Bahai News - 'Spirit' runners exemplify message of racial unity Local News : Monday, May 29, 2000

'Spirit' runners exemplify message of racial unity

by Paysha Stockton
Seattle Times staff reporter
Alfred Khan Jr.'s uncle saw it in a vision: The Navajo boy was running with a group when he saw an eagle on a rock. He stopped to pray as the others passed, then caught up and finished the run.

There was never any question he would do Spirit Run, a three-month, 3,000-mile journey across the northern United States, says 15-year-old Khan.

"A lot of people around me had visions I was going. I felt like it was my spiritual duty."

Today, he and eight other young runners were to rise at dawn at Daybreak Star Art and Cultural Center in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood and slip on their running shoes. Together, they will run from Seattle to New York. One milelong leg at a time.

Their goal: to run the message of racial unity from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic - through mountains, prairies and reservations, cities, badlands and campsites.

Carrying a sacred bundle - a hand-made leather satchel with words of faith, called "talking leaves," and a medicinal packet of buffalo eyeteeth and hide, rose petals, cedar, sage, tobacco and sweet grass - the nine runners will together cover 54 miles a day, says run founder Arthur Fernandez-Scarberry.

Each will run six miles a day with the bundle. Three vans of supporters - accompanied by advising elder William Ekomiak, an Inuit from Quebec - will precede and follow them.

They'll rest a few days between camping and dinners on Native American reservations. Fernandez-Scarberry and John Foguht of the Navajo Tribe will spell them if they get tired. And they'll end the run in mid-August with a United Nations visit and party on the Shinnecock reservation in New York.

In this Spirit Run - sponsored by the Baha'i Faith - the messengers are also the message. There's only one race, and it's human, say the diverse runners, some of whom claim several cultures.

Fernandez-Scarberry, of Seattle, has Choctaw heritage. His brother Billy Harris, 19, is Guamanian and Choctaw.

Khan lives on the Navajo reservation in Arizona but is also Cherokee and Hungarian. Charles Nelson, 17, of North Seattle is Japanese, African American and white. Micah Reed, 23, of Raymond, Calif., is African American and white.

Sahar Sattarzadeh, 20, of Irvine, Calif., and her brother Samaan, 18, of Las Vegas, are Iranian Americans.

Chris Shattuck, 20, of Eugene calls himself Anglo. Both parents of 24-year-old Nancy Torres of Portland were born in Mexico.

Mike Pennington, 15, of Portland, is white.

They are tanned and freckled, pink and caramel, with red, brown, black and even dyed hair. But the deferential and deadly earnest group in baggy pants, sneakers and matching Spirit Run T-shirts have a common thread: faith.

They are all Baha'i, members of a worldwide religion founded in the 1800s by Persian nobleman Baha'u'llah. Racial unity is a central teaching of the religion, Fernandez-Scarberry says.

The run founder says the idea came to him about five years ago while he was walking with his mentor.

"It was like a flood of loud thoughts," he says. "Basically, it haunted me." Several years later, he mentioned it at a meeting in Neah Bay, Clallam County. "Once it was shared, there was no turning back."

Support and funding poured in from Baha'i communities nationwide, says organizer Nancy Griffith.

Yesterday, the group gathered at the Daybreak Star center to receive blessings from local Native American elders, drummers and singers.

The runners, who met for the first time this weekend, were a little anxious at first, but that quickly faded. "There's a lot of family-ness with the group already," Harris says.

Most are students, but one is a teacher, and several sacrificed jobs, graduation ceremonies and other opportunities to run.

Sahar Sattarzadeh, finishing her sophomore year in college, must e-mail four essays to professors from the road. The group will share three laptop computers, she says.

Are they physically ready? Some trained for months. Others weeks. Some are accomplished athletes. Others, like Khan, had to work hard. "I've gone from couch potato to pretty decent," he admits.

Of course, they're nervous.

"Sometimes I'm afraid because I don't know how to pace myself because I won't know where the end is," says Sahar Sattarzadeh, a soccer player and sprinter.

They have squirmy stomachs but high hopes, too - for their own spiritual growth. And for the relationships they'll build with each other and on the reservations they will visit.

And for everyone else, too.

"I'm hoping that we fill a lot of our country's empty hearts," Harris says. "We are taking action instead of talking. People say we need to be more united, but they only hang out with their own race."

Paysha Stockton can be reached at 206-464-2752. Her e-mail address is

©Copyright 2000, The Seattle Times Company
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