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A World-embracing vision: Baha'is plan convention in Naples

Saturday, August 22, 1998

By EILEEN McCLELLAND, Daily News Staff

A barefoot Carrietta Kelly stands outside a home in Bonita Springs welcoming visitors to a religious gathering.

Inside the foyer is a pile of shoes.

Baha'is are gathering to memorialize a member in Iran, recently executed by the government.

Taking their shoes off isn't a Baha'i custom. The owners of the house, Greg and Dr. Teresa Kelly, have white carpeting.

Carrietta Kelly, not related to her hosts, is public representative for the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is in Collier County. She grew up in Augusta, Ga., gradually becoming disturbed by pervasive racial segregation, which wasn't addressed by local churches. The mother of a friend introduced her to Baha'i, a world religion that stresses unity and world peace. She was intrigued and became a lifelong adherent.

The group gathered recently both to plan an Oct. 4 convention and to pray for Ruhollah Rowhani, 52, who was hanged July 21 in Iran, the religion's birthplace. The regional convention will take place at the Collier County campus of Edison Community College.

About 20 Baha'is from Lee and Collier counties gathered to remember their persecuted Iranian brother in faith, children sitting cross-legged on the floor and a baby chattering in the kitchen.

Carrietta Kelly's eyes, illuminated by the golden glow of a table lamp, filled with tears as the prayer for Rowhani and his family ended. Teresa Kelly sang a memorial song, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.

Rowhani, charged with converting a Muslim to the Baha'i faith, was one of 200 Baha'is executed since 1979. He was a medical supplies salesman and the father of four. Some 300,000 Baha'is live in all regions of Iran, making it the largest minority religion there. The Islamic fundamentalist regime regards the religion as heresy and Baha'is have no legal rights or even identity: They aren't issued birth certificates. Marriages and divorces are not recognized.

Carrietta Kelly said the accusations against Rowhani were false. One of the principles of the Baha'i faith is obedience to the civil law of the land. "This is another case of strictly religious persecution," she said.

But Bahai's have reason for celebration, too. They believe the "savior" returned in the mid-19th century and that world peace and unity is inevitable.

Baha'ullah (Arabic for the glory of God) was the prophet-founder of the faith, carrying on the work of Mirza Ali Muhammed (1820-1850), who called himself the Bab, meaning "The Gate." Baha'is regard Jesus and all other messengers of world religions - including Moses, Krishna, Buddha and Muhammad - as divine prophets of God. Their prophecies of return have been fulfilled by Baha'ullah, who will unite the world in one faith. The religion of the world is progressively revealed, they believe. Another messenger will be along in the next 1,000 years.

Baha'is have no clergy. Local spiritual assemblies of nine adults each "consult" on a regular basis on community issues. The whole community is invited to meet every 19 days for "the feast," a feast of the spirit. In Southwest Florida, Bahai's meet in members' homes.


Teresa Kelly, a pediatric radiologist, learned of the religion while attending Harvard University. A California native of African-American and Mexican heritage, she had been exposed to many religions and cultures. She had been Episcopalian, her mother, Catholic, and her father, Congregational.

"The United States suffers a great deal from disunity," Teresa said. "It's a handicap for Americans. There are a lot of different things people can be snobby about, but I know a lot of genuine people in the Baha'i community. I feel a genuineness of spirit. It's like stepping out of a sad, dysfunctional world into the light."

Teresa compares the growth rate of the relatively new religion to the beginnings of Christianity.

"It's always hard for people to accept a new messenger," she said. "When Christ came, only a handful recognized him at first. It's hard for people to change. They are fearful of change. It will take years before Baha'i is prevalent, but it is inevitable."

An estimated 133,700 Baha'is live in the United States, with only about 75 in Southwest Florida. Today the faith is represented in more than 340 countries and territories throughout the world, with the main strength in Southwest Asia. Other centers are in Europe, Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. The national Baha'i Office of Public Information estimates its world membership at more than 5 million.

While Teresa Kelly learned about Baha'i at Harvard, her future husband, Greg, discovered the faith at the University of Michigan at about the same time - 1974. "We both came into the faith in the same way," he said, "by studying the teachings."

Greg, who came from an Irish-Catholic family, questioned his beliefs and the rituals they involved when he attended college. He undertook the formal study of religion.

"I discovered the Baha'i faith and that was the one thing that stood out. Nothing really excited me in this way."

"There was an instant compatibility," Greg said of his initial encounters with Baha'i students and teachings. "It was very uplifting when I discovered Baha'i teachings and Baha'is. It was almost instant that I became a Baha'i, although I continued to study. It's a lifelong thing, but you can learn enough quickly to know that you belong."

In 1989, Greg and Teresa met at the University of Michigan at a Baha'i function, and were married a year and a half later. They are both members of the Baha'i Spiritual Assembly of Lee County.


Mia Kelly, Teresa's daughter, is 20 and newly enrolled at Sweetbriar College in Virginia. Because it's a small college, she's unlikely to find an established Baha'i community.

"It's hard for people like me," Mia said. "I'll probably be the only Baha'i. I'll need to teach people about Baha'i and that can be very difficult to do."

But she said her fellow students already have expressed an interest in her religion.

"Young people and people from my parents' generation are more willing to be open-minded," she said. "I grew up with the Baha'i faith. I was just so used to it. I'm just continuing to live a certain way of life which I was very happy with."

Mia officially joined the religion when she was 13, while attending a Baha'i camp. "I probably wouldn't have done it if my parents had been there," she said. "Kids don't like to be pushed by their parents to do anything."

Mia was especially pleased that in the Baha'i faith, God is considered neither male or female. "That was something that was very important to me," she said.

The Kellys had encouraged her to study all religions before making a decision.

"I was very proud of her," Teresa said.

The religion forbids the consumption of alcohol and premarital sex and emphasizes the sacred state of marriage.


Gloria Dutton of Cape Coral has been a Baha'i for just two years.

"I've always been a Baha'i in my heart," she said. "My youngest sister has been a member and I always thought, 'well, it's a cult.' "

Raised a Catholic, she converted to Methodism, which sufficed for a while. Still, she inferred that fellow churchgoers believed only Christians could do good or were inherently good. This disturbed her.

"I have a sister who's Jewish and another sister who's a Baha'i. A lot of people are good."

The Christians she knew didn't seem to acknowledge this, she said.

"But you meet a Baha'i and you feel like you've known them all your life. I just fell in love with it. I never felt so at peace."

Equality of races, religious backgrounds and the sexes appealed greatly to Dutton. "Who ever heard of equality between men and women? Not in my household."

Eugene Purnell, an African American from Memphis, found the religion in 1975.

"I felt a spiritual awakening in Christianity but I wasn't satisfied by the divisions between black and white. The Bible doesn't profess any division. I saw an ad in the paper for Baha'i and it said all are welcome. I met people of all races and they all had this world-embracing vision. After a couple of weeks I joined."


Richard Donovan is chairman of the (now inactive) Collier County Institute for Racial Healing. He and his wife, Teresa, have a 1-year-old daughter, Sierra, whom they plan to raise in the faith.

Sierra plays with pots and pans and Tupperware as her parents discuss their life-changing decisions.

Teresa Donovan learned about the religion while she worked as a nanny for a Baha'i family in San Francisco.

"I had investigated a lot of different ways of getting in touch with my spirituality," she said.

"Growing up with the idea that Jesus was the messenger, it was hard to believe the idea that Jesus had returned (in the person of Baha'ullah)," she said.

Still, the attraction of racial and sexual equality and the concentration on world peace overcame any doubts.

"The fellowship was really sincere," she said. "You were treated like you were a family. I had thought that I don't need any laws, that I did pretty well on my own, but then I realized I didn't want to be out there on my own."

While some are more outspoken, Teresa Donovan tends to be low-key about her faith.

"All Baha'is are different," she said. "I find that especially at work, when I'm developing relationships with people, I'm very hesitant to talk about my faith because I don't want to have that relationship dissolved. On the other hand, it is important that people hear about Baha'ullah."

Teresa and Richard Donovan met at a Baha'i gathering for world peace.

Richard, a self-described former devout Catholic, said Baha'is have focused on spreading the word in Immokalee because the city has no Baha'i community.

"We do this not to proselytize the religion, but because now is the time for the world to come together," he said. "Technology has reached the point where we have the tools to eliminate poverty, to have wonderful schools, transportation, to have good health care. One of the primary messages is the unity of mankind, teaching the individual that it's time to get on with it. We believe the savior has come."

Teresa Kelly agreed that Baha'is aren't pushy about the religion.

"I don't think Baha'is feel any urgency other than to assist others," she said. "Some religious groups want to push their beliefs on others for reasons that aren't clear to me."

But Baha'is make every effort to share the religion with people who express an interest. "For Baha'is not to talk about it would be like having antibiotics and not sharing it," she said.

The application of the faith through daily living and work is important to Baha'is.

Teresa Kelly said she'd always been in touch with her spiritual side, which helps her in her pediatric work to calm children. "As a doctor, if you have a kid who is upset and screaming, just by being kind and loving and calm, they'll calm right down."

The key to the Baha'i approach to any kind of work is the service it provides to others. "Whether you're a thoracic surgeon or you're washing floors," she said, "you have to ask yourself whether you're doing it for the glorification of self or in service to others, and we respect all people regardless of their occupation."


Baha'ullah has promised that the kingdom of God on earth is at hand, Richard Donovan explained. War and disunity will disappear. World governments will be under God's law.

But this dramatic change won't involve any obvious intervention from God, he said.

According to "Eerdmans' Handbook to The World's Religions," (Lion Publishing, 1994) the changes Baha'is speak of will not be abrupt. Instead, according to Baha'i teaching, there will be an inner change in people and in society, ultimately bringing the world from the brink of ruin to harmony.

"I believe what Baha'ullah told us, that we will not achieve peace until we understand that there is one God, one race, one world," Teresa Donovan said. "It's important to me that Sierra be raised in the Baha'i faith, to achieve that end."

Meanwhile, Baha'is are prohibited from holding public office or taking part in bipartisan politics, beyond the level of voting, which they are required to do. They also favor the establishment of a universal auxiliary language and have been involved in the United Nations since its inception. Carrietta Kelly attended the World's Women Conference in China and serves on the Board of the United Nations Association for Lee and Collier counties.

Aside from religious beliefs, Teresa Donovan said Baha'is share a positive attitude.

"I went to dinner with three other Baha'i women and I knew that whatever we talked about it would be uplifting, that there wouldn't be anything negative going on," she said. "It's so easy to get bogged down by what's happening on this plane. I feel so revived when I can be in that kind of setting and know that one day this is what the world will be like."

©Copyright 1998, Naples Daily News

Original Story

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