Baha'i conference is for all faiths
200 workshops planned for four-day gathering in Milwaukee
By TOM HEINEN
Leaders of major Christian denominations and other faiths throughout the Milwaukee area are not the only ones who have been invited to participate. Invitations also have gone out to 10,000 non-Baha'is across the country.
And instead of dealing with internal matters or focusing narrowly on a few issues, this conference will include at least 200 workshops designed to strengthen Baha'i communities and the societies in which they live.
Most workshop topics fall under a few general categories: marriage and family; equality of men and women; racial unity; human rights and social justice; health; spirituality; and building strong communities.
A cornerstone of the four-day conference will be a presentation by Robert C. Henderson, secretary general of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States in Wilmette, Ill., on the faith's new five-year community development plan. His talk is titled "How Do We Build the Kingdom of God on Earth?"
"Normally, we would have a Baha'i conference and just the Baha'is would come," said Tim Tyson, U.S. spokesman for the Baha'i faith. "This is designed to be open to anybody who wants to come.
"What's truly unique about this, and this is a real paradigm shift, is that this conference is specifically designed to demonstrate not only to the Baha'is but to the general public the community building aspects of a religion.
Slightly more than 8,000 people, mainly Baha'is, have pre-registered for the conference, which runs from Thursday through July 1. About 1,000 or more could register on site, said Jim Beasley, a spokesman for Baha'is in southeastern Wisconsin. Registration and keynote speeches are at the U.S. Cellular Arena, but workshops are spread out among various downtown hotels and the Midwest Express Center.
One of the workshops, "Unity in Motion," is drawn from a weekly karate class that is held at the Milwaukee Baha'i Center on W. Vliet St. Class members, at least half of whom are not Baha'is, range in age from about 14 to 60, Beasley said.
Although the teacher has a black belt, the emphasis is not as much on martial arts as it is on spiritual principles, self-discipline and how to avoid a confrontation, he said.
"Most of these workshops are like that, not necessarily officially sanctioned things, but it's the old 'think outside of the box, what are you doing that's never been tried before,' " Beasley said.
The Baha'i faith traces its roots back to an Iranian nobleman who is known today as Baha'u'llah, which means "The Glory of God". In 1863, he declared he was God's newest messenger, the fulfillment of prophecies from past religions and the bearer of new laws for modern society.
Baha'is believe that there is only one God, that there is only one race and that traditional barriers of race, class, creed and nation are breaking down in a way that will produce a unified world civilization.
The Baha'i faith prohibits its communities from accepting donations from non-Baha'is and from proselytizing, but they can share information about their faith in a low-key way with those who seek it.
Although its international headquarters is in Haifa, Israel, the faith has spread from the Middle East across much of the world. There are 5 million or more believers in more than 190 countries.
About 144,000 Baha'is live in the U.S., including an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 in Wisconsin, most in southeastern Wisconsin. Some of the first Baha'i communities in the U.S. were established in Kenosha and Milwaukee in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
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