Faith & ValuesSATURDAY February 17, 2001
Crossing the racial divide
PURSUING HARMONY AMONG ALL PEOPLE, SOME BAHA'I FAMILIES INTENTIONALLY MOVE TO NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE THEY ARE AN ETHNIC MINORITY.
They bought a three-bedroom home in south DeKalb. "We made a conscious decision to reverse white flight," said Sarah Streiff, 53.
Bruce and Josie Reynolds also chose to be in the minority nine years ago when they were ready to upgrade to a better house. The Reynoldses, who are black, settled into a majority-white Marietta subdivision.
"I know that we are to try to create harmony and equality amongst mankind," said Bruce Reynolds, 55. "That's kind of my mission, to do that."
The Streiffs and the Reynoldses are members of the Baha'i Faith, a religion founded in the mid-1800s that now has more than 5 million followers worldwide. It emphasizes racial unity, even to the point of encouraging interracial marriage. Although there is no specific program to require Baha'is to integrate neighborhoods, many do as a matter of conscience, said Ellen Wheeler, a national spokeswoman for Baha'is in the United States.
"The elimination of prejudice of all kinds is a basic Baha'i principle," Wheeler said. "Racial prejudice is our most challenging issue, so for Baha'is in the United States, it's one issue we go out of our way to resolve. Having personal contact is one of the most effective ways of creating positive change regarding racial prejudice."
Baha'is base their beliefs on the teachings of a man born into a wealthy Persian family in 1817 who took the name Baha'u'llah, meaning "Glory of God." Baha'is believe God has come through many different messengers, from Abraham to Zoroaster, and that Baha'u'llah, who died in 1892, was sent by God to achieve world peace and unity. In recent years, the Baha'i community of the United States has launched a major campaign to promote racial harmony.
The Streiffs and the Reynoldses are careful not to downplay their struggles with integration.
Both Streiffs are public school teachers in predominantly black schools, although Jeff is currently on sabbatical from teaching special education and English as a second language to study instructional technology at Fort Valley State University. Sarah uses the Montessori method in a class of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds at DeKalb County's Midway Elementary School.
In both work and neighborhood interaction, "I've blown it big-time sometimes," Jeff said. "I have said things that were taken in ways I didn't mean them."
But when you get to know and trust people, misunderstandings can be cleared up, he said.
"At first when we moved here, I was afraid at night by myself," Sarah Streiff confessed. "I carried with me the stereotype. Sometimes, if I was out walking and came head-on with a black man, I would have a kind of fear." She began to smile, and got smiles in return.
Some young black men who cut through the Streiffs' yard to South Hairston Road have become friends. They stop to eat when the family is cooking out, or just to visit.
Prejudice still shows up
Meanwhile, the Reynoldses, who have three grown children, say they still encounter prejudice sometimes. One neighbor, apparently resentful of their presence, refuses to speak.
"I recognize that racism is born out of ignorance," said Josie Reynolds, 52. "The older I get, the more keenly aware I am of the racism that goes on.... Mine is a hope and a commitment to work through the struggle and bring more people in line with the principles of the oneness of mankind."
The families were drawn to Baha'ism largely because of its teachings on racial unity.
Josie Reynolds, a personnel development specialist for IBM, was the only adult in either family who was raised in the faith. Growing up in a small all-black township outside Detroit, she attended Baha'i events as a child. "I was involved in activities that caused me to be in a diverse environment all the time," she said. "From where I was raised, the need to intersperse and live in diverse communities was clear to me. From my background, I knew it was important for me as an African-American Baha'i to get involved in communities I could add diversity to."
Her husband, Bruce, a car salesman, was baptized a Lutheran but his parents never attended church.
"The main thing that I found in the Baha'i Faith that really got my attention was the diversity that was involved in the religion," he said. "I had always gone to church as the most segregated day of our lives. Either you go to an all-white church or an all-black church. It's still that way right here in Georgia. Then I heard the teachings of Baha'u'llah --- oneness of humanity, equality of men and women."
Sarah Streiff, who grew up in the Episcopal Church, was a student in Chattanooga's public school system during its integration and was a teacher there during court-enforced busing. While coping with the tensions of racial division, she noticed neighbors on Signal Mountain who had "a sea of humanity flowing through their house." They were Baha'i.
Her family never talked negatively about another race, she said. In fact, her mother was shunned after refusing at a PTA meeting to vote to back segregation, and Sarah resigned from her sorority because it refused to admit black or Jewish members. But she had never experienced ethnic diversity as she saw it in her Baha'i neighbors' lives. She decided to investigate.
Jeff, a former Catholic who once considered entering the priesthood, describes himself as "oblivious to the whole issue" of race as a college student, but he began to pay attention in the Army during the Vietnam War.
"I had a real good black friend, but black power was the rage, and it swept through," he said. "This guy completely turned. He wouldn't have anything to do with me. That hurt."
He came to Baha'ism at Boise State University in his hometown after completing his military service. "I was very attracted to the spiritual teaching," he said. "The oneness of the human family is pivotal to all Baha'i teaching."
The Streiffs met in graduate school at National University in Southern California. They married in 1981, reciting the required Baha'i vow, "We will all, verily, abide by the will of God," in a hillside park at sunset.
After finishing graduate school, they taught for several years in Dalton, where Jeff joined the NAACP and sang in the Martin Luther King choir. "Those guys didn't know what to make of me," he said. "They told me they were wondering if I was a plant."
Once he gained their trust, the NAACP leaders made him co-chair of the town's annual King celebration.
Then with three young sons, the Streiffs decided their children needed to experience a culture outside America. They spent most of the time between 1990 and 1997 as teachers in mainland China. "We were the diversity in China," Sarah said.
They achieved their purpose. All three sons are fluent in Chinese and comfortable with the Chinese culture. From their time in China, the Streiffs realized that to understand a culture, you have to live as part of it --- an understanding that helped inform their decision about where to live when they came to Atlanta.
As a student in the magnet school of Southwest DeKalb High School, their son, Jordan, 16, admits that at first it was difficult to return to American culture and to establish himself in a school where he is one of a handful of white students.
"I've adapted," he said. "It's not much of a problem making friends across racial lines, because it's the only choice I had." He has become known as something of a hip-hop artist. One friend even swears he must be black.
"He's been accepted extremely well," said his father.
Middle son Micah, 14, and youngest son Cory, 11, are also comfortable in their neighborhood, although both have had some interesting experiences. Attending the Million Family March in Washington with some black friends, Micah became the cause of a shouting match when a black vendor referred to him as a "cracker" and refused to sell him an African flag. His black friends came to his defense.
And Cory recently heard a common racial epithet and asked his parents what it meant.
The 'heart level'
The Streiffs feel that they are beginning to understand the difficulties of being in a minority, and also to make some inroads into racial understanding.
"Sometimes living here is isolating," said Sarah. "There are subgroups of people who have bonded together for survival. They greet each other as 'brother' and 'sister.' I don't get the same greeting. When someone calls me 'sister,' they don't know how good it makes me feel."
"The bottom line is that I strive to really know on a heart level what I know on an intellectual level," said Jeff, "that we're all created from the same dust.... The biggest reason we moved here was so our boys wouldn't grow up with the ignorance and conditioning I grew up with."
A faith with roots in Persia
©Copyright 2001, The Atlanta Journal & Constitution