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Bahá'is preach equality of religion, humankind

Jun 26 2001 12:00AM  By Tim O'Donnell  Staff writer

For many of us, our faith is something we are born into. Our parents raised us to worship under the guidelines of a specific religion, sect or denomination. Later on in life, we accept those beliefs on our own terms, and pass them on to our own children.

Through family tradition and spreading beliefs to new people, the world's major religions have spanned thousands of years and millions upon millions of people. The enduring nature of religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism has made their beliefs and practices commonplace in our society.

But when a religion is relatively new, the beliefs may be unknown and the practices obscure.

For many, the ideals and practices of Bahá'ism are just that - though the word "Bahá'i" may seem vaguely familiar, the ideas it stands for are unfamiliar.

But even locally, the 158-year-old religion is attracting more and more people. In the Waukesha area, there are anywhere from 100 to 200 Bahá'is. Nationally, there are an estimated 140,000. Worldwide, between 3 million and 4 million people call themselves Bahá'is.

The Milwaukee area will soon get a firsthand look at the religion and its followers as the Bahá'i National Convention comes to the city.

"There are more than 8,000 people registered now, and with door registrations, we'll easily hit 9,000," said Jim Beasley, a city of Pewaukee Bahá'i who is working on the public relations team for the convention. The event begins this Thursday, June 28, and runs for four days at U.S. Cellular Arena and Milwaukee Auditorium.

Throughout Waukesha County, Bahá'i communities in places such as Hartland, Pewaukee, Sussex/Lisbon, North Prairie and Oconomowoc are doing what they can to help out with the convention.

"All of us find ourselves pretty busy these days," Beasley said. "You'll get an e-mail saying, 'We need 350 chairs to seat kindergarten-age children. Find them. Get them from a school, whatever.'"

Though not all of the Bahá'is in the area are helping out with the convention, that spirit of community and togetherness embodies some of the core beliefs of the Bahá'i religion.

Beasley said the heart of the religion is most easily understood in a song that Bahá'i children sing: "God is one; man is one; all religions agree. When everyone learns the three onenesses, we'll have world unity."

"Theologically, you can't get much more profound than that - the idea that everyone worships the same God, that all humanity, male, female, all races, are equal in the sight of God," Beasley said.

While other religions may see their beliefs as the one true path to salvation, Bahá'is feel that all religions are right, because they are all after the same goal.

"The most basic Bahá'i tenet is that really all religions come from the same source, the same God. There is really just one religion," Beasley said. "Bahá'is see religion as a progressive thing that's been revealed to humankind over time, and Bahá'i is kind of the last chapter in that book."

Coupled with the acceptance of all religions is the acceptance of all people, no matter what race, creed, culture or gender they are.

Though much more widely accepted now, those ideas of racial and gender equality were considerably groundbreaking more than 150 years ago.

"Our claim to fame in the past has always been our approach to racism. But when you get out into Lake Country, racism doesn't get to be a big issue, because we don't have that much diversity," said Ken Klabunde, a member of the Bahá'i community in the city of Delafield. "But if you go into the large cities, the Bahá'is are known for evening out tensions."

The ideas behind Bahá'ism come from the faith's savior figure, who has been given the title of Baha'u'llah, which means the light or the glory of God.

Baha'u'llah began preaching both the equality of humans and the equality of religion in Iran in the mid-1800s. His beliefs caused him to be imprisoned or under house arrest for nearly 40 years.

Bahá'is see Baha'u'llah as the return of Christ, the reincarnation of Buddha and the Rainbow Warrior sought in Native American religions. They feel that Baha'u'llah is the fulfillment of all religions' prophecies.

"For people who are looking for a regular, orderly prophecy or fulfillment, Baha'u'llah is whatever it is that they were looking for," Beasley said.

For Klabunde, a fulfillment of the prophecies he was taught growing up is what drew him to Bahá'i.

Raised a strict Lutheran, Klabunde was not even allowed to dance as a child. The order and strictness of his beliefs just did not sit with him.

"My mind didn't follow the traditional church service," he said.

When he met his then future wife, she lent him a book on Bahá'i. After finishing that one, Klabunde read another, which examined the life of Baha'u'llah in terms of the Bible.

"While he was in prison, he made a swing through the Mideast. If you read the Bible and look at the places (Baha'u'llah) went, not because he wanted to, but because he was forced to go, he fulfilled the prophecies of the Bible," Klabunde said.

While Klabunde's introduction to Bahá'i came through looking beyond the Bible, Beasley came from a completely different background.

Though raised a Methodist, Beasley questioned religion as a teen, to the point where he considered himself an agnostic.

"I wanted to believe in God, but I didn't understand why the Lutherans and the Methodists and the Baptists and all the different churches had all of these theological differences," he said. "So as a result of that, I decided that it was pretty hard to believe in organized religion, because there was a lot of stuff that didn't seem to be too just and unified."

Despite his beliefs, Beasley went to a Christian college to pursue a career in radio. There, he took several comparative theology classes. These exposed him to religions such as Buddhism and Islam that he had no previous knowledge of.

"I came out of college saying that I think I believe in something, kind of an author or source of the universe," Beasley said. "But I didn't know what to call myself, because I was not just a Christian, and I certainly was not just Islamic, and I was not just Jewish. I thought there's some kind of truth behind all religions; I just didn't know what to call myself."

A few years later, Beasley was working as part of the Civil Air Patrol at Waukesha Airport. When the chaplain did not show up to teach a morality class to teens, Beasley substituted. With his comparative-religion background, and no connection to any religion, he stressed the equality of all religions.

Afterward, another officer asked if he was a Bahá'i. Beasley had not even heard of Bahá'ism, but after reading some books and contemplating, he joined.

"Bahá'i faith is what pulled it all together and allowed me to believe in God," he said.

Stories like Klabunde's and Beasley's are commonplace in Bahá'i communities, since most of the members find Bahá'i on their own.

"In this country, most Bahá'is were probably active Christians, but, there, may have had some basic elements of their faith that bother them, or they wanted to reach out and be more all-embracing," Beasley said.

"Looking at the populations of religions, almost all Christians came from multigenerational Christian families," added Klabunde, "but we're looking at new people coming in on almost a daily basis, because of what the faith is about."

Though a majority of the Bahá'is are the first generation in their families, there are more multigenerational Bahá'i families in this region than in most others across the country. That is because Baha'u'llah's eldest son passed through the area, preaching his father's message, in the early 1900s. Kenosha and Chicago were the first sites of Bahá'i communities.

The idea of family is something that is important to put the pillars of the faith into action.

While other religions rely on a single leader to provide guidance, Bahá'is take the idea of family and form committees of leaders who vote on various issues that come up. Groups of nine community members, selected annually, lead communities on local, regional, statewide, national and international levels.

Though organizational decisions and decisions made about things not covered in Baha'u'llah's writings are voted on by groups, the main focus of the religion is on "individual enlightenment," said Klabunde.

On this token, there are no organized services, no clergy members who lead others in prayer.

"We see those as outward, cultural ways that a religion is practiced, but that's not really the essence of what people believe," said Beasley.

Bahá'i also does not accept contributions from people who are not in the religion, nor do they get involved in politics. Both of these practices are in place to keep outside influences from muddying the faith.

For relatively new followers of a relatively new religion, the Bahá'is are, as any members of any religion, continually internalizing the tenets and beliefs of their faith; however, the newness of Bahá'ism and its strong stance on equality give believers a great opportunity to progress, said Beasley.

"We're struggling like all faith traditions, but one of the things that make it easier for us is that a lot of these things, like the oneness of man and the oneness of religion, are spiritual traditions for us. They're not optional."

©Copyright 2001, ZWire

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