February 23, 2000
Baha'is make moves as 'unifiers'
By Shelly Phillips
Over and over the dancers practiced, getting their steps synchronized and their movements crisp.
It was just a rehearsal, and the 14 teenagers enjoyed their camaraderie Sunday. But this dance, a dance against racism, is serious business.
The 14 are Baha'i youth. They have been performing the dance for school and community audiences for years as part of their faith's public witness for spiritual unity.
While Christianity carries out the lion's share of faith-based reconciliation efforts in this country, other religions also strive in various ways toward "the beloved community," the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s oft-cited goal of racial harmony.
Among them are Baha'ism. The Iranian-born faith has set up a number of anti-racism programs in the belief that stemming racism is America's most crucial challenge. While Baha'i influence may be limited - there are only 134,000 members in the United States and perhaps 1,000 in this area - few groups have been as persistent.
The dances of the Philly Baha'i Youth Workshop are part of that mission.
In the anti-racism dance, titled "Gang Wars," two groups of teenagers - one in black T-shirts and bandannas, the other in white - fight with each other and are killed. The dance movements show separation, distrust, confrontation, alienation. The bitterness surges forth, a stark analogy of the most divisive black-white relations.
But then two "unifiers" come out, one from each side, and recognize the futility of continued fighting. In a dramatic climax, they raise their companions from the dead. Pairs clasp hands in a show of amity.
When Lee Gould 18, of Ottsville, Bucks County, performed the dance last year at Robin Hood Dell before 500 inner-city youths, he was nervous. The audience at the citywide "day of service" celebration had heckled several acts before them.
Midway through, when the Baha'i dancers lay fallen on the stage, the air filled with boos. But as the two sets of dancers rose and became unified, applause grew until it was thunderous.
Gould's mother, Suzan, director of the youth workshop, found the moment electrifying: "I never felt the kind of rapt attention that was given. I think these kids were really watching."
It's not often that Baha'i efforts to combat racism are loudly applauded. Usually, they are unheralded.
The Philadelphia Regional Baha'i Center, just off City Avenue in Wynnefield - site of Sunday's rehearsal - has generated a number of community programs through its Institute for the Healing of Racism. These include "race-unity dialogues" and interracial picnics involving a variety of Lower Merion churches. The monthly dialogues are moving to the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Bryn Mawr, with the first session there tomorrow evening at 7:30.
In Swarthmore, after a cross-burning and other racial incidents in 1997, the Baha'is' national specialist on race unity, Nathan Rutstein, was brought in to advise a community task force. The group, called TRUST (Tolerance, Respect, Understanding, Support Team), included representatives from the Wallingford-Swarthmore school district, the borough governments of Nether Providence and Swarthmore, the police, residents, and the Swarthmore- Wallingford Interfaith Ministerium - whose representative was a Baha'i.
When Baha'is work in communities, they often don't invoke their religion. "We want people to start thinking about racial harmony, not make it a pitch for the Baha'i faith," said Homa Tavangar of Berwyn, a Baha'i activist.
There's no data about the effectiveness of Baha'i efforts, but sociologist Michael McMullen cited anecdotal evidence in his dissertation on the Baha'is of Atlanta. He found a history of quiet change in several public schools after Baha'i programs on race unity were held; segregation in the cafeteria began to break down, he said, and interracial friendships were formed.
"Baha'is tend not to have flashy protests and sit-ins," said McMullen, a Baha'i who is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. "Baha'i theology says personal example and the ways people are treated is what changes people's hearts."
That makes it a struggle, said the Rev. Cecil Gray, chair of African American studies at Gettysburg College and a Methodist minister.
"It's very difficult for the Baha'is to be effective at combating racism," Mr. Gray said. "As fast as some of us are working to eradicate racism, so many of our structures and so much of what we teach in society . . . perpetuates racism."
The Baha'is don't give up, he said, because they are a faith community with a "spiritual source, a God-force, that enables them to continue working."
Baha'ism, founded in Iran in 1844 by a prophet named Baha'u'llah, emphasizes the spiritual unity of mankind. Baha'is believe that the human race has passed through childhood to its turbulent adolescence, a time of prejudice, war and exploitation. With global maturity, they believe, humanity will feel a oneness while maintaining diverse cultures.
Throughout its history, the religion has been a haven for racially intermarried couples.
David Fiorito, a Baha'i in King of Prussia, has given talks on racial unity and is an organizer of Upper Merion's King Day observances.
Fiorito, 32, grew up Presbyterian and blithe about prejudice. Since he became a Baha'i, he said, he has tried to be sensitive to the small injustices that happen daily - for instance, "trying to be very vigilant that I don't fall into the stereotypical behavior of crossing the street when a young black man is walking towards me."
But he is realistic about the role that Baha'is and anyone else of good will plays in undoing racism.
Anti-bias programs "are wonderful tools," he said. "But until hearts are changed, until people begin to internalize it and really heal the wounded spirit that's inside, it may have little or no effect."
©Copyright 2000, Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.