Bahai News - Baha'is make moves as 'unifiers'
February 23, 2000
Baha'is make moves as 'unifiers'
Fourth of six parts.
By Shelly Phillips
FOR THE INQUIRER
Over and over the dancers practiced, getting their steps synchronized
and their movements crisp.
It was just a rehearsal, and the 14 teenagers enjoyed their camaraderie
Sunday. But this dance, a dance against racism, is serious business.
The 14 are Baha'i youth. They have been performing the dance for school
and community audiences for years as part of their faith's public
witness for spiritual unity.
While Christianity carries out the lion's share of faith-based
reconciliation efforts in this country, other religions also strive in
various ways toward "the beloved community," the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr.'s oft-cited goal of racial harmony.
Among them are Baha'ism. The Iranian-born faith has set up a number of
anti-racism programs in the belief that stemming racism is America's
most crucial challenge. While Baha'i influence may be limited - there
are only 134,000 members in the United States and perhaps 1,000 in this
area - few groups have been as persistent.
The dances of the Philly Baha'i Youth Workshop are part of that mission.
In the anti-racism dance, titled "Gang Wars," two groups of teenagers -
one in black T-shirts and bandannas, the other in white - fight with
each other and are killed. The dance movements show separation,
distrust, confrontation, alienation. The bitterness surges forth, a
stark analogy of the most divisive black-white relations.
But then two "unifiers" come out, one from each side, and recognize the
futility of continued fighting. In a dramatic climax, they raise their
companions from the dead. Pairs clasp hands in a show of amity.
When Lee Gould 18, of Ottsville, Bucks County, performed the dance last
year at Robin Hood Dell before 500 inner-city youths, he was nervous.
The audience at the citywide "day of service" celebration had heckled
several acts before them.
Midway through, when the Baha'i dancers lay fallen on the stage, the air
filled with boos. But as the two sets of dancers rose and became
unified, applause grew until it was thunderous.
Gould's mother, Suzan, director of the youth workshop, found the moment
electrifying: "I never felt the kind of rapt attention that was given. I
think these kids were really watching."
It's not often that Baha'i efforts to combat racism are loudly applauded.
Usually, they are unheralded.
The Philadelphia Regional Baha'i Center, just off City Avenue in Wynnefield
- site of Sunday's rehearsal - has generated a number of community programs
through its Institute for the Healing of Racism. These include "race-unity
dialogues" and interracial picnics involving a variety of Lower Merion
churches. The monthly dialogues are moving to the Barnes & Noble bookstore
in Bryn Mawr, with the first session there tomorrow evening at 7:30.
In Swarthmore, after a cross-burning and other racial incidents in 1997,
the Baha'is' national specialist on race unity, Nathan Rutstein, was brought
in to advise a community task force. The group, called TRUST (Tolerance,
Respect, Understanding, Support Team), included representatives from the
Wallingford-Swarthmore school district, the borough governments of Nether
Providence and Swarthmore, the police, residents, and the Swarthmore-
Wallingford Interfaith Ministerium - whose representative was a Baha'i.
When Baha'is work in communities, they often don't invoke their
religion. "We want people to start thinking about racial harmony, not
make it a pitch for the Baha'i faith," said Homa Tavangar of Berwyn, a
There's no data about the effectiveness of Baha'i efforts, but
sociologist Michael McMullen cited anecdotal evidence in his
dissertation on the Baha'is of Atlanta. He found a history of quiet
change in several public schools after Baha'i programs on race unity
were held; segregation in the cafeteria began to break down, he said,
and interracial friendships were formed.
"Baha'is tend not to have flashy protests and sit-ins," said McMullen, a
Baha'i who is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of
Houston-Clear Lake. "Baha'i theology says personal example and the ways
people are treated is what changes people's hearts."
That makes it a struggle, said the Rev. Cecil Gray, chair of African
American studies at Gettysburg College and a Methodist minister.
"It's very difficult for the Baha'is to be effective at combating
racism," Mr. Gray said. "As fast as some of us are working to eradicate
racism, so many of our structures and so much of what we teach in
society . . . perpetuates racism."
The Baha'is don't give up, he said, because they are a faith community
with a "spiritual source, a God-force, that enables them to continue
Baha'ism, founded in Iran in 1844 by a prophet named Baha'u'llah,
emphasizes the spiritual unity of mankind. Baha'is believe that the
human race has passed through childhood to its turbulent adolescence, a
time of prejudice, war and exploitation. With global maturity, they
believe, humanity will feel a oneness while maintaining diverse
Throughout its history, the religion has been a haven for racially
David Fiorito, a Baha'i in King of Prussia, has given talks on racial
unity and is an organizer of Upper Merion's King Day observances.
Fiorito, 32, grew up Presbyterian and blithe about prejudice. Since he
became a Baha'i, he said, he has tried to be sensitive to the small
injustices that happen daily - for instance, "trying to be very vigilant
that I don't fall into the stereotypical behavior of crossing the street
when a young black man is walking towards me."
But he is realistic about the role that Baha'is and anyone else of good
will plays in undoing racism.
Anti-bias programs "are wonderful tools," he said. "But until hearts are
changed, until people begin to internalize it and really heal the
wounded spirit that's inside, it may have little or no effect."
©Copyright 2000, Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
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