Unity feast offers taste of a prejudice-free world
By PAT KINNEY
'Abdu'l-Baha, son of Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'i Faith, lived all of his life in the Holy Land. But in 1912, at the age of 68, 'Abdu'l-Baha embarked on a yearlong journey to the west, spending nine months in the United States.
Baha'is believe that 'Abdu'l-Baha is the perfect exemplar of their teachings, and in his travels 'Abdu'l-Baha did much to confirm that belief.
He and his father had long been persecuted for their religious beliefs. However, toward the end of his life, after Baha'u'llah's death, 'Abdu'l-Baha was released from prison in Palestine.
Inspired by the possibility that 'Abdu'l-Baha could now travel, Baha'is residing in the United States invited him to come here.
'Abdu'l-Baha accepted their invitation but returned the ticket they had purchased for him on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He instructed the Baha'is to sell the ticket and give the money to charity. He paid with his own money for passage on the S.S. Cedric, arriving in New York on April 11, 1912.
For Baha'is in North Jersey, the culminating event of 'Abdu'l-Baha's trip was his visit here on June 29, when he invited the Baha'is and their friends -- representing a diversity of races, nationalities, and religions -- to partake in what he called a "Unity Feast."
'Abdu'l-Baha paid for the food, assisted in its preparation, and served his guests, gathered in the bucolic setting of the country home of Roy Wilhelm. That rural site, then West Englewood, is today the Wilhelm Baha'i Properties on Evergreen Place, just off Queen Anne Road, in Teaneck.
This seminal event has been memorialized as the annual Souvenir of 'Abdu'l-Baha. Always celebrated on the last Saturday in June, thousands of Baha'is and their guests have experienced for nearly a century one unforgettable afternoon that offers a glimpse into a world of the future where prejudice -- whether of race, nationality, age, gender, or class -- does not exist.
As he toured the United States 'Abdu'l-Baha was invited to speak at prestigious institutions such as Columbia and Stanford universities. He met with financier J.P. Morgan and industrialist Andrew Carnegie. But time and again, 'Abdu'l-Baha stressed that world peace and an end to human suffering could only take place with a change in the spiritual attitude of all people.
'Abdu'l-Baha saw to it that his official itinerary called attention to the pressing needs of society. He addressed the preliminary Hague Peace Conference held at Lake Mohonk, N.Y. He gave coins to the poor and homeless at the Bowery Mission. He spoke at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and addressed the fourth annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Chicago. He spoke to gatherings of Unitarians, Theosophists, Baptists, Jews, and the Japanese YMCA.
"Let deeds, not words, be your adorning," the Baha'i teachings instruct. This 'Abdu'l-Baha did unceasingly during the 239 days of his physical and spiritual journey here. And the Unity Feast held here in Teaneck remains symbolic of the potential of all people to attain friendship and well-being.
©Copyright 2000 Bergen Record Corp.