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A religion for all of mankind DuPage Baha'is preach about their faith of unity and acceptance

Jan 19, 2003 - Chicago Daily Herald
Author(s): Nancy Luebke Daily Herald Correspondent

The Baha'i community is growing in DuPage County, and members are embarking on building the religious community's first local worship CENTER.

The reasons are varied.

Many are like Antoinette Hummer of Lombard, who says the faith's emphasis on ending racial prejudice led her to join in 1971. Other Baha'is seemed to be living just as she wanted to live.

"We still need unity of mankind," said Hummer, who says she is distressed by the hatred between Christians, Muslims and Jews around the world. Baha'i offers a philosophy that is especially appropriate after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said.

In keeping with this emphasis on acceptance, Baha'i provided her with an alternative to religions that she perceived as preaching "follow the teachings of this religion or go to Hell," Hummer said.

Though the faith is not especially well-known in the suburbs, Lisle Baha'i leader Cher Gupta-Fletcher says it is the second-most- widespread faith in the world after Christianity. It is established in 235 countries and territories worldwide.

It is best-known by the distinctive Baha'i house of worship for all of North America in Wilmette, a national historic landmark. Its stunning architecture attracts about 250,000 visitors annually.

The DuPage group meets weekly in a member's home and has maintained a small center in Wood Dale.

Plans are under way for a new worship, social and education center to serve 600 Baha'is in the West and Northwest suburbs.

Officials do not yet know how long it will take to build. That will depend on how quickly funds can be raised for the estimated $1 million project.

The facility on the east side of Prospect Avenue, about one half- mile south of Thorndale Avenue, will serve people from 20 communities in an area bordered by DuPage County on the east, Elgin and Aurora on the west, Naperville on the south and Buffalo Grove on the north.

The centers primarily are used for holy day celebrations, lectures and Sunday school.

The center will feature classrooms, a multipurpose room, a library, a common area and a kitchen.

To promote unity of people, Hummer and other members of the small Lombard Baha'i community organized a picnic in 1998 for young people in DuPage County promoting racial harmony among people of different ethnic backgrounds.

For the last several years, the group organized annual picnics and workshops to make people more aware of race relations issues and explore solutions.

At the weekly sessions of the Lombard Baha'i community, members discuss issues of concern that still are centered on racial and gender unity in Lombard, DuPage County and the world. These concerns are a direct extension of their Baha'i beliefs that all mankind is family.

While the religion spans the globe, cultural differences are addressed.

"We are not asked to give up our mother tongue," said Gupta- Fletcher. "Our culture can come through our faith and can become a way that we express our faith."

The local Baha'i presence goes back to the last century with its first written mention in 1893 when members were part of the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago, part of the World's Fair.

Gupta-Fletcher said the faith started May 23, 1844, in Persia, now Iran, when a young merchant declared himself "the Bab," which means the Gate in Arabic. He preached that he would become the portal through which the revelation of God would appear.

In 1850, the Bab was executed by Iranian officials because religious leaders saw him as a threat. Followers of the Bab were persecuted by Iranians, and many were put in prison, including Baha'u'llah, who founded the Baha'i faith.

After serving his prison sentence, Baha'u'llah was exiled and went to Bagdad with his family and followers.

From there, he traveled to Constantinople, eventually ending up in present-day northern Israel. He spent years under house arrest in this area, the penal colony for the Ottoman empire and essentially a walled-prison city.

Today, this area is Haifa, Israel, the world center for the Baha'i faith, housing the administrative and spiritual center where the Bab is buried.

The principles of tolerance and humanity that Baha'u'llah taught caused his persecution and exile.

Those principles include the oneness of humanity with one creator, equality of women and men, elimination of prejudice of all kinds as well as extremes of wealth and poverty.

The faith also provided independent investigation of truth, so each Baha'i is responsible for his or her relationship with God.

"In the 1800s, even one of these ideas was radical," said Gupta- Fletcher. "Baha'i was founded on the idea of unity - God is one, humanity is one, we all have one creator. Religion is one - God created all religion."

There is a Baha'u'llah quote: "Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the prophets of God is one and the same." To follow this belief today, Baha'is interact with society at large through activities and organizations that focus on issues principle to their religion.

In Lisle, for instance, the Baha'i community organized a summer parade to promote its views to the wider community at large.

To reach out to others, local Baha'is join groups such as the DuPage Interfaith Community, the DuPage Voice for Racial Justice and the religious issues lecture series at Benedictine University in Lisle.

Baha'is believe in a progressive revelation of prophets. First there was Krishna, then Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, The Bab and Baha'u'llah. These prophets represent a progressive spiritual training, so each reveals the principles of God at that time.

"The message from God gets more and more difficult and more developed for each advancing stage in the spiritual progression," Gupta-Fletcher said.

- Daily Herald staff reporters contributed to this article.

©Copyright 2003, Chicago Daily Herald (IL, USA)

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