Believers meet at each other's houses throughout the week to pray and discuss spiritual matters and current events in a religious context, taking turns reading aloud from texts related to their faith. Afterward, they share food and stories, much like the early Peoria Baha'is did 75 years ago, when the faith was first established in the area.

They also gather on Sundays at the Baha'i Center, 5209 N. University St., for a similar experience of communal prayer, although no official ceremony takes place and the faith itself lacks sacramental rituals.

The Baha'i population here is small - less than 40, excluding children - and they have no clergy. Instead, they have a hierarchy of spiritual assemblies, administrative bodies ranging from local to international levels, with each composed of nine members.

The first Peoria assembly was formed in 1927, marking the official local inception of the faith the same year that the first Baha'i in Peoria, John Wilson Gift, died.

At that time, little was known in America about the fledgling faith, which had started in the mid-1800s in Persia with prophets known as the Bab and Baha'u'llah.

Arrival in U.S.

Word of Baha'u'llah's teachings of equality and unity reached the United States near the end of the 1800s, spreading quickly throughout the nation as it did throughout the world. Baha'is numbered more than 5 million in 1993, with significant communities in 205 countries and 17,148 local spiritual assemblies.

Before the Baha'i Universal House of Justice was organized in Haifa, Israel, Baha'is spread their beliefs through word of mouth. Baha'i basics were first brought to Gift by Elizabeth Deggett, a Baha'i Chicagoan who came to Peoria in 1915 as a delegate to the state convention of the Federation of Women's Clubs.

Gift, a Civil War veteran, miller and opera lover, hosted some of the convention affairs at his 1010 NE Glen Oak Ave. home, where he met Deggett. Deggett promised to introduce Gift to other Chicago Baha'is when he visited for the opera, according to Peoria Historical Society documents at Bradley University's Special Collections library.

He eventually met Dr. Zia Bagdadi, who explained the teaching of the Baha'i Faith and introduced him to Albert Vail, a Unitarian minister in Champaign who was instrumental in pioneering the Baha'i faith throughout the country during the early years of its dissemination. Gift held the first Peoria Baha'i meeting at his home.

Gift also made his mark on Peoria in several other ways. He invested in experimental rollers to make flour, and named his product "The Pride of Peoria," after singer Emma Abbot, whose picture he printed on the sacks of flour he sold.

A noted philanthropist, he helped start the Amateur Musical Club, founded the Gift Home for Delinquent Children, and co-founded the Creve Coeur Club, in addition to being a trustee for Eureka College. In 1902, he was the president of the Peoria Board of Trade. Gift Avenue was named in his honor.

Lori Vodden, a Bartonville Baha'i who wrote her master's thesis on Gift and worked in the Baha'i world center archives in Haifa for 15 years, also called Gift an eccentric and knowledge-hungry man.

"I think what really appealed to him was the idea of world peace, and that in the Baha'i Faith, there is a systematic approach toward it," Vodden said.

He studied natural science, hypnotism, the healing power of self-will and magnetism. He held seances and tried to contact the dead. Recollections of his life oscillate between lore and fact.

Gift's life had its share of scandal, as well. His first wife died in 1914, the year before he was introduced to the Baha'i Faith, and at the age of 77, he remarried. His second wife, 32-year-old Maye Harvey, was a known Pekin Baha'i.

One newspaper headline read: "Aged miller weds: disciple of strange cult."

"That was the start of the faith here - the ultra-spirituals and the practicals," Vodden said.

Peoria beginnings

The first spiritual assembly in Peoria was formed in 1927, and included all 10 area Baha'is - nine women and one man. They met in each other's homes and rented rooms.

Among the early members was Pearle Easterbrook, a Chillicothe school teacher whom several current oldtimers of the faith fondly remember. She learned of the Baha'i Faith from Gift and Vail in 1927.

"A lot of people became interested in the faith because of her," Vodden said.

Easterbrook taught the Baha'i way of life with a benevolent presence that carried over from her teaching career. In the words of those who described her, she embodied the faith, both in word and example.

"She took the faith from the standpoint of living - it was her life," said Ann LaForge. "She was just a charismatic person and people flocked to her."

Easterbrook raised LaForge, her niece, from the age of 6, when her mother died. She took her niece to Baha'i gatherings, but also took her to other religious services to stress a tenet of the Baha'i faith - the independent investigation of truth.

"I was sent to every church in Peoria, so that I would know the differences and know what I wanted to do," LaForge said. "After I made the rounds, I knew that it was Baha'i that I wanted."

Easterbrook went on to be a Baha'i pioneer in the southeastern United States, and clung to the Baha'i Faith until her death in 1984. In her lifetime, she witnessed several milestones in the Peoria Baha'i community, in addition to speaking at the Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, near Chicago - the only one in North America.

Baha'i numbers in Peoria have fluctuated over the years, with the largest population - more than 60 - in the late 1970s, when Baha'is were fleeing Iran due to persecution arising from the new government formed after the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The current center on University Street, the first property owned collectively by Baha'is in the area, opened in 1969.

Members celebrated the community's 75th anniversary on April 21 - the day spiritual assemblies are elected - simply with a dinner at the YWCA featuring archival exhibits from Springfield. They plan to dedicate a children's education area on the center's grounds later this year.

As Easterbrook embodied, the Baha'is have a fundamental devotion to children, which Vodden called the life blood of their faith. Many of the elders of today's Baha'i community were introduced to the faith as children, and recalled the group activities organized for them when they were young.

Other Baha'is throughout the world have experienced persecution for their beliefs. Like the Bab and Baha'u'llah, some were executed or exiled. In Peoria, the nonconfrontational reception of the quiet faith community has been welcome.

"I think that Baha'is have always been well received in Peoria," Vodden said. "Tradition, that has been the beauty of the Baha'i faith in Peoria - it's been kind and gentle."

"My sister always says, 'You're the most liberal conservatives I've ever met.'"

©Copyright 2002, Peoria Journal Star

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