Photograph by Jacqueline Ramseyer
Welcome Center: Every Bahá'í member who walks through the door of the Bahá'í Center in Willow Glen is greeted with a hug, kiss or warm handshake.
One God, one human race is belief at The Bahá'í Center
Religion's SJ center is located in Willow
By Moryt Milo
By Moryt Milo
For most of the Willow Glen community, the little church sitting on Willow Street, a few blocks east of Lincoln Avenue, is a mystery. The sign out front says The Bahá'í Center, but many people still wonder what Bahá'í, the world's youngest religion, is.
What it's not is a sect or outgrowth of another religion. Although its prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, and early followers came from Islamic society, the Bahá'í faith is a separate religion with its own laws and scriptures, and a following of more than 5 million people worldwide.
The fundamental principle of the Bahá'í faith is unity and oneness of humanity. The main elements of its teachings are the belief in one God and one human race, the elimination of extremes between poverty and wealth, full equality of the sexes, elimination of all forms of prejudice, universal education, a balance between science and nature and an acceptance that "all world religions have been stages in the revelation of God's will."
"One of the biggest misconceptions about the Bahá'í faith is you can keep your religion and join, like a club," says Greg Weiler, 47, the center's youth workshop director.
Weiler, who was raised Catholic and considered joining the priesthood says, "The reason so many people from different religions join the Bahá'í faith is because they found there aren't any conflicts. They don't have to give up what they learned as a Christian or Jew to become Bahá'í because we teach all other religions. It has a very ecumenical feel."
To study and understand all religions is a fundamental principle in the Bahá'í faith. It is taught to children in Sunday school and studied among followers. Weiler says the faith is trying to bring about changes in people's hearts throughout the world.
"I think that's the basic goal of all religions," he says. "But in the Bahá'í faith it is much more in the forefront of who we are and what we are all about."
The Bahá'í Center in San Jose, 945 Willow St., has 300 members, some coming from as far away as Redwood City, Fremont and Milpitas.
Julia Carranza, a Bahá'í member from Redwood City whose children attend Sunday school and the youth workshop, says, "It is important to have that spiritual connection with the community."
She says many of the members' children are from households that are interracial.
"I am from England and my husband is from Peru," Carranza says. "Our religion teaches unity and diversity. It is a tough lesson, but important in understanding tolerance."
One of the Sunday school teachers, Willow Glen resident Jean Quinn, 40, says the Bahá'í faith spiritually fulfills her in ways Catholicism didn't, which is the reason she converted. She and her husband had difficulty accepting Catholic doctrine and its philosophies that she says can condemn non-Catholics, so they went "church shopping." It was the credibility of the Bahá'í faith, as the only religion that can authenticate the written word of its prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, which she says aided her decision to become a Bahá'í.
Young Faithful: Members of the Bahá'í Youth Workshop at the San Jose Bahá'í Center pose in the center's T-shirts.
This young religion first emerged during the mid-1800s through a doctrine that broke away from the Islamic faith. This doctrine was called the Bábí Faith, founded by a young merchant born in 1819, who took the name "Báb" meaning "gate" or "door" in Arabic.
The Báb came from a wealthy merchant family, yet he was recognized for his generosity to the poor and his integrity within the business community. He was seen as extraordinarily wise and, at age 25, announced he'd been chosen to help prepare the way for the second messenger of God--in many religions known as the Messiah. He told followers this messenger would be greater than himself and bring forth a new era of peace and prosperity.
His message spread rapidly throughout Persia--what is present-day Iran--and religious opposition and persecution followed.
The Báb replaced certain Muslim laws with new tenets that included equity for women and the poor and the promotion of education, useful science and a high moral standard. It was a message Persian society anxiously embraced, as it looked for ways to break out of philosophies that discriminated against women and the poor and didn't value learning and science.
As the Báb's following grew stronger, the established religions called him a heretic and ordered his execution. On July 9, 1850, he was sentenced to death. In a recorded account by a British foreign officer and according to Bahá'í religious texts, the Báb and one of his followers were suspended by ropes against a wall and shot at by 750 Armenian soldiers. When the smoke cleared, the follower was "uninjured and untouched," and the Báb was found back in his cell giving "final instructions to one of his followers," according the Bahá'í texts.
The Báb, having completed his instructions, was taken out a second time, with his first companion, to be executed. The Armenian troops refused to fire, and a Muslim squad was ordered to shoot. Although the bodies of the Báb and his follower were shattered, their faces remained untouched, according to Bahá'í texts.
For almost 60 years, the Báb's body was secretly transferred to different locations to prevent its theft. In 1909 it was interned on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, on what is now the main Bahá'í headquarters--the exact spot pointed out by the Báb's predicted prophet, Bahá'u'lláh.
It was the teachings of the Báb that lead the way for the prophet Bahá'u'lláh, who was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1817. The son of a wealthy government minister, the Bahá'u'lláh was brought up as an aristocrat but chose not to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead he devoted himself to philanthropy. By the 1840s he became known as "the father of the poor" and a leading advocate for the Bábí movement.
After the Báb was executed, the Bahá'u'lláh was arrested and brought to Tehran. The only thing that saved him from executionwas his family's political status and Western protesters. He was locked up in the infamous "Black Pit" prison in Persia, where authorities hoped he would die. Instead, the "dungeon became the birthplace of a new religious revelation," according to Bahá'í historical accounts.
Four months later the Bahá'u'lláh was released and banished from his native homeland. Although he initially lived in Baghdad, he left and went into a two-year seclusion in the mountains of Kurdistan. At the urging of his Bábí followers, he returned to Baghdad. But as his teachings of unity, equality and appreciation of human diversity spread amongst Persian citizens, the government authorities felt threatened and forced him out of their country.
For 40 years he was persecuted and forced to wander. He was then sent to the penal city Acre, where he lived the remaining 24 years of his life. During his time at Acre, he created what his followers consider his most important work. It was during this period that he outlined the central laws and principles of the Bahá'í faith.
Bahá'u'lláh passed away in May 1892, and his remains rest in a restored mansion outside the city of Acre.
Various Voices: Bahá'í member Zohreh Samadani sings a Persian prayer at a Wednesday evening prayer meeting. At any typical Bahá'í gathering, prayers are read by members in a variety of languages--English, Spanish, French and Vietnamese.
Bahá'u'lláh's fundamental principles of unity and appreciation of diversity are still viewed as a threat to the political structure in Iran. Several teenagers in the Sunday Bahá'í youth workshop said their families, while living in Iran, either practiced their faith in secret, were executed for their beliefs or escaped persecution by fleeing the country.
In addition to the religion's progressive spiritual philosophies, it also has a unique governing system. Unlike most Judeo-Christian religions which have clergymen, the Bahá'í faith has none. On a local and national level, nine individuals are voted in annually to a body called the spiritual assembly. There is no campaigning or nominations. The only requirement is the individual be over 21 and receive the most votes. These individuals have administrative duties and also provide counsel to members.
"You could have a Ph.D., a ditch digger and a doctor all serving together," says Jim Jam, one of the spiritual assembly members from the San Jose Bahá'í community, who has served for more than 30 years.
Jam also says that donations and funding are received differently in the Bahá'í faith. They do not accept any money from non-Bahá'í--all money comes from Bahá'í only, so they are not obligated to anyone. The amount and the individual always remain anonymous, which maintains their ideal of universal participation.
"When you give in the Bahá'í community," Jam says, "it is between you, the treasurer and God."
When the Bahá'í headquarters, located in Haifa, Israel, was being planned, donations were sent from all over the world. In 10 years, the Bahá'í collected more than $250 million but "no one knew if the money came from selling chickens in Africa or through large checks," Jam says.
Members prefer the term "devotional" when referring to services at their interfaith gatherings. On Wednesday evenings, Bahá'ís gather in the Willow Glen center and walk up to the podium to read prayers and scriptures. On Sundays, the children and adults gather from 10 to 10:30 a.m. to listen to music, devotional readings and announcements. Then the children and adults go to classes where various issues and topics are discussed. The youth also have workshops on Sunday afternoons.
Mei-Ling Leong, a 28-year-old workshop coordinator who is Chinese and Australian, calls her workshop youth an "army of justice upholders."
"Workshop is an amazing tool not only for the youth to come together, but to understand what they would like society to be," she says.
The Bahá'í's holiest days are the anniversary of the birthday of the Báb, Oct. 20, and the anniversary of the birth of the Bahá'u'lláh, Nov. 12. They also celebrate the Day of the Covenant near Thanksgiving.
Rollins Winslow, a Bahá'í member and converted Catholic, offered the following story as an example of the faith.
"There was a young boy who passed away in Israel. His mother was Christian but his father was Jewish. The father wanted to bury his son in a Jewish cemetery, but according to Jewish law he was not allowed because the boy's mother was not Jewish. The Orthodox Christians gave him permission to bury the boy in their cemetery but only if he had a Christian burial, which the father did not want. So he buried the boy in a Bahá'í cemetery where the father was allowed to bury his son as he wished."
Interfaith devotionals are held at the center on Wednesday
evenings from 7:15-8:30 p.m. For more information, call 408.277.0510 or
©Copyright 2001, Willow Glen Resident
©Copyright 2001, Willow Glen Resident