Last Wednesday I visited the local Bahai Center in Valley Stream to interview Janet and Vito about their faith. If you're like me, and for that matter most folks, you are probably unfamiliar with this little-known world religion. You may be in for a surprise.
For a world religion it is relatively new at 150 years old, and originated in Persia, modern day Iran. It is one of the world's fastest growing religions, with 5-6 million members spanning 200 countries.
Janet and Vito were kind enough to give me a tour of the center as they explained to me the basic tenets of their faith. They believe that behind the myriad differences in the world's religions, they share a fundamental unity. All religions are a part of truth. Vito pointed me to one of the core teachings quoted on the wall of the lobby: "The well being of mankind, its peace and serenity are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established." These words were written by the founder and prophet, Baha'u'llah.
The Bahai Faith only becomes more interesting at this point. From their perspective, humanity is a work-in-progress. We receive divine help along the way through prophets and teachers, like Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha. This is called progressive revelation. In that sense, the major world religions are a progression of teachings that help guide us as our species begins to come of age.
"We, humanity, have reached the age of 18" Vito explained to me, "so there are no priests in our faith. We are encouraged to read the teachings for ourselves and come to our own conclusions."
"It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens." -Baha'u'llah
Here is a fascinating twist: the Bahai Faith have an elected leadership. With no priest class, they may very well be the first democratic world religion in history. They have an international, national and local elected assembly. Their central governing body is the Universal House of Justice. As a world faith, they are collectively working to help humanity come together in unity.
The 9 Major religions all have their source in God, Truth, the Ultimate, or whatever you may call it. To really emphasize this core understanding, the Bahai use the symbol of a 9-pointed star. Their Houses of Worship have 9 sides and 9 entrances all around, symbolizing the unity at the center of human spirituality. Janet showed me a few pictures of these beautiful temples from all around the world. I've included a slideshow in this article to give you a few examples of the beautiful architecture.
I asked them more about the nature of "progressive revelation," and how it exactly plays out. Vito explained to me that each religion is more like a season unfolding in time. More often than not, members of a religion fight over differences in changing social laws, but the depths, the mystical union of all faiths remains unchanged.
Vito passionately explained that humanity is struggling to see past its differences and gain a deeper perspective of essential unity and love in God.
The Bahai on Long Island come from all walks of life and all traditions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim Buddhist, and so forth. Their worldcentric attitude attracts a very diverse and pluralistic membership.
It is unfortunate that in some places, the Bahai are persecuted for their beliefs. In Iran, the Bahai are treated as second-rate citizens. Many have been executed, denied education and equal rights, because the religion is considered heretical and not recognized by the state. It is tragic that most news of the Bahai Faith in the world press is only about their trials and tribulations in Iran. Perhaps if the world knew more about this religion, there would be more international pressure for universal justice and equality.
I asked them about the relationship with science, and they gave a rather unique interpretation. For the Bahai, science and religion are different aspects of one truth. Faith and science are encouraged to dialogue. This leaves a lot of room for scientific understanding to enrich spiritual development.
The Bahai have their own holidays, customs and practices. There is an obligatory daily prayer, feast days and fast days. Above all, love and service to the community is encouraged.
"So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole Earth." -Baha'u'llah
Local Events & Activities:
The Bahai Center itself is very comfortable and welcoming, and above all it is designed for community. The main lobby is filled with imagery, quotes and symbols representing unity. There's a book shop where you can orient yourself with Bahai literature.
There is a room for artwork and performances. Currently, this center hosts a children's theater, where lessons about equality, morality and education are taught through plays. There is also an art gallery up, "9 Doors," emphasizing a diverse religious upbringing for the youth.
They have also established a Multifaith Forum, organized to help educate interfaith dialogue. In addition, they have a Race Unity Committee, dedicated to teaching human equality.
The center also hosts regular study circles, where the voluminous (over 100 volumes) Bahai texts are discussed and studied.
If you're at least a little curious about this fascinating religion and its bustling local community, I recommend you visit their Fireside Cafe event, a night of poetry, music and discussion. The Valley Stream center hosts it every other week in a big, comfortable room with plenty of seating.
I was impressed by the friendliness and openness of this community and its fascinating and progressive beliefs. There is so much more to cover about the Faith, but that will have to be saved for future articles. I also encourage folks to visit the center and investigate this blossoming community on their own.
More updates to follow as I attend some of the events. Stay tuned!
If you're interested in visiting the Valley Stream Bahai Center, they are located at 11 W. Jamaica Avenue. You can contact them via: 516 239 4065