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A match made in heaven

By Eileen E. Flynn


Sunday, August 17, 2003

The Rev. Ralph Daniels is sturdily built. He wears worn suede loafers and a silver cross on a leather string. He has a gray mustache and a resonating voice.

On a steamy summer evening, he stands in the cool of his East Austin sanctuary and thanks an unlikely pairing of two groups: members of his predominantly African American Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church and members of the Baha'i Center of Austin.

Believers of different faiths, the Baha'is and Baptists have been meeting weekly this summer to make connections that overcome religious and racial barriers.

Daniels gets to the heart of that challenge right away when he asks, "What separates us when we have supposedly the love of God in us?"

The people listen attentively.

"If you don't have the love of God in you, you won't be able to build the relationship," Daniels tells them.

During the hourlong session, those gathered read from the Bible and the Baha'i holy book, ask questions and pray. Afterward, they eat enchiladas and cake in the church basement and talk, many with the ease of longtime friends.

Two years ago, Daniels met Baha'is while working with Austin Clergy Committed to Racial Reconciliation and invited them to services at Zion Hill. Members of the two groups began forming friendships through children's activities.

Eventually Daniels and Jane Froelich, a Baha'i who serves on the racial reconciliation committee, decided to learn more about each other's beliefs. One group brings the Bible; the other brings the Baha'i holy writings.

As is the case in Austin, Baha'i congregations tend to be multicultural. The religion comes from Persia; believers say God sent his most recent messenger, Baha'u'llah, in the mid-19th century to preach unity and proclaim that the world's religions are all stages in God's revelation to humanity. Today, an estimated 6 million Baha'i followers, who emphasize racial equality, represent hundreds of nationalities.

The Baha'i-Baptist partnership is one of several interfaith efforts that often take place with little fanfare. A Catholic-Muslim alliance and an East Austin drive, led by clergy members, to help people learn Spanish are two other projects under way to build relationships between groups that might otherwise feel alienated from each other.

Khotan Shahbazi-Harmun, a fifth generation Baha'i, moved to the United States from Iran when she was 12. She likened the group's members to "spiritual archaeologists digging to find unity."

As a Persian, she said, she is neither black nor white and is determined to remove what she sees as artificial racial boundaries.

"It's a spiritual fact," Shahbazi-Harmun said. "We are one."

Though Christians might strive for the same attitude about race, the Rev. Louis Jackson, associate pastor at Zion Hill, recognizes that it's seldom put into practice.

"The most segregated day of the week is on Sunday," he said. "Everybody's segregated. Blacks over here, whites over here, Spanish over here.

"Some of the people at our church still don't understand," he added. "They think (Baha'is) don't think the way we think. God made us all. We're all the same, see."

It helps that Baha'is honor Jesus Christ.

"Make no doubt about it: We believe in every word of the Bible," Baha'i Allison Ashley told the group at a recent session. "We believe Jesus was the only begotten son of God, and we are united."

But for some, it's no less confusing that they also believe all religions are one and celebrate Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, or that Baha'is are more inclined to use the word "mistake" instead of "sin."

At a meeting last month, Daniels asked how many of those present were sinners. Unlike the Baha'is, all of the Zion Hill members raised their hands immediately.

The language may be different, Ashley conceded, but "make no mistake about it, we're all sinners," she said, drawing laughter that eased the moment's tension.

Being up front about differences and similarities is crucial, Daniels said, adding, "We want to go away from these work studies trusting more."

If trust is at the heart of strong relationships, so is clear communication, said the Rev. Beverly Sonnier, a minister at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. As one of several East Austin clergy members who teamed with Austin Community College to offer conversational Spanish classes to the community, Sonnier said she was concerned that her church wasn't meeting the needs of Spanish-speaking residents.

This summer, people began gathering at churches to study Spanish. The classes will continue this fall with a new course offered at First Baptist Church, starting Sept. 15.

"We are seeing that we're not only learning, but we're also bridging gaps," Sonnier said. "We're also forming lasting relationships. This thing carries over from the faith community into our regular communities in which we live."

In the case of a partnership between Catholics and Muslims, the main hurdle was faith. The two communities emphasized their common belief in God and set to work on a common goal: helping the homeless.

Earlier this month, they delivered food and basic necessities through a ministry sponsored by St. John Neumann Church called Mobile Loaves and Fishes. On Aug. 10, Muslim and Catholic clerics held a joint service at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Susan Wills, executive director of Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, an organization of local congregations, said such efforts are successful because of the city's variety of faith traditions and open-minded clergy and lay people.

"I think that Austin is a very special place for community-building," Wills said. "We recognize the diversity, and instead of being afraid of it, we're embracing it. These are all examples of how we're going to be a better and stronger community, not just now but in the future."; 445-3812

©Copyright 2003, The Austin American-Statesman (TX, USA)

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