Bahai News - Baha'i: 'It's not a Sunday thing'

Baha'i: 'It's not a Sunday thing'
The Green Acre Baha'i School in Eliot is one reason 200 followers live in this region

Source: Portland Press Herald
Publication date: 2000-06-17

Rosanne Buzzell was 14 years old when she found the answers she sought.

She was singing Christmas carols door to door with an Eliot church group when a resident at the last house of the night handed her a pamphlet on the Baha'i faith.

Another teen-ager might have tossed it aside. Buzzell read it cover to cover. She was touched by its message of global peace, racial unity and gender equality.

"I really was searching for answers," said Buzzell, a postal carrier who lives in Eliot. "The Baha'i writings really jibed with the way I felt. I knew I had found what I had been looking for."

That was more than 30 years ago. Today, Buzzell is among about 200 followers of the Baha'i faith in southern Maine and New Hampshire. They practice a religion that started in Iran 148 years ago.

Members are concentrated in this region because of the Green Acre Baha'i School in Eliot, a religious retreat founded in the 1890s on the banks of the Piscataqua River.

There are 5 million Baha'is worldwide, including about 150,000 in the United States. Among the most famous American members was the late jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie.

Baha'is, which means "followers of the light" in Arabic, have no clergy. Instead, they are governed by nine-member assemblies elected at the local, national and international levels.

They also have no churches, although they do have centralized houses of worship in several countries, including the Baha'i headquarters, the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel. Baha'i houses of worship typically are domed, nine-sided buildings adorned with nine-pointed stars.

In the United States, the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is maintains a House of Worship in Wilmette, Ill., and five regional schools, including Green Acre.

"The Baha'i faith is more internal than going to a church or a mosque," said Phyllis Ring, 44, program coordinator at Green Acre. Ring has been a Baha'i for 24 years.

"It's not a Sunday thing," she said. "It's about how you treat people and how you work on your character and how you live your life."

Formerly a summer attraction, most of the 23 buildings at Green Acre were restored and weatherized six years ago to become a year- round Baha'i conference center. The riverside campus spreads across 26 acres -- about 10 percent of Baha'i land holdings in Eliot. Construction of new classroom facilities, including an auditorium, is planned for next spring.

Today Green Acre holds weekend events and weeklong conferences that each year attract thousands of Baha'i members and others from all over the world. The conferences often attract 120 people or more, and the public is welcome at most events.

The school's summer season kicks off next weekend with a Junior Youth Academy, which will be followed by Family Virtues Week.

"You can't have unity in the world if you don't have unity in the individual, and that begins in the family," said Ring, who lives in Exeter, N.H.

Green Acre was founded by Sarah Jane Farmer, daughter of a prominent Eliot family that was known for taking an activist role in social causes.

Her father, Moses Gerrish Farmer, was a prolific inventor and a member of the Transcendentalist movement, which included nature lovers and philosophers, such as writers Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Her mother, Hannah Tobey Shapleigh, started the former Rosemary Cottage in Eliot, a forerunner of today's Fresh Air Fund, which brings city kids to the country each summer.

An unusual woman for her time, Sarah Farmer built Green Acre in 1890 as a Victorian hotel with help from several local businessmen.

First named the Eliot Hotel, visitors in long gowns and three- piece suits arrived by steamship or horse-drawn carriage. They amused themselves by strolling the lush lawns and relaxing on the sprawling veranda. Some even slept in white canvas tents set up outside the hotel.

Soon Green Acre became a summer destination for artists, writers and social activists, including W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Phoebe Apperson Hearst and Clarence Darrow, defense attorney in the Scopes evolution trial.

Farmer renamed the hotel Green Acre during its first season, after poet John Greenleaf Whittier visited.

Given Farmer's increasing interest in spiritual growth and social justice, Green Acre developed a religious and philosophical focus early on. The hotel struggled financially and its investors threatened to pull out, but it was bolstered repeatedly by donations from wealthy patrons who supported Farmer's ideals.

In 1894, Farmer dedicated Green Acre to peace and religious unity and raised the first Peace flag, a large banner with green letters on a white background. It has been raised every year since.

With its purpose defined, the hotel began hosting conferences and offering lectures on topics as diverse as nature, psychology, electricity, evolution and comparative religion. By 1899, Baha'i writings were included in a Green Acre program.

In 1912, Abdu'l-Baha, son of the Baha'i founder, visited Farmer at Green Acre and gave his blessing to the work she was doing in his father's name. More than 500 people gathered to meet his entourage, including a man from Minneapolis who rode a freight train to Portsmouth, N.H.

"Abdu'l-Baha visited the locals and talked to everyone, often using an interpreter," Ring said. "It must have seemed unusual to see all of these people wearing turbans coming into town."

Roots of faith

The Baha'i faith was founded in Iran by Baha'u'llah, whose name means "Glory of God" in Arabic. He was a follower of the Bab, a religious reformer of the early 1800s. Persecuted as heretics by ruling Muslims, the Bab was executed in 1850 and Baha'u'llah was imprisoned, as many of his followers are today.

While in prison in 1852 in Teheran, Baha'u'llah had a revelation that he was the "promised one," as foretold by the Bab and other prophets before him.

"I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above my head . . . I beheld a maiden, the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of my lord . . . Pointing with her finger unto my head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying . . . 'This is the beauty of God amongst you.' "

After his revelation, Baha'u'llah wrote hundreds of texts on nearly every subject. His teachings promote global unity, equality, education, truth-seeking and one progressive, evolving faith for all. He discounts no prophet who came before him.

"We consider ourselves followers of Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Abraham, Krishna and Buddha," said James Sacco, 55, administrator of Green Acre. He joined the faith 32 years ago, when he was an idealistic graduate student at Stanford University.

"The bottom line of the Baha'i faith is unity, and if we weren't accepting of all faiths, we couldn't practice our beliefs," Sacco said.

Prejudice, discrimination, lying and even back-biting are considered failings to be avoided for the ultimate spiritual development of humankind. "The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens," Baha'u'llah wrote.

While Baha'i have a fairly liberal world view, they emphasize traditional moral values. Sex is a gift from God to be enjoyed by married, heterosexual couples. Divorce is discouraged but allowed after a so-called "Year of Patience," when a couple lives apart but tries to work things out. Gay members are expected to abstain from sexual activity.

Provocative dress and salacious behavior are considered improper, but understanding is expected for cultural differences. Consuming alcohol and recreational drug use are prohibited.

"You don't degrade yourself, and you don't degrade anyone else," Ring said.

Most members pray several times each day, using intonations and movements that embody practices in Christianity, Islam and other religions.

The Baha'i calendar is broken down into 19 months of 19 days each. Each month is named for an attribute of God, such as glory, power and light. Every month, members gather to hold Feast, which is a combination of prayer, business and social activities. The new year - - Naw Ruz in Arabic -- starts on March 21, the spring equinox, when day and night are equal in length.

As with most religions, Baha'i properties and programs are paid for by members. However, donations are neither required nor requested. Sacco said giving is a private, voluntary matter, and no donations are accepted from non-members.

Many Green Acre activities are run by volunteers, including young people from other countries. Sacco and Ring are among few paid workers at Green Acre. They are hired by a vote of the local assembly and paid competitive wages for the work they do, Sacco said.

Local Baha'i members said their numbers are growing, but it's difficult to say by how much. They said the Baha'i population is growing faster outside the United States, where there is greater need and fewer distractions.

Still, Ring believes there is growing interest in the Baha'i faith. When she started working at Green Acre five years ago, Ring received one or two inquiries every few months. Now she receives several each week.

For Diane Iverson, the reason for the growing interest is clear. Iverson, 52, is a former paralegal who left a large Wisconsin law firm 18 years ago to become a Baha'i.

"I always believed that humanity had the capacity for doing greater good than I was seeing," said Iverson, who now lives in Eliot. "The Baha'i faith is the best vehicle for releasing full human potential."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 282-8229 or at:


Here are a few events scheduled at Green Acre Baha'i School this summer.

Concert Picnic on the Piscataqua, Sunday, July 2, 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Features recording artist Red Grammer and the annual raising of the Peace flag. Admission $3 per person, $10 per family. Bring or buy a lunch. Concert picnics are also planned for Aug. 6 and Sept. 3.

Unity Walk and Barbecue, Saturday, July 22, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Procession to the grave of race-relations worker Louis Gregory, followed by a picnic with food for sale. Procession is free. Please call to reserve meals.

Sarah J. Farmer Day, Saturday, July 23, 7:30 p.m. Celebrate the birthday of Green Acre's founder with highlights of her life, cake and festivities. Free.

Gospel Concert Extravaganza, Friday, July 28, 8 p.m. One Human Family Singers. Free.

Mystic Medicine, Aug. 11-16. Presenter Babak Etemad explores how religion has shaped scientific study through the centuries. Fee: $10.

For more information about the Baha'i faith or for a full list of upcoming events at Green Acre, call 439-7200 or visit the Web site at

©Copyright 2000, Portland Press Herald

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