Small, close-knit Princeton Baha'i community provides social support
By Emma Soichet
(U-WIRE) PRINCETON, N.J. -- Princeton sophomore Amanda Henck spent 10 years learning about the Christian gospels at her Lutheran school in Hong Kong.
Henck -- who, other than her siblings, was the only Baha'i at the predominantly Christian school -- said the school's environment was tolerant but not free from religious hostility.
"It was a very international school, but the most vocal people were the group of Pentecostal Christian youth," she explained. "Basically they told me I was damned and was going to hell. But we believed that we believe in the same God as the Jews and Christians."
Not until her senior year -- when she and friends congregated to conduct an interfaith religious service at the school -- was Henck able to bring her beliefs as a Baha'i into the decidedly Christian religious environment in which she was educated.
"For this interfaith service we got people from smaller religions to speak about how religion had affected them," she said. After several religion teachers emotionally broke into tears at the service, Henck said she discovered that they had attempted a similar service 10 years before, but had been told by the school it was inappropriate.
Senior David Nawi was also the only Baha'i at his high school in Norwood, N.J., where he said he depended largely on the cluster of Baha'i in his local community for support.
"By the time you get to college, you have had to explain yourself and your religion over and over again, and in having done so are more comfortable with what you believe," said Nawi, who is now president of Princeton's Baha'i Club. "But it's difficult in high school because you are much more reliant on peer criticism and peer support -- and when you have a 'weird' religion, it's harder."
With her past experience, coming to Princeton's small but close-knit Baha'i community has proved a welcome change for Henck.
"I never had a community growing up with a lot of Baha'i youth," Henck said. "It was great having this instant group of friends."
Princeton's Baha'i Club numbers eight undergraduate and graduate students -- a disproportionately large number considering that just 120,000 of 250 million US residents are Baha'i -- and relies, in part, on the Baha'i community outside Fitz Randolph gate.
On campus, the club primarily brings together Baha'i students for social events and meetings. During the religion's yearly 19-day fast, the club gathers each morning before sunrise in different members' rooms -- from the Graduate College to Butler College -- to break fast.
In addition, every 19 days the community holds an event called the Feast to signify the start of a new month of its calendar. Over a meal, the Baha'i socialize, handle administrative tasks and pray.
Once per month, club members also join Baha'i youth from across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware for a social gathering at Mona Mahboubi '01's house outside Philadelphia. Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware for a social gathering at Mona Mahboubi '01's house outside Philadelphia.
"It's a really different environment from Princeton," Henck said of the gatherings with youth from outside Princeton. "People are psyched to have someone they don't know sit down next to them."
The Baha'i faith claims to be the world's newest religion, arising from Islam in 1844, and currently claims to have about six million adherents worldwide. The faith rests on tenets and rules set up by its founder, Baha'u'llah -- Persian for the 'Gate of God' -- who, after proclaiming himself a prophet in 1863, was persecuted and exiled by Muslims as a threat to orthodox Islam.
The religion's inclusive explanation of the succession of prophets sets it apart from other faiths. Those who embrace the Baha'i faith believe that God has revealed himself and will continue to speak through a line of messengers -- of which Baha'u'llah was the last, following Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed and the Bab.
Last year, members of the Baha'i Club presented a statement and petition to President Shapiro condemning the persecution of the Baha'i in Iranian higher education -- where many Baha'i have been prohibited from attending university, according to Nawi.
"We asked him to write a letter to the Iranian Ministers of Education and to sign a petition," Mahboubi said, "but he said no because since he represents the University, he could never sign something as an individual."
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