Bahai News - Baha'i faith's gathering is first in 15 years

Baha'i faith's gathering is first in 15 years

Event brings followers, social tolerance message to Milwaukee

Last Updated: June 29, 2001
With Robert C. Henderson
Robert C. Henderson, secretary general of the National Spiritual
Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States.
Robert C. Henderson, secretary general of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States.
If You Go
The Baha'i national conference ends Sunday afternoon. Workshops, which run through Saturday night, are at various downtown hotels and centers. Registration is in the U.S. Cellular Arena.
More than 8,000 followers of the Baha'i faith are in Milwaukee for "Building the Kingdom," their first national conference since 1986.

An Iranian nobleman known as Baha'u'llah started the faith, declaring in 1863 that he was God's newest messenger, the fulfillment of prophecies from past religions and the bearer of new laws for modern society.

Baha'is believe there is only one God, only one race, and that traditional barriers of race, class, creed and nation are giving way to a unified world civilization. Baha'is have no clergy and elect a nine-member national assembly each year to govern the affairs of the Baha'i community. Baha'is are non-partisan and do not affiliate themselves with political parties. Robert C. Henderson, secretary general of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, spoke with reporter Tom Heinen.

Q: Do Baha'is see race relations as a key social issue in the U.S.?

A: Yes. As a matter of fact, the primary teaching of the Baha'i faith is the oneness of humanity. The Baha'i writings say emphatically that freedom from prejudice is the hallmark of a true Baha'i character and the central teaching of our faith. And so the Baha'i teachings specifically enjoin Baha'is to integrate their lives, to reach out in interracial fellowship in every aspect: children at play, business, social, at home. Not just at conventions or meeting halls, but to really make our lives a testament to the unity that we believe in.

Q: Do Baha'is offer something special to this country in regards to racial unity?

A: Absolutely. First of all, Baha'is believe that racial unity is a spiritual teaching. The Baha'i writings refer to racial unity as the most challenging and vital issue confronting America. And the Baha'i writings talk about the spiritual destiny of America.

Q: Whose writings?

A: The founders of the Baha'i faith. Baha'u'llah himself addressed the American continent, and the republic, and really said that the destiny of this nation was to establish the unity of all people because it was the first nation that was started as a composition of all people.

Q: Speaking of people, the Baha'i faith tallies 5 million or more followers in more than 190 countries. There reportedly are 144,000 in the U.S., including Middle Eastern immigrants. Who are the Baha'is here?

A: The Baha'i community is extremely diverse: white Americans, Americans of African descent, of Latin descent, of Southeast Asian descent, of Chinese descent, Japanese descent, American Indians, everybody.

Q: What attracts them to the faith?

A: Unity makes a lot of sense. That's extremely attractive when you say to people that we believe that the God of Abraham and the God of Moses and the God of Christ and Muhammad, the God of Buddha, is one God. That there is an essential unity of all religions . . . and when you say humankind is one, that we have one God who is the father of all . . . and when you say that it's time for us to bring the entire human family together at a new level of unity, and to build bridges of understanding and cooperation, a kind of universal fellowship of love and service.

Q: What is the purpose of this convention? This gathering is unusual for your faith in that it is open to non-Baha'is and it has some 268 workshops in which Baha'is from around the country will share their experiences in everything from running social service programs to building better faith communities.

A: Well, the Baha'i faith has an organized mission of service and development. Part of the Baha'i teachings are that we want to reach out to people of all races and all religions, and to help them through the provision of service, and particularly through social development activities. We have projects on literacy, youth development, family institutes, all kinds of health programs and a variety of other things.

Part of our effort is to share the spiritual teachings of the Baha'i faith - the unity of all people, the elimination of prejudice, the equality of women and men - which we take not simply as social principles but as spiritual teachings which are essential to the spiritual and social transformation of individual and community life.

One of the things we are going to do here is launch a five-year plan that has as its major aim the development of Baha'i communities, the expansion of our missions of service, the spiritual development of children, youth, adults and families and communities, and a larger engagement in the wider community so that our surface activities and our encouragement of (the spiritual teachings) can be expanded.

Q: You say it's been 15 years since your last national conference. Why hold it now?

A: Part of what's happened is, every year there are (regional) conferences throughout the United States, and they've gotten stronger and larger and more vibrant. It just felt like the right time.

©Copyright 2001, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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