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Baha'is building a worship center

Facility's first floor will be completed in September; practitioners hope it will help community grow

Saturday, February 22, 2003 BY KATHERINE LOWRIE
News Staff Reporter

The Baha'is of Ypsilanti Township hope that by building the first established Baha'i worship center in Washtenaw County, they will be better able to build their faith community. Work on the two-story, 11,000-square-foot building began in 2001 on 10 acres of property on the south side of Morgan Road, between Munger and Ellis roads.

The township approved the $2 million project in 1999, but not before it first rejected plans for a larger center featuring a gathering area, office, library, cafe, bookstore and assembly room. Initially, some home owners in the area expressed concern over the building's size. To alleviate those concerns, representatives from the Baha'is met with them and reduced the center by 3,000 square feet.

"I think it was a matter of general concern that a building fit in well with its environment," said practicing Baha'i Najin Mansuri. "Plus, it's important to be neighborly and considerate to others. Residents in the area will be more than welcome to visit the center."

Ellis Road resident Ted Fasing said he is satisfied with the way the center's aesthetics fit in with the surroundings.

"I run quite a bit and go by (the center) just about every day. It's a real asset to our community and I know the group is very in tune with nature. ... They left as many trees as they could."

Township Clerk Brenda Stumbo, who serves on the Planning Commission, said the center will be a good addition to the community.

"It's a large investment in the community," she said. "They wanted to bring something positive and it's beautiful. ... It's always good to have faith buildings in our community - it gives a good foundation and it's part of who our community is."

The Baha'i Center of Washtenaw County is in phase two of a four-part plan, said Baha'i Parviz Panahi, who owned the land where the center is being built. Panahi donated the property to the Baha'i congregation.

The targeted date for completion of the center's first floor is late September.

The Baha'i hold monthly dinners at the home of Parviz and Bonita Panahi to raise money for the center's completion.

"Close to 200 people come each time and we ask them to donate what they can," said Parviz Panahi, a pediatrician who lives in Ypsilanti Township.

Panahi was so committed to the ideals of Baha'i that in 1996 he renovated the entire downstairs portion of his home for the purpose of holding Baha'i events. All five of the couple's children are practicing Baha'is, including Darren Panahi, 32, who said he likes the optimistic outlook the faith fosters. "We believe in the nobility of the human being and that turning to God brings out spiritual qualities innate in us."

Parviz Panahi said the Baha'i community has been wanting to build the center for a long time.

"We have to have most of our activities at people's homes, so the center will bring our community together," he said. "It will be a home for our people."

He stressed that the center will be open to those of all religions and newcomers or visitors will be welcome to sit in on a Sunday breakfast or prayer session.

"It's hard to welcome people you don't know into your home because of the safety and privacy issues, but if we have a public center, everyone can come. This is a good service to the community."

The center also will provide a means for Baha'is from other cities and states to gather for special events and devotional sessions. Currently the closest Baha'i Center is in Detroit.

Bonita Panahi said there are about 200 practicing Baha'is in Washtenaw County, including 20 children under the age of 12. "This is such a transient community in many ways so it is hard to keep our membership stable," she said. "The center will help with that."

Parviz Panahi agrees. "In every place where a Baha'i center has been built, membership has grown."

So far, the group has raised $1.2 million to pay for building. Now, they are making efforts to collect money to pay for interior decorating costs, approaching only those of the Baha'i faith for contributions.

Darren Panahi said a Wisconsin architect who is a Baha'i, Allen Washatko of Kubala Washatko Architects Inc., sought to create a warm and tranquil atmosphere for the center, which will comfortably accommodate up to 150 people, a number the township stipulated should be the maximum.

"The exterior design had to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood," Darren Panahi said. "We made a promise to our neighbors that the building wouldn't be bothersome. ... We wanted classrooms to be a part of it - for educational purposes for children and adults."

Classes will be virtue-based, character-building classes, similar to those now held in the basement of the Panahi home, a sort of interim Baha'i center. Fireside discussions also will be scheduled to encourage discussion of world and faith issues.

"I was disillusioned by prejudices in churches, so it was so refreshing to find a faith that believes that mankind is one," said Bonita Panahi. "We can all respect our different opinions."

Once the center is completed, current members plan to explore opportunities for community outreach and look for ways in which members can make positive impacts.

"It's about the spirit of service," said Darren Panahi. "Work - serving humankind - is like worship."

Kayhan Vahdat of Saline said the Baha'i teachings guide his life and help him make a difference in the world. "If I wouldn't have been a Baha'i, I don't know where I would have ended up. It's given me a lot of insight and inspiration."

Baha'i prayer breakfasts take place at 10 a.m. Sundays and adult study circles and children's classes begin at 11 a.m. To find out where these prayer services take place or for more information on the Baha'is of Ypsilanti Township, call (734) 528-1919.

Katherine Lowrie can be reached at klowrie@annarbornews.com or (734) 482-2263.

©Copyright 2003, Ann Arbor News (MI, USA)

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