The bicentennial of the birth of Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Baha’i religion will be celebrated on Cape Cod and in Wareham with two events. The world premiere of a film about his life and teachings, entitled “Who Is Bahá'u'lláh?” will be screened on Oct. 21 at the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, and there will be a festival in Onset the following day. These are part of global commemorations which planners hope will introduce this worldwide religion, practiced by some seven million people, to a wider audience.
The secretary for the Baha’i Barnstable Spiritual Assembly, Bette Roberts emailed, “The faith was established here in the 1950s on the Cape by Ethelinda and Harry Merson when he came to assume the position of Superintendent of schools in Falmouth. There are more than 20 Baha’is in Barnstable. Baha’i’s live in Bourne, Brewster, Dennis, Falmouth, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Mashpee, Orleans, Provincetown, and Yarmouth.“
Brewster resident Verlyna Furblur grew up on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. A former nun who taught parochial school in Milwaukee, she was involved in the movement against the war in Vietnam and eventually left the Catholic church.
“When I left the convent my desire to connect with God was still deep. I studied other beliefs including Hinduism and the cosmic consciousness of the 1970s." Renting an apartment in Roxbury from a Baha’i, she discovered that it was a religion which suited her. Moving to the Cape in 1976, her new beliefs would inform her work serving her fellow man as a long-time methadone clinic counselor. Baha’ism she says, augmented her own moral imperative to serve, as well as her Catholic training. “I pray in the morning and then am able to come to work and see the beauty in all the faces there.”
Dennis resident Judith Partelow, mother of three, poet, playwright, actress, and a former member of the Cape Cod Interfaith Council, like Furblur, was a devout Catholic, and considered becoming a nun. At college she began to question her own beliefs and met a group of Baha’i “girls who were so loving and welcoming,” she began to study the writings. “The teachings answered questions I had, and gave me a perspective I’d never had. In 1969, I fell in love with it.”
Robert Ward of Orleans, former president of the Cape Cod Genealogical Society, wanted to become an Episcopal priest, but after attending a Midwest Baptist college, the more traditional forms of religion didn’t work out for him. A lecture after a concert by the rock group Seals and Crofts about Baha’i which the musicians themselves practiced, piqued his curiosity. More of a Toaist, believing the sacred is in everything, aware of the many false prophets calling themselves Messiahs, “something never jelled. But the prophecies and claims of Bahá'u'lláh rang true” he says. “Nothing contradicted his claims.”
About the religion
In Iran in1844, Partelow says, “Bab (‘The Gate’)predicted that the promised one was coming. He was preparing the way for Bahá'u'lláh (‘The Glory of God’)” who had been born in 1817. She believes that as Christ, Moses, Mohammed, and Buddha were prophets for their time, so Bahá'u'lláh is for this age, a continuation, a continuum.
Furblur sees an aspect of continuity. "I still love Christ, but not as the sole 'begotten son,' rather as one of a long line of God’s messengers on earth.”
“Bahá'u'lláh taught that there are many lamps but the Light is the same. He was sent to reiterate eternal truths, create laws for the present time, and bring us back on track,” Partleow says, adding, “The prophets of all religions have brought good teachings. It’s man who has misused them, creating prejudice.”
Bahá'u'lláh wrote 100 volumes which inform Baha’i practice. Partelow says that his son, Abdu'l Baha, “Servant of the Glory,” traveled the world to spread his father’s teachings in the early 1900s. “He was an exemplar.” The last sole so-called “guardian of the faith” was Abdu’l Baha’s grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who died in 1957.
More of a blessed community, than a structured religion, the aim of Baha’i is to unify humanity by eliminating prejudice and racism, by coming together without dogma, rituals, or a theocratic hierarchy. “Baha’i is a practice meant to make you a better person,” letting you better connect with God and practice a daily mindfulness to be kind and loving, and serve others in whatever way you can, large or small, Partelow says. "It’s even a religion for agnostics because it does not believe God is knowable, definable."
Like other Abrahamic religions there are shalt-nots. The No’s are fairly simple, including no alcohol, no partisan politics, and no sex without marriage. But unlike those older belief systems, Furblur says that Baha’i followers respect science. The dictum is “Faith without science is superstition and science without religion is materialism. I am in awe when I fly on an airplane. It’s invisible forces which hold up the plane. Because of science we use our intellects to investigate that world. Science and religion agree.”
Part of the practice is voluntary or “sacrificial” giving. “All of our resources come from a source greater than ourselves,” Furblur says. “We must prioritize our own needs, take care of ourselves, but anything beyond our needs we should give to charity. That giving equalizes the difference between wealth and poverty.” (Giving to the Baha'i Funds is encouraged, but there is no prohibition against giving to any charity. There is no requirement of amounts. It's up to the individual. Only Baha'is can give to Baha’i projects.)
Not just building hospitals or schools, large scale good works, but the faith encourages doing good on a daily basis, Partelow says. “I ask every day, at work, in my community, how can I help this person. What can I do to bring my community together?”
Education is important, Furblur says, “and especially of the girls, for they are the teachers. If there’s not enough money to go around, we are to educate the girls before the boys.” Furblur and Partelow taught their own children, most of whom remain practitioners, some fervently, the precepts of Baha’i: “Unity, gender equality, eliminating prejudice, being strong, striving for excellence, helping others,” Partelow says. “I urged my children to seek out kids at school who were vulnerable and may need a friend.” Above all “be loving,” they all say.
Baha’is have funded tabernacles all over the world in which anyone can worship. They must have nine sides and a dome but they should mirror the culture they are in.
“I must see with my own ears, eyes, and understanding. We have the maturity to connect with God for ourselves,” Furblur says, so there are no leaders or clergy in the faith per se, instead there is a group of nine elected individuals for the faith’s governance at the global level, called The Universal House of Justice and headquartered in Haifa, Israel. There are national and local assemblies of nine as well who help make decisions and give guidance.
Roberts explains further: “Baha’i communities are organized by civic jurisdiction and they elect their Local Spiritual Assembly once they have at least 9 members. Currently, Barnstable is the only community with an elected Spiritual Body. In the past there have been elected Spiritual Assemblies in Yarmouth and Falmouth.”
Ward believes as Bahá'u'lláh predicted, that “now humanity is ready to see earth as one country. It’s God’s plan for us to connect as one, without dissension and disruption.” To this end the Baha’i International Community is represented at the U.N., working with it, their website says, to create policies which will help create a more flourishing global society as mankind comes of age.
Saturday, Oct. 21. “Who Is Bahá'u'lláh?” film. 6 p.m., Cape Cod Museum of Art off Route 6A in Dennis. Invitation only. To reserve an invitation call Judith Partelow at 774 487 2792. Free.
Sunday, Oct. 22. Celebration of Bahá'u'lláh’s birth. Begins 1 p.m. at the Bandshell, Prospect Park, 4 Union Ave., Onset. Free. Crafts, children’s activities, entertainment.
Information at: www.bahaisofsoutheasternma.com/, or www.bic.org/about/about-us