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Spiritual Food

The Baha'i 19 days of fasting underway

By Audrey D. McCombs
Savannah Morning News

There are more than 5 million Baha'is in the world, with 133,000 in the United States (about 50 in Savannah, several thousand in Georgia). The faith was founded in 1844 in the Middle East. Baha'is believe in the oneness of mankind, the oneness of religion and the equality of women. They follow the moral code of the Ten Commandments and are against racism, among other beliefs.

Baha'is believe that the Creator has revealed himself to the world through a series of divine messengers or prophets -- Buddha, Muhammad, Moses, Abraham, Zoroaster, Krishna, and the latest prophet, Baha'u'llah, the founder of their faith.

These days when Jonell O'Neal eats lunch, it's not protein and leafy vegetables between two starches.

You might say she enjoys a "wish sandwich" -- prayers for a better life for her family, her religious community, the world and herself.

She's a Baha'i. She and other members of her faith are in the midst of a 19-day fast that comes along once a year, March 2-20.

"During the fast I tend to devote my lunch time to more prayer and meditation, having a 'spiritual lunch,' rather than feeling sorry for my stomach," O'Neal said. "I know that my stomach will survive and believe that my spirit will survive. We say the fast lasts 19 days, but in fact, it only lasts 12 hours a day. I take it one day at a time."

According the the Baha'i Faith, the fast serves as spiritual preparation for the New Year, which begins March 21 with the first month of 19 days, Baha. The Baha'i calendar year has 19 months of 19 days, for 361 days. The four Intercalary Days or Ayyam-i-Ha, fall between the last month of Ala (Loftiness) and the first month of Baha (Splendor), rounding out the calendar to 365 days.

Baha'is say the fast is a time of spiritual renewal in their lives. Like Lent for Christianity and Ramadan in Islam, the Baha'i Fast is a period of meditation, prayer and reflection. It symbolizes the importance of self-restraint and detachment from the physical things of the world.

Before dawn, Baha'i families pray together and have their morning meal. The obligation of fasting begins at age 15 and continues until age 70. People who are sick, traveling, elderly, pregnant or nursing and those involved in heavy labor are exempted, said O'Neal's husband, Mike O'Neal.

The fast includes abstinence from drinking and smoking, too, said Barbara Rudolph. "The fast is a frequent reminder of what you should be doing, which is working on your spiritual qualities, praying for yourself and others. It's a time when you rebuild yourself and we really look at it as a gift."

For her husband, Ray Rudolph, the fast is a time of spiritual awareness in which Baha'is are constantly reminded by hunger about why they are fasting.

"To me it teaches you how to integrate spiritual principles into your everyday routine," he said.

After sunset Baha'is gather together to break the fast with a feast of prayers, good food and fellowship.

Mike O'Neal is still feasting on memories and experiences he had while on a multi-nation tour of Africa on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, the world headquarters and holiest place of the Baha'i Faith.

O'Neal, his son Darrell O'Neal, and a delegation of other African-American Bahai's visited Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in January at the behest of the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel.

The purpose of such visits is to encourage the Baha'is in Africa and further the Baha'i faith and influence in these countries. A delegation of Westerners visiting a sole Baha'i in a city or town has great impact, O'Neal said.

O'Neal gave a report about his visit in Africa at the Universal House of Justice at the conclusion of his trip.

"That's the biggest event of my life, other than my wife, to have spoken on the same mountain as prophets such as Elijah," O'Neal said. The International House of Justice sits on Mount Carmel. "This boy, born in a ghetto of Philadelphia, was able to speak to 400, 500 people in what I consider the most holy spot in the world."

But O'Neal is unsettled by recent events in Uganda and world perception, especially in the West, of the country after rebels killed Americans and other foreign tourists who were gorilla watching there. The State Department has issued travel warnings for Uganda and several other countries in Africa.

"When I was in Uganda, in Kenya, in Tanzania, in Zanzibar, I was treated wonderfully and I've never felt more safe," O'Neal said. "The people are wonderful. I'm appalled that when a few Americans are killed, as terrible as that is and as much as I seek the perpetrators be brought to justice, how on the news you'll see these entire countries indicted with 'you don't want to travel there because eight (tourists including Americans) were killed."

A few years ago foreign tourists in Miami were killed at random. Europe did not look at that and issue blanket travel warnings against travel to the United States, he said.

"This speaks much to the Western view of the world and I'm glad to have the opportunity to speak out against that. I don't think that Americans should all of a sudden, because that happened, stop visiting or stop considering business adventures with those countries because they are in dire need of our visits and our encouragement and our business."

Faith & Coping reporter Audrey D. McCombs can be reached at 652-0309.

Web posted
Saturday, March 13, 1999

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