Diversity is the Baha'i way

Diversity is the Baha'i way:

Family-centered religion gains a foothold in Wake County

The News and Observer
Raleigh, North Carolina
Wednesday, December 11, 1996

By YONAT SHIMRON, Staff Writer

Members of the Manasseh Church of God in Christ were poring over a Biblical passage one recent Wednesday night when a group of people appeared at the door wanting a tour of their church.

They were an odd group: a black composer, an Iranian-born real-estate agent, a German-born sculptor, and an American speech pathologist.

Members of the church were eager to sell their small, cinder block worship hall, which they had outgrown. But they had expected a more familiar crowd.

'Baha'is believe it's time to set aside what divides, and think of what unites.' Suheil Bushrui University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management

"We were looking for a traditional Christian group to buy the building," says Emmett Turner, the pastor. "We had not expected the Baha'is -- that's for sure."

The Baha'is weren't put off by the quizzical looks. "We've often had people come up to us and ask, 'Who are you?' " says Eric Johnson, chairman of Raleigh's Local Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is, and a composer.

The Baha'i faith is one of the world's fastest-growing religions. And there is every sign it's beginning to take root in North Carolina.

Last June, a Durham group converted a fire truck repair shop into a Baha'i Center. Wilmington opened its Baha'i center in 1988; Asheville followed in 1990, and Greensboro in 1992.

With the Baha'i purchase of the Manasseh church in Raleigh's historic Oakwood neighborhood, Wake County becomes the latest foothold for the faith.

Founded by a 19th-century nobleman from Teheran, the Baha'i faith teaches that all the world's peoples form one race, and the purpose of religion is the abolition of racial, gender and class divisions. Baha'is believe theirs is a universal faith -- one capable of bringing love and understanding to all.

The religion has attracted more than 5 million members worldwide, including 133,709 in the United States.

"The Baha'i faith attracts people whose hearts are touched by the message of peace among nations," says Suheil Bushrui, who holds the Baha'i chair at the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management. "Baha'is believe it's time to set aside what divides, and think of what unites."

That's a message that has resonated in the South, particularly during the racial strife of the 1960s and 1970s. South Carolina is home to the second-largest Baha'i community in the United States. With 16,000 Baha'is, South Carolina ranks just behind California, home to 19,000 Baha'is.

North Carolina has only 4,500 Baha'is, according to the religion's Wilmette, Ill., headquarters. The recent growth of the Baha'i community in the Triangle has more to do with migration from other parts of the country than with a search for racial harmony.

Liberal and conservative

But the new Baha'i Unity Center hopes to make converts too. Members see the new center as a potential catalyst for racial reconciliation. They plan to hold seminars on race, open a bookstore and library in the basement, and offer parenting classes, maybe even a computer room for children from the neighborhood's poorer districts.

Baha'is do not believe in civil disobedience and usually opt for the quiet road -- preferring literacy and tutorial programs to boycotts and marches.

"The Baha'i approach is less flashy," says Robert Stockman, a professor of religion at DePaul University in Chicago and an expert in the faith. "They tend not to get publicity."

The low-key style characterizes the new center's first initiative.

Since the Baha'i religion has no clergy, rituals or sacraments, and since group meetings usually take the form of round-table discussions, the Baha'is want to donate the 14 crimson pews in the old church to a needy group -- a church that burned in recent arson attacks, or a struggling new congregation.

The Baha'is can't pay for the transportation, but they'll be happy to unbolt the pews from the floor.

The group liked the Oakwood church, which they bought for $90,000, because it is in a racially mixed neighborhood, centrally located in downtown Raleigh.

"Because we're diverse, we wanted a place that was neutral," Johnson says. "If it was in a very rich neighborhood in North Raleigh, some people might feel uncomfortable. This location worked out ideally."

Despite their egalitarian message, Baha'is take a conservative position on many social issues. Members are prohibited from drinking alcohol or taking drugs, except in cases of medical need.

Baha'is oppose abortion and view homosexuality as an unacceptable lifestyle. Baha'i life is centered on marriage and the family. It is very liberal, however, when it comes to women's rights and interracial marriage.

Gayle Gonzalez-Johnson, a Baha'i of Puerto Rican origin who is married to a black man, says the Baha'i message offers special hope for her three children growing up in Raleigh.

"It's one thing to tolerate diversity," says Gonzalez-Johnson, a psychotherapist. "We love it. We seek it out. We see it as ideal. We're not about co-existing; we're about truly uniting as people."

Beauty of the full spectrum

Other Baha'i followers say they came to the religion after meeting people from other countries.

John Chilman, a psychiatrist and native of England, was introduced to the Baha'i faith through his Iranian-born wife, Pari. Baha'is form the largest religious minority faith in Iran -- where the religion originated.

After they married, Chilman abandoned his Anglican roots. He was already troubled by Christianity's exclusivity.

"I had intuitively felt that all religions made sense," says Chilman, the group's treasurer. "When I came across the Baha'i faith, it all felt very logical and sensible." Others come to the Baha'i faith after living abroad.

Eric Johnson was brought up as a Baha'i. His mother converted to the faith after living in Japan.

When Eric was young, she took him on a trip around the world, and he grew to like the faith's international flavor.

"It's like watching color TV," Johnson says. "Once you've seen the full rainbow, it's hard to give that up."

The Baha'i at a glance

The goal of the Baha'i faith is to bring about the equality of men and women and to overcome racial, class and religious differences.

The Bab proclaimed that a prophet would soon arrive who would proclaim a new spiritual doctrine. His earliest disciple, Mirza Hoseyn Ali Nuri, who assumed the name Baha'u'llah, or "Glory of God," declared in 1863 that he was the messenger.

He was persecuted in Iran, exiled to Baghdad, and eventually to Palestine, now Israel, where he is buried. Baha'u'llah left behind thousands of letters and other tracts that form the basis of the faith.

The Baha'i faith requires followers to pray daily and to fast 19 days a year from sunrise to sunset. The community meets every 19 days for a "feast" that includes a period of devotion, a business session, and a social gathering usually ending with a shared dessert.

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