Baha'i News -- Bahai Followers Plan First Center in Northern Virginia

Bahai Followers Plan First Center in Northern Virginia

Work to Begin Soon on 18,000-Square-Foot Sterling Facility

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 25, 2002; Page VA12

Followers of the Bahai faith plan to begin construction this summer on their first center in Northern Virginia, an 18,000-square-foot building in Sterling that would serve the religious and community needs of more than 1,000 people.

The region's 18 Bahai communities now hold events at a smaller center in Washington or in private homes or rented space. The three-story, cylindrical center, to be built on 2 1/2 acres at the corner of Route 7 and Cardinal Glen Circle, could accommodate all of them with its 400-seat auditorium, numerous classrooms, a bookstore and possibly a coffee shop.

"One of the things this represents is a place that galvanizes a diverse community," said Joseph Cosby, chairman of the board of governors of the center. "We look at this not just as physical center. Really, it's a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality. It's a place where people can come together, but more important, a whole lot of different people can come together."

Local Bahais held a groundbreaking ceremony in May. Several said they anticipate that construction will begin soon and hope that the center will open as early as next summer.

The Bahai Spiritual Assembly of Loudoun, an elected nine-person body responsible for local leadership in a religion that has no clergy, bought its land from a Unitarian group for only $128,000 in 1988. Bahais have only recently experienced the kind of growth that makes a permanent home necessary, several active local members said.

"At that time, it was all just a dream," Cosby said. "We knew we would need to do this, but we really didn't know how we were going to do it."

The growth in the Bahai community is another sign of the area's increasing religious diversity. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society is building a 25,000-square-foot mosque not too far away on the Loudoun-Fairfax border.

The Bahai faith, founded in the mid-1800s by a Persian named Baha'u'llah, holds that God's will has been successively revealed by messengers of each of the world's major religions, most recently to Baha'u'llah himself. Its members believe that world peace will be achieved when people recognize that humanity is one race, all of whom worship a single God.

Bahais tend to be involved in social issues, favoring elimination of distinctions between the wealthy and poor and equality between the sexes and races.

Although Bahais do not have weekly organized religious services, they offer Sunday school classes in which they study the texts of major world religions as well as Bahai. In recent years, the local community has rented space at Falls Church High School for those classes, which would move to the new center.

The new building will also provide a permanent home for the One World Bahai Youth Workshop, a six-year-old theater troupe in which Bahai and other youths compose and perform dances and skits based on the religion's principles.

Workshop director Leila Milani said the group is looking forward to using the new building's stage to practice its dances, which include performances that decry drug abuse and violence against women. She said the building would allow the group, which has 25 teenage members, to expand and even attract more non-Bahais.

"When you don't have a place you can call your own, it's harder for people to have access to you," Milani said. "When you get it, people can count on you and know you'll be there."

Fundraising for the project, estimated to cost $ 2.5 million, is complicated by the fact that the religion prohibits accepting donations from non-Bahais.

Hossein Amanat, a Canadian Bahai architect who has built religious structures worldwide and designed the Loudoun center, said Bahai groups have until recently focused fundraising efforts on a complex that was completed in Haifa, Israel, last year.

Cosby said regional Bahais were increasingly embracing the project, despite initial concern that the Loudoun location would require long commutes.

"There's a sense of pride and ownership," Cosby said. "It doesn't just happen because someone turns over a piece of ground. . . . Step by step, day by day, you kind of watch this minor transformation."

Amanat's design for the building, which would be visible from Route 7, calls for a largely cylindrical structure, with a top floor enclosed mostly by glass. Amanat's renderings also call for yellow and orange brick, but he said the colors remains under consideration.

Amanat said he used curves because he wanted the building to be noticeable and because he felt that a "cubed" building would not work well on the corner site.

"By turning around the building, you constantly have new perspective," he said. "It is virtually open on four sides. It doesn't connect with any adjacent building. It is a free pavilion. It has taken a very free form."

A homeowners association president for the Cardinal Glen subdivision, which surrounds the site, said residents have expressed concern about the building's distinctive style and about the potential traffic.

"It's about three stories tall, and it's going to dwarf the homes around us," said Jim Babcock, who heads the association for part of the subdivision. "The color doesn't fit in with any of the homes. The cylindrical design is considerably different than any of the homes in the area."

Michael Izadi, secretary of the Loudoun Bahai Spiritual Assembly and a Sterling resident, said the building will benefit the entire neighborhood, because local leaders plan to make its facilities available to others.

"This is a center not just for Bahais but for everybody," he said.

©Copyright 2002, Washington Post

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