Faith & Values

SATURDAY • February 17, 2001

Crossing the racial divide


When Jeff and Sarah Streiff shopped for a house three years ago, they looked seriously at the racial mix of the neighborhood. The Streiffs, who are white, wanted their three sons to be in a predominantly black area.

They bought a three-bedroom home in south DeKalb. "We made a conscious decision to reverse white flight," said Sarah Streiff, 53.

Bruce and Josie Reynolds also chose to be in the minority nine years ago when they were ready to upgrade to a better house. The Reynoldses, who are black, settled into a majority-white Marietta subdivision.

"I know that we are to try to create harmony and equality amongst mankind," said Bruce Reynolds, 55. "That's kind of my mission, to do that."

The Streiffs and the Reynoldses are members of the Baha'i Faith, a religion founded in the mid-1800s that now has more than 5 million followers worldwide. It emphasizes racial unity, even to the point of encouraging interracial marriage. Although there is no specific program to require Baha'is to integrate neighborhoods, many do as a matter of conscience, said Ellen Wheeler, a national spokeswoman for Baha'is in the United States.

"The elimination of prejudice of all kinds is a basic Baha'i principle," Wheeler said. "Racial prejudice is our most challenging issue, so for Baha'is in the United States, it's one issue we go out of our way to resolve. Having personal contact is one of the most effective ways of creating positive change regarding racial prejudice."

Baha'is base their beliefs on the teachings of a man born into a wealthy Persian family in 1817 who took the name Baha'u'llah, meaning "Glory of God." Baha'is believe God has come through many different messengers, from Abraham to Zoroaster, and that Baha'u'llah, who died in 1892, was sent by God to achieve world peace and unity. In recent years, the Baha'i community of the United States has launched a major campaign to promote racial harmony.

The Streiffs and the Reynoldses are careful not to downplay their struggles with integration.

Both Streiffs are public school teachers in predominantly black schools, although Jeff is currently on sabbatical from teaching special education and English as a second language to study instructional technology at Fort Valley State University. Sarah uses the Montessori method in a class of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds at DeKalb County's Midway Elementary School.

In both work and neighborhood interaction, "I've blown it big-time sometimes," Jeff said. "I have said things that were taken in ways I didn't mean them."

But when you get to know and trust people, misunderstandings can be cleared up, he said.

"At first when we moved here, I was afraid at night by myself," Sarah Streiff confessed. "I carried with me the stereotype. Sometimes, if I was out walking and came head-on with a black man, I would have a kind of fear." She began to smile, and got smiles in return.

Some young black men who cut through the Streiffs' yard to South Hairston Road have become friends. They stop to eat when the family is cooking out, or just to visit.

Prejudice still shows up

Meanwhile, the Reynoldses, who have three grown children, say they still encounter prejudice sometimes. One neighbor, apparently resentful of their presence, refuses to speak.

"I recognize that racism is born out of ignorance," said Josie Reynolds, 52. "The older I get, the more keenly aware I am of the racism that goes on.... Mine is a hope and a commitment to work through the struggle and bring more people in line with the principles of the oneness of mankind."

The families were drawn to Baha'ism largely because of its teachings on racial unity.

Josie Reynolds, a personnel development specialist for IBM, was the only adult in either family who was raised in the faith. Growing up in a small all-black township outside Detroit, she attended Baha'i events as a child. "I was involved in activities that caused me to be in a diverse environment all the time," she said. "From where I was raised, the need to intersperse and live in diverse communities was clear to me. From my background, I knew it was important for me as an African-American Baha'i to get involved in communities I could add diversity to."

Her husband, Bruce, a car salesman, was baptized a Lutheran but his parents never attended church.

"The main thing that I found in the Baha'i Faith that really got my attention was the diversity that was involved in the religion," he said. "I had always gone to church as the most segregated day of our lives. Either you go to an all-white church or an all-black church. It's still that way right here in Georgia. Then I heard the teachings of Baha'u'llah --- oneness of humanity, equality of men and women."

Sarah Streiff, who grew up in the Episcopal Church, was a student in Chattanooga's public school system during its integration and was a teacher there during court-enforced busing. While coping with the tensions of racial division, she noticed neighbors on Signal Mountain who had "a sea of humanity flowing through their house." They were Baha'i.

Her family never talked negatively about another race, she said. In fact, her mother was shunned after refusing at a PTA meeting to vote to back segregation, and Sarah resigned from her sorority because it refused to admit black or Jewish members. But she had never experienced ethnic diversity as she saw it in her Baha'i neighbors' lives. She decided to investigate.

Jeff, a former Catholic who once considered entering the priesthood, describes himself as "oblivious to the whole issue" of race as a college student, but he began to pay attention in the Army during the Vietnam War.

"I had a real good black friend, but black power was the rage, and it swept through," he said. "This guy completely turned. He wouldn't have anything to do with me. That hurt."

Cultural explorations

He came to Baha'ism at Boise State University in his hometown after completing his military service. "I was very attracted to the spiritual teaching," he said. "The oneness of the human family is pivotal to all Baha'i teaching."

The Streiffs met in graduate school at National University in Southern California. They married in 1981, reciting the required Baha'i vow, "We will all, verily, abide by the will of God," in a hillside park at sunset.

After finishing graduate school, they taught for several years in Dalton, where Jeff joined the NAACP and sang in the Martin Luther King choir. "Those guys didn't know what to make of me," he said. "They told me they were wondering if I was a plant."

Once he gained their trust, the NAACP leaders made him co-chair of the town's annual King celebration.

Then with three young sons, the Streiffs decided their children needed to experience a culture outside America. They spent most of the time between 1990 and 1997 as teachers in mainland China. "We were the diversity in China," Sarah said.

They achieved their purpose. All three sons are fluent in Chinese and comfortable with the Chinese culture. From their time in China, the Streiffs realized that to understand a culture, you have to live as part of it --- an understanding that helped inform their decision about where to live when they came to Atlanta.

As a student in the magnet school of Southwest DeKalb High School, their son, Jordan, 16, admits that at first it was difficult to return to American culture and to establish himself in a school where he is one of a handful of white students.

"I've adapted," he said. "It's not much of a problem making friends across racial lines, because it's the only choice I had." He has become known as something of a hip-hop artist. One friend even swears he must be black.

"He's been accepted extremely well," said his father.

Middle son Micah, 14, and youngest son Cory, 11, are also comfortable in their neighborhood, although both have had some interesting experiences. Attending the Million Family March in Washington with some black friends, Micah became the cause of a shouting match when a black vendor referred to him as a "cracker" and refused to sell him an African flag. His black friends came to his defense.

And Cory recently heard a common racial epithet and asked his parents what it meant.

The 'heart level'

The Streiffs feel that they are beginning to understand the difficulties of being in a minority, and also to make some inroads into racial understanding.

"Sometimes living here is isolating," said Sarah. "There are subgroups of people who have bonded together for survival. They greet each other as 'brother' and 'sister.' I don't get the same greeting. When someone calls me 'sister,' they don't know how good it makes me feel."

"The bottom line is that I strive to really know on a heart level what I know on an intellectual level," said Jeff, "that we're all created from the same dust.... The biggest reason we moved here was so our boys wouldn't grow up with the ignorance and conditioning I grew up with."

A faith with roots in Persia
The Baha'i Faith is relatively new among the world's religions. Baha'is believe that God sends prophets or messengers for each age, and thus Buddha, Moses, Muhammad and Jesus Christ are all regarded as the religious leaders for their ages.
Symbol: A nine-pointed star, to symbolize completeness.
Origins: The Baha'i Faith is most closely identified with a Persian man who took the name Baha'u'llah, meaning "Glory of God," but the religion actually traces its roots back a little earlier to a man named Siyyid Ali-Muhammad, who claimed in 1844 to be the Bab, or the gate, to the future. Bab predicted that a great prophet would soon follow him.
Bab claimed that both his parents were direct descendants of Muhammad, a proclamation resented by the Islamic leaders in control of Persia. After he was executed in 1850, many of his followers fled to what is now Iraq.
Among those who escaped was Mirza Husayn Ali, born in 1817 to a wealthy Persian family. In 1863, he declared to a small group of fellow followers of the Bab that he was the messenger the Bab had predicted, sent by God to bring unity to the world. He and his faithful took the name Baha'is.
After his death on May 29, 1892, his son Abdul-Baha became leader of the Baha'is. He was followed by his Oxford-educated grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani. Since the death of Shoghi Effendi Rabbani in 1957, Baha'is have been governed by an elected nine-member Universal House of Justice as outlined in the writings of Baha'u'llah.
Holy texts: The writings of Baha'u'llah are the primary scriptures of the Baha'i Faith. Among them are "The Most Holy Book," "The Book of Certitude" and "The Hidden Words."
Doctrine: Baha'is believe in one God who created the universe and has come to humankind through many different messengers who have founded the world's great religions. Humans are spiritual beings with immortal souls that distinguish them from animals. The unity of humankind, a common foundation of all religions and equality between men and women are important principles of the faith.
Calendar: The Baha'i year is made up of 19 months of 19 days each. Each month is named after a quality of God. Four intercalary days (five in leap year) are added to make the year the same length as that of the solar calendar. Community worship is held every 19 days on the beginning of a new month.
Religious festivals and holidays: The faith recognizes nine holy days on which followers should not work, most commemorating important events in the lives of the Bab and Baha'u'llah.
Clergy: Baha'is have no clergy.
Source: "Believers and Beliefs" by Gayle Colquitt White (Berkley, 1997).
Baha'is by the numbers
In the world: More than 5 million
In the United States: 142,000
In Georgia: 7,200
In metro Atlanta: 2,000
Sources: Baha'i International Community; Atlanta Baha'i Information Center
A faith on the rise in Atlanta
The first known Baha'i leader in Atlanta was Dr. James Charles Oakshette, an Oxford-educated Englishman who settled in the city in 1909 and taught the faith for 28 years until his death. Oakshette was a physician and former Congregational minister who worked out of an office in the Hurt Building to spread the Baha'i Faith and promote racial unity.
A month before Oakshette died on Nov. 15, 1937, two women moved to Atlanta to operate a private school teaching Baha'i principles. It was unsuccessful, and Olga Finke found a job with the city of Atlanta while her colleague, Doris Ebbert, worked as a maid. They remained involved in trying to spread the faith and crusaded for rights for African-Americans.
From early days, the tiny Baha'i community in Atlanta held integrated celebrations --- a practice that, in the 1940s, drew attention from white supremacists. After a group dramatically interrupted a racially mixed meeting at the home of Finke and Ebbert, the band of Baha'is set out to find a center for themselves. Eventually a black Baha'i postal worker, Leroy Burns, decided to build a center on Edgewood Avenue in downtown Atlanta. The community moved into the center in 1949.
In 1995, Baha'is of south DeKalb County bought a former church at South Hairston and Wesley Chapel roads that now serves as meeting space and a community center for Baha'is in that area. It serves both Baha'is and non-Baha'is with classes, teen activities and an arts institute.
There is a Baha'i center in Chamblee, and Baha'is in Fulton and Gwinnett counties have acquired property and are in the process of planning centers in those areas.
About 37 groups of Baha'is meet throughout metro Atlanta.
Sources: "The Baha'i --- The Religious Construction of a Global Identity" by Michael McMullen (Rutgers University Press, 2000); Atlanta Baha'i Information Center.

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