Published Wednesday, May 23, 2001
Faithful celebrate new garden
In a nation edging toward war, a relatively small religious group celebrated the opening of a sacred terrace garden Tuesday, a symbol of what heaven on earth could be like when people work together in peace.
The formal debut of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel, a 19-tier lush garden that leads to the tomb of one of the faith's early prophets, was an emotional occasion for followers of Baha'i in South Florida and throughout the world.
Some who gathered in Haifa for the event or watched the ceremony via live telecast were moved to tears. For Baha'i followers, the terraces, cut into the side of Mount Carmel, are the fulfillment of a religious prophecy, and a tribute to the oneness of mankind, the central teaching of the faith.
``This is when the Baha'is go public,'' said Valerie Ferguson of Miami, choking back tears at a telecast of the ceremony at Florida International University. ``A lot of people don't know about the faith. These gardens are for the world. This proves what we are capable of.''
It took $250 million in donations to build the garden terraces and two other administrative buildings lauded at the dedication.
The ceremony came on the eve of a holy day for the faith. Today, Baha'is celebrate the Declaration of the Bab, the anniversary of their prophet Bab's pronouncement of the coming of a messenger of God with revelations for the world. That messenger, the Baha'u'llah, founded the faith in the 1860s.
Leaders in the religion are counting on the edifice, which is in the seat of the Universal House of Justice much like the Vatican is to Catholics, to boost the profile of the Baha'is. There are some 145,000 Baha'is in the United States, including more than 7,600 in Florida.
``They don't have problems in Israel, just anonymity, really,'' said Nathan Katz, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Florida International University.
Baha'is believe in one God and that the prophet Baha'u'llah, who was born in 1817 in Iran, follows a line of divine messengers sent by God that include Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad.
The writings of Baha'u'llah are the heart of the faith. The communal life is based on a 19-month calendar with 19 days and four left over for exchanging gifts and other hospitality. Worship includes daily prayer, pilgrimages and fasting. Baha'is follow a code of conduct which forbids drinking alcohol, premarital sex and adultery, among other things. As important as prayer are the social teachings of the faith, which cover principles of equal rights for women, and breaking down of barriers of race.
Baha'is do not have clergy or monastic orders.
Followers explore the faith for themselves and occasionally meet to discuss the teachings in sessions called ``deepenings,'' mostly held in the homes of other Baha'i, community halls, or at meetings that occur every 19 days to address spiritual and administrative issues.
There are 63 spiritual assemblies in Florida. The region's flock is organized into 13 spiritual assemblies in Broward, eight in Miami-Dade and six in Palm Beach County.
Many of its converts left other faiths.
Teresa Gross Kelly, a radiologist at Miami Children's Hospital, and former Episcopalian, became a Baha'i after facing prejudice because of her Mexican and black roots. ``As a minority, I was subjected to a lot of racism. I believe that mankind is one. Our purpose for living is to know and love God.''
©Copyright 2001, Miami Herald