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.


Baha'i Facts

Some facts on the Baha'i faith:

  • Founded by Baha'u'llah, whose given name was Mirza Huseyn 'Ali Nuri, born in Iran in 1817 to a wealthy government minister.
  • In 1852, Baha'u'llah was sent to one of Iran's worst prisons. During 40 years in prison and exile he wrote much of the scripture used in the faith today. He died in 1892, and his son, Abdu'l-Baha, succeeded him as the faith's leader.
  • The faith counts 5 million believers in 190 countries.
  • The Baha'is of Milwaukee will hold an anniversary dinner at 1 p.m. Sunday. The public is welcome to attend a lecture and entertainment from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Gray's Conference Center, 6618 N. Teutonia Ave. For information, call the Baha'i center (414) 342-7636.

    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 Historic Places.

    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."


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