By SHALWAH EVANS
Important holy days are quickly approaching for the Baha’i community and while the Mission District center has been criticized for its low key events, members have begun to go door to door to attract new members.
“It’s the only way to get to people,” said Peggy Lawrence, administrative assistant to the local spiritual assembly. “We have something very important to tell people.”
As part of the Baha’i principles of universal literacy and the belief that every man can read the teachings for self, there is no clergy. Membership reaches more than 5 million worldwide with India having the greatest population of 150,000 in the United States and a community of about 240 gathers at the Valencia Street center in the Mission District, San Francisco’s only congregation.
On October 20 members celebrated the Birth of Bab, a Messenger of God and one who paved the way for Baha’u’llah, the founder, who declared his mission as a Messenger in 1866 in the Middle East. Because days begin at sundown the celebration took place the eve of October 19, and consisted of a small service beginning at 7:30 with music, prayers, refreshments, and a reading from the Life of the Bab.
“There’s only one God and we all worship the same God,” Peggy said. “Now there are different ways we worship Him, but it’s the same God. So we welcome any and everyone who would like to come.”
A convert, Lawrence said that many people have the Baha’i beliefs of equal rights and brotherhood in their hearts but are unaware that a community exists that shares their thoughts and outlook. She joined after she’d met another Baha’i and felt a connection she never felt as a Catholic. She said ritual dominated and took precedence over the spiritual in the latter. She has been a declared Baha’i member for 15 years.
Because Baha’u’llah was born into a Muslim family in 1817, Bahaíi religion is considered to have emerged “from an Islamic context.” It is, however, an independent religion with its own teachings and scriptures. Lawrence described the tablets The Hidden Words, a scripture for everyday reading, as “the gem of all gems” and gleamed with pride trying to remember the names of all the scriptures available in English. The most sacred book is the Kitab-i-Agdas, or Book of Laws, written by Baha’u’llah.
There are Baha’i temples and centers all over the Bay Area, including in San Mateo, the East Bay, and Marin. The Baha’i faith began in 1844 in the Middle East and began to rapidly spread. It finally reached the United States in the 1890ís and spread vastly by way of Thornton Chase in Chicago, the first American Baha’i.
Lawrence remembered last yearís celebrations because a visitor from a Baha’i community outside the country was under whelmed by what the Mission center had planned.
She laughed. “‘Sorry we weren’t anymore exciting than your community at home'” I told him.”
One major issue they face, Peggy said, is people thinking that because the religion encourages free exploration of how to live there are no rules. She said many are mistaken that it’s a “free” religion where anyone can do whatever they want but that isn’t the case. Some people have shown no commitment or real investment of time or thought into the community. She explained that there are laws, organization, structure and an abundance of scriptures, called tablets.
November 12 commemorates the Birth of Baha’u’llah which is often celebrated with a birthday cake, musical presentations, choral productions and readings. November 26 celebrates the Day of the Covenant, a holy day sometimes noted at home only.
“This religion–it just makes sense for this day and age,” she said.