Bahai News - Baha'i faith celebrates 100 years in Milwaukee
Baha'i faith celebrates 100 years in Milwaukee
City is home to one of the oldest Baha'i communities in U.S.
By NAHAL TOOSI
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Nov. 10, 2000
In 1863, a Persian nobleman known as Baha'u'llah declared he was God's
newest messenger, the fulfillment of prophecies from past religions and
the bearer of new laws for modern society.
His message spread quickly, and far beyond the Middle East. By 1900,
some of his followers, now known as Baha'is, arrived in Milwaukee
after helping establish a Baha'i community in Kenosha a few years earlier.
A century later, there are more than 100 Baha'is living in Milwaukee,
and between 500 and 600 in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. On Sunday,
local Baha'is will celebrate the birth of Baha'u'llah, who was born in
Iran in 1817, along with the 100th anniversary of the faith in the city.
"(Milwaukee) is one of the oldest Baha'i communities in the United
States," said Jim Beasley, secretary of the Milwaukee Area Media Task
Force. "We're part of the spiritual fabric here."
Wisconsin residents may be familiar with the 135-foot-tall, gleaming
white temple of the Baha'is in Wilmette, Ill., which is one of seven
Baha'i temples in the world and is listed in the National Register of
The Baha'is don't have clergy and don't emphasize rituals.
Instead, they usually worship on a quiet level, meeting in centers
and homes once every 19 days to pray, discuss business and socialize.
The ideas the Baha'is embrace, however, are often related to important,
and sometimes controversial, public issues.
The Baha'is believe in such things as equality between men and women
and among all races. They say world peace is inevitable, although the
path to it may not be an easy one. The Baha'i writings stress chastity
and prohibit alcohol consumption.
Other principles include promoting one language - though not at the
exclusion of other languages - to help communication worldwide, as well
as working toward the establishment of a world government.
Unity: a high standard
Baha'is are not allowed to belong to political parties but are encouraged
to vote. The concept of unity is an underlying theme in Baha'i writings,
local followers said.
"It's a very high standard to live by," said Loren Ritacca, a member
of the community's local governing body, which meets at Baha'i Faith -
Milwaukee, 2526 W. Vliet St.
"There are no priests and clergy in the Baha'i faith so the
responsibilities rest on the shoulders of individuals."
Although he was born a son of a wealthy government minister,
Baha'u'llah, whose given name was Mirza Huseyn 'Ali Nuri and whose
title means "The Glory of God" in Arabic, did not follow in his father's
footsteps. In 1844, Baha'u'llah became one of the leading followers of
the Babi movement, the precursor to the Baha'i faith.
The religious establishment in Iran persecuted the Babis and, in 1852,
Baha'u'llah was sent to one of Tehran's worst prisons, known as the
"Black Pit." It was there that Baha'u'llah - as he told in later
recountings - discovered he had a divine mission.
For the next 40 years, Baha'u'llah lived as a prisoner and in exile.
Throughout these years, he wrote much of the scripture Baha'is refer to
today for guidance. In it, he promoted basic themes such as unity and
"progressive revelation" - the concept that God sends down messengers at
different points in history to expound on existing spiritual laws and
establish social laws relevant to that day and age.
Baha'u'llah died in 1892 near modern-day Haifa, Israel. His son,
Abdu'l-Baha, succeeded him as the faith's leader.
Today, the international headquarters of the Baha'i faith is in
Haifa, where the faith's top institution, the Universal House of
Justice, an elected body, meets. Baha'i leaders say the faith is the
second most widespread in the world, numbering some 5 million believers
in more than 190 countries. About 142,000 live in the United States.
The fact that there were Baha'is in Milwaukee and Kenosha just a few
years after Baha'u'llah died is astonishing, Beasley said.
The West's first exposure to the Baha'i faith came about during a
world religion conference in Chicago in September 1893. By 1896,
hundreds of Baha'is lived in the Kenosha and Chicago areas, thanks
partly to the efforts of a Syrian Baha'i.
Freethinkers in Milwaukee's German community were among those attracted
to the Baha'is who moved here, Beasley said.
In 1912, Abdu'l-Baha traveled across the United States, stopping in
Kenosha along the way.
Although the community's growth has been gradual in the last 15 years,
Milwaukee Baha'is say they are working hard to spread awareness of the
religion, using everything from face-to-face teaching to the Internet.
Next summer, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the
United States plans to host a national conference in Milwaukee.
"It's very exciting," Ritacca said. "This area is fraught with
enormous potential, and we're finding a wide variety of different kinds
of people being interested in the Baha'i faith."
©Copyright 2000, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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