Bahai News -- Austin AMERICAN-STATESMAN - Area Baha'is join in faith's annual fast

Area Baha'is join in faith's annual fast

For Austin woman, religion's yearly ritual feeds her spirit

By Eileen E. Flynn
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, March 1, 2003

When Susan Gerard's empty stomach growls this time of year, she satisfies another appetite: her hunger to be closer to God.

Along with almost 6 million other followers of the Baha'i faith spread out over more than 230 countries, Gerard, an Austinite, will begin an annual fast at sundown tonight.

"It's a wonderful time of year when you bring your spiritual nourishment into focus," she said. "You pray for the world, you pray for the president, you pray for the administrative bodies of the Baha'i faith, and of course, you pray for God's enlightenment."

Because her religion promotes world unity, Gerard does not affiliate herself with political parties, which she finds exclusive, but she does believe it's especially important to pray for President Bush as the nation prepares for possible war with Iraq.

"You're hoping that God will guide him, so he can make the best of a terrible situation," she said.

The Baha'i faith was founded in the mid-19th century by Baha'u'llah, a Persian nobleman who became a religious martyr in what is now Iran. Baha'is believe Baha'u'llah was a messenger of God. The fast, which calls on believers ages 15 to 70 to abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, ends in the Baha'i new year celebration of Naw-Ruz later this month.

For Gerard, the next few weeks bring "a spiritual reinvigoration of the soul."

The Baha'i calendar has 19 months, each of which has 19 days, so the month of fasting ends at sundown March 20. The new year is marked on March 21 with food, dance and music. The celebration will be at the Dell Jewish Community Center in Northwest Austin.

Austin Baha'is claim between 300 and 400 members who attend services at the Baha'i Center at 2215 E.M. Franklin Avenue, just south of the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport site, said Melita Elmore, a local spokeswoman.

Gerard was raised a Christian but grew disillusioned with the church. As a young adult, she knew little about other religions until a friend introduced her to the Baha'is. Gerard began attending meetings with skepticism, grilling members about their faith until she found herself drawn to the Baha'i beliefs.

The concept of embracing all religions and promoting racial and gender equality appealed to her. Gerard cited the three basic Baha'i tenets: God is one; man is one; religion is one.

As an African American woman growing up in East Texas in the 1940s and '50s, Gerard had felt the sting of racial prejudice firsthand. The injustice fostered a bitterness that dissipated when she discovered the faith, she said.

"I found a level of acceptance in the Baha'i faith that I didn't find anywhere else," she said.

Gerard extended that acceptance to others, opting to try to understand people rather than condemn them. The bookshelf in her North Austin duplex contains holy texts from a variety of religious traditions, including the Bible, the Torah, the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita.

"Every prophet of God is an approach to the same road," she said.

But the Baha'i approach through Baha'u'llah is the one that's sustained her since 1968 and continues to reinvigorate her soul each March.

Gerard is closing in on her 68th birthday. In two years, she will no longer be obligated to fast, but the annual sacrifice keeps her focused, she said. She plans to continue as long as her health is good.

"Jesus fasted in the desert; Moses fasted," she said. "By fasting, you're just emulating the prophet of God."

eflynn@statesman.com; 445-3812

©Copyright 2003, AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN (TX, USA)

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