Bahai News - Baha'is of Howard aim to build meeting place

Baha'is of Howard aim to build meeting place

Route 108 parcel sought to house only faith center for their followers in Md.

By A Sun Staff Writer
Originally published June 20, 2003

After decades of meeting in borrowed spaces, the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Howard County is seeking to build what would be the only center for its faith in Maryland.

More than 200 followers of the religion - founded in 19th-century Persia and professing the oneness of God, religions and humanity - have settled in the county over the past 30 years. About 80 to 100 people now come to services, often held in Columbia's interfaith centers.

"We're growing, and we need the space," said assembly secretary Jane Kolodner. "It's harder to get the space as we grow. It's more limited, the number of rooms you can rent."

As some of Columbia's faith communities mature and expand, some have sought dedicated meeting places beyond the interfaith-center model envisioned by James W. Rouse when the planned community was designed.

Howard County's Baha'is are hoping that a tract along Route 108 on the northern edge of Wilde Lake will be rezoned, making it easier for them to build their center.

But some residents along Columbia's northern border fear the expansion of businesses along Route 108 and have vehemently opposed several petitions to change to commercial rezoning along the busy, two-lane road to Clarksville - including that of the Baha'is.

The Baha'is can construct a building for religious purposes in the existing residential area by applying to the county for "conditional use" permission, said George Paytas, board member of the Beaverbrook Community Association.

"This church property is just one round in a multiround game," he said. "Basically, our position is it's another request for commercial zoning."

Baha'i leaders said that the county's decennial comprehensive rezoning process makes it easier to obtain commercial zoning, which permits religious facilities as a matter of right, than to pursue the conditional use.

Of almost 5 million Baha'is worldwide, more than 149,000 live in this country, said Ellen Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the Baha'is of the United States, the governing body for this region. Within Maryland, there are 50 Baha'i communities, 32 of which are designated as local governing bodies, or spiritual assemblies, she said. But there are no other centers, buildings specifically dedicated to Baha'i worship, in the state, Wheeler said.

Baha'i history

Baha'i was founded in 1844 in what is now Iran by the Bab, a prophet who said he foresaw the coming of a greater prophet who would satisfy the religious prophecies of the world's major faith communities, said Mike McMullen, a Baha'i and a sociologist at the University of Houston.

Persian officials put the Bab to death in 1850, McMullen said. One of his followers, Baha'u'llah, had a vision in prison that he was the one prophesied by the Bab. Baha'u'llah declared his mission in 1863, McMullen said.

The group believes that there is one God, whom all major religions worship.

Major figures in other communities such as Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna and Buddha are teachers that "come from the same God but just have been revealed at different times and different places in history," McMullen said. Other prophets will follow in the future, he said.

But strict interpretations of the Koran that indicate that Mohammed is the last prophet left the Baha'is open to persecution throughout the Middle East, especially in Iran. Baha'u'llah was exiled, McMullen said.

"The leaders of Iran didn't like the threat [Baha'u'llah] posed to the Muslim clergy," he said.

Because of the persecution, many Iranian Baha'i left the country and settled throughout the world.

Local presence

Baha'is have lived in Howard County for at least a half-century and established a nine-member spiritual assembly here in the 1960s.

A large surge in conversion to the Baha'i faith came during that time because of the religion's emphasis on racial unity, McMullen said.

The community grew and needed a more convenient place to meet because of the challenge of following the Baha'i worship calendar of 19 months of 19 days.

The first day of each month is a feast, celebrating an aspect of God. Members come together to share readings of Scripture and music, take care of administrative business and have social time.

It was standing room only at the recently celebrated Feast of Nur, or Light. The celebration, held in Hawthorn Center in Hickory Ridge, began with a devotional period with members sitting in a square, alternating readings of Baha'i Scripture, music and a melodic Persian chant.

Kolodner, the assembly secretary, said that communities can choose how to conduct their devotionals and incorporate different elements to suit their location.

There is no clergy, but each community elects a nine-member local spiritual assembly, as well as assemblies representing larger regions.

After the devotional, the community held an administrative segment open only to members. Then everyone adjourned for a social.

"Fireside" conversations are held weekly, but members sometimes have trouble reserving a regular place to meet for feasts, which fall on various days of the week. They usually rely on village centers in Columbia, as well as several members' homes.

The community also reserves space at Love of Learning Montessori School in Columbia for children's classes, requiring parents to shuttle between firesides and tutorials for their offspring.

It can lead to mix-ups, however. Some Baha'i have occasionally missed an event after becoming confused about where something is being held.

The hope is that the Route 108 property can solve many of those problems.

"What attracted us to this property was the location," said John Catizone, chair of the real estate committee. "[Route] 108 is accessible from a lot of different places." And with its center, the county's Baha'is can stop wandering.

"Any group wants to have a place to call home, so to speak," Catizone said.

©Copyright 2003, Baltimore Sun (MD, USA)

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