Drive through the Northwest on any weekend and you will see sandwich-board signs dotting the roadways inviting drivers to "Come and worship" with any number of churches meeting in school gymnasiums or senior citizen recreation centers. In an effort to report what is available by way of religion to residents of
Oro Valley, Marana and the sourrounding areas, the Northwest EXPLORER is publishing an occasional series about religious communities in the area.
Most people are introduced to their religion by virtue of being born into a particular family. Richard Landergren, however, found his through television.
"I discovered the Baha'is in the 70s, right after college," Landergren said. "I saw (Jimmy) Seals and (Dash) Crofts on the David Frost show talking about it and I started to investigate it on my own. It made complete sense to me very quickly. It felt too big not to be what it claimed to be."
What the Baha'i faith claims to be, Landergren said, is a religion founded on the belief that the world has reached a point in time where the "consciousness of the oneness of humanity is necessary and possible … and the teachings of Baha'u'llah are designed to bring that about."
Baha'is believe God has sent a series of "divine messengers" to pass his will onto the world. These messengers - called "Manifestations" - are Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and, most recently, Baha'u'llah. The later declared himself God's messenger in 1863, according to the official Baha'i Web site, www. bahai.org.
Each of the Manifestations is equal in stature, and appeared during a specific point in time with teachings appropriate to that era, Landergren said. Baha'is believe that each Manifestation's revelation is greater than the preceding Manifestation "because there has been a subtle raising of consciousness in humanity (over time) … (and) people are more mature and able to comprehend a deeper message," said Camille Bonzani, Landergren's wife and also a member of the Oro Valley Baha'i community.
According to the Baha'i sacred texts - writings from Baha'u'llah; his son, Abdu'l-Bah; and Baha'u'llah's grandson, Shoghi Effendi - all the great religions have been "different stages on the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion, Divine and indivisible." Baha'is believe this evolution is progressing and another manifestation will appear to help guide humanity in not less than 1,000 years.
"There are universal spiritual teachings that are eternal and other things that change with the times. These social teachings are brought by messengers in an on-going progression … (because) spiritual growth never stops," Landergren explained.
In much the same way that Christianity developed from a Judaic background and Buddhism arose out of a Hindu influence, the Baha'i religion was an outgrowth of Islam, "but it is not a sect of Islam," said Nahid Rohani, a member of the Oro Valley Baha'i community and chairperson of the local Baha'i Spiritual Assembly. "It is an independent faith, just like Christianity or Islam."
Baha'u'llah had been a follower of the Bb, whom Baha'is believe was the "forerunner" of Baha'u'llah. The Bb was killed by the Muslim leaders of the day for preaching that a new messenger of God was imminent. Baha'u'llah himself was exiled from Persia for following the Bb and, when in jail, received a vision from God telling him he was the messenger the Bb had predicted. Baha'u'llah's primary teaching for the world was that humanity should be united into one global family through the elimination of all forms of prejudice, be they social, economic, racial or sexual.
In a world of religions that seek to distinguish themselves from one another, Baha'i's seek to unify, Rohani said. This can be seen in the "international flavor" of the faith. Although a small religion - worldwide there are only five million members - the Baha'i faith is second only to Christianity in being the most widespread. There are members in 235 countries and territories throughout the world and those members represent more than 2,100 ethnic, racial and tribal groups.
The unification aspect of the faith also can be seen in some of its basic tenets (see box below), including establishing a global commonwealth of nations, a universal language and the "recognition of the unity and relativity of religious truth."
Rohani said there are approximately 500 Baha'is in Tucson, with 80 of them living in communities formed in Oro Valley and North Pima County. Unlike all the other major religions, Baha'is do not have clergy and just seven houses of worship. Where the Baha'i population is large, Devotional Centers are built, but many Baha'i meet in homes every 19 days for their primary devotional event, the "feast," which marks the end of each of the 19 months in the Baha'i calendar.
Baha'is are required to say one of three obligatory prayers daily and encouraged to read the Holy Writings of Baha'u'llah every day, said Rohani. Beyond that, the faith centers on growing spiritually as an individual through meditation, an "independent search for truth" and practicing peacefulness.
"The purposefulness of the faith is what draws me in," she said. "The practice of your faith through prayer and reading holy writings is to serve the cause of God, which is happiness and peace of mind. We read the writings to bring to account how we can improve living our lives."
In addition, Rohani said Baha'is meet for specific holy days marking the beginning of their calendar year and the births and deaths of the faith's primary religious figures and observe a sunrise-to-sundown fast from March 2 to 20 to mark the beginning of the Baha'i New Year. There are no sacraments and joining the religion takes only signing a "declaration card," said Landergren.
During the first century of the religion, guidance came from Baha'u'llah's writings and the leadership of his son and grandson, who translated his writings from Arabic to English. However, one of the key teachings was that the religion would have no established "leader" after the death of Baha'u'llah's grandson, but be ruled by consensus, collaboration and consultation, said Rohani. As such "leadership is from the bottom up," she explained.
"We have local elected spiritual assemblies who elect a representative to send to a national assembly and those elect the National Spiritual Assembly and the Universal House of Justice," Rohani said. "Everyone has an equal voice."
Each local nine-member Spiritual Assembly is elected yearly by secret ballot, said Landergren. The Assembly makes decisions on behalf of the community concerning everything from service projects to counseling the faithful.
The National Spiritual Assembly, with nine members, also is elected yearly. The nine members of the Universal House of Justice, located in Haifa, Israel, are elected every five years, and serve as "the supreme authoritative body for the Baha'i world," according to the faith's Web site.
Rohani said the directives from the Universal House of Justice are "binding on all Baha'is," but they are not viewed as infallible because the next House of Justice can change a previous ruling.
"The way the authority is set up is to preserve Baha'u'llah's teaching in the purest form," said Rohani. "Because we have many writings from the hand of Baha'u'llah himself, we have hope and assurance that teachings haven't been corrupted (by multiple translations) and this will avoid the schisms and confusion of the past religions" and eliminates the need for the religion to have one leader.
"The teachings of Baha'u'llah are designed for unity, but it is not necessarily uniform," Rohani said. "One of the teachings is the need for individuals to seek out truth and I may take a passage (from sacred texts) and apply it differently than another Baha'i. But if there is a theological question, something not directly found in Baha'u'llah's writings, you can question the Universal House of Justice. Everyone has access, you don't need an intermediary. Once the decision is made, of course, you would want to abide by it because that is what you asked for."
The primary focus of the Baha'i faith is the hope for world unity, said Bonzani, and is brought about by two things: the awareness "that it is already happening," and practices that lead to unity, such as promoting the equality of women, eliminating extremes of poverty and wealth and abandoning all forms of prejudice.
"The purpose of having a revelation (through a Manifestation) is to bring us closer to God, and when I'm closer to God, then I realize world unity is a possibility and the more I am able to see it happening, which gives me hope. Then I see that I am a conduit for peace in the world," Bonzani said.
WHAT THEY BELIEVE
Basic beliefs: Baha'is believe there is one God who has revealed his will to humanity in a succession of Manifestations, including Abraham, Krishna, Buddha and Jesus. Although many people see these Manifestations as founders of separate religious systems, Baha'i's believe they have had a common purpose to bring the human race to "spiritual and moral maturity." The last Manifestation was Baha'u'llah in the mid-1800s and his primary teaching was that the human race has evolved to the point where the unification of humanity and the building of a peaceful, global society is possible. There are no sacraments in the faith and worship is done in individual homes every 19 days to mark the 19 months of the Baha'i year.
Governing structure: Baha'is are locally governed by Spiritual Assemblies. Members of those assemblies represent local communities at the national and international level. The Universal House of Justice, made up of nine Baha'i's elected to serve five-year terms, is the "supreme authoritative body" of the universal Baha'i community.
History: The Baha'i faith grew out of an Islamic matrix in what is now Iran. A man named the Bab prophesied that a new manifestation of God was imminent; that person was Baha'u'llah, who in 1863, announced from prison that he was God's divine messenger.
Clergy: Baha'u'llah's writings specifically forbade the creation of a priesthood and Baha'i's are forbidden from living a monastic lifestyle.
Moral practice: The faith teaches against the use of alcohol or narcotic drugs, except when prescribed for medical reasons. Sex outside of marriage also is proscribed and written parental consent is required for two people to be married in the Baha'i faith. Being involved in projects that benefit the entire community in which Baha'i live (Habitat for Humanity, etc.) is greatly encouraged.
Worship: The worship format for Baha'is centers on reading from sacred texts (they use not only Baha'i writings but also those of other major religions), prayer or meditation and fellowship.
Population in Northwest area: There are about 80 practicing Baha'i in Oro Valley and North Pima County and about 500 throughout the Tucson area. For more information, call 498-5247.
Source: www.bahai.org and local Baha'i members.