Bahai Faith a Celebration of Diversity

By BRENDA LOREE
Los Angeles Times
Saturday, March 28, 1998

Bahai Faith a Celebration of Diversity Beliefs: Members can be found in more than 200 countries. In Ventura County, the membership is small but it's growing and has gained acceptance.

Queen Marie of Romania was a Bahai. Dizzy Gillespie was too. So are Seals and Croft.

The very diversity of those personalities exemplifies the Bahai faith, which is about embracing diversity, adherents say. The Bahai faith, which is represented in more than 200 countries, is the world's second-most widespread religion, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Only Christians are more globally far-flung. While Ventura County Bahais, numbering just under 500, aren't as numerous as members of more mainstream religions, they meet all over the region.

The apostrophe in some spelling variations of Baha'i gives a hint of the faith's origins--Baha'i is an Arabic word. Early Baha'is came from Persia, and the apostrophe translates to "follower of." A Bahai is a follower of Baha'u'luh, a Persian nobleman who founded the faith in 1844, said Dorothy Gibson, a member of the sizable Thousand Oaks Bahai community.

A 35-member Bahai community meets in Fillmore every 19 days, an interval based on the Bahai calendar year of 19 months of 19 days each.

Fillmore Bahai Brian Fitzpatrick explained his beliefs: "First of all, Bahais believe in the unity of mankind. We all share the same planet, so there is one race--the human race. We believe there is only one God, so we believe there is but one religion--God's religion." But Bahais accept all the world's religions as God's religions, Fitzpatrick said. "We think all religions teach the same basic tenets. Every religion has a golden rule and tells us to be charitable and humble."

Ventura member MaryLou Vige agreed: "We feel mankind is one. The differences in race and religion don't matter. Being good neighbors is what matters."

A typical Bahai service, held in a member's home, includes a short devotional or prayer reading and a planning session, followed by a social hour, said Thousand Oaks assembly member Douglas Gibson. Jan Dietrick, one of about 50 Bahais in the city of Ventura, teaches primer classes on the faith.

"It's such an all-encompassing set of beliefs, and thus a challenge to boil it down," Dietrick said about the classes, which are a survey of the faith distilled to four one-hour talks.

Individual Bahai communities come together annually in a prayerful way and elect a nine-member committee to guide the community that year, Dietrick said.

"Our faith has no paid clergy--no authoritative figure," Dietrick said.

"Our teachings say that in this modern age we have the means to print sacred writings and the means to teach everyone to read--they don't need an interpreter.

"A fundamental principle of Bahai teachings is to independently investigate the truth," she said. "Search out for yourself what is the right thing from all the information you can gather." Such beliefs are why the Bahais in Iran were imprisoned and killed after Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. When Cliff and MaryLou Vige came to Ventura County from Illinois in 1951, they felt like outcasts, they said.

"There were only five Bahais in the county at that time, all in Santa Paula," said MaryLou Vige. "So we've really grown, Bahai-wise.

"But when we first came here, people thought we were cultists," she said. "The local newspaper refused to print our ads. At that time, people weren't open to anything different."

She feels the atmosphere has changed. "And I think that today, people are hungry for something that satisfies their souls." March 20 was a special day in the Bahai calendar: New Year's Day or Naw Ruz. Bahais all over the world gathered for a prayer for mankind and a festive potluck New Year's feast.

And on Friday, a 30-minute video on Bahai beliefs, titled "The Power of Race Unity," began airing on local cable television shows and on the national Odyssey Channel. It will run through the end of April. Said Simi Valley Bahai John Bruton: "Bahais don't have all the answers. But we hope 'The Power of Race Unity' will stimulate discussion among families and leaders of Ventura County to recognize our diversity, accept it as a strength and take actions to promote unity and understanding."

FYI: Jan Dietrick's classes will be held Tuesdays through April 14 at 7:30 p.m. at 1889 Montgomery Ave., Ventura. Call Pete Quick at 659-4660 for information.