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Raking leaves as community service

In Oakland and around the world, the Bahá’i community begins a new year

on April 10, 2015

The Christian and Chinese New Years parties are long over.

But on March 21, the Bahá’i celebrated their Naw-Rúz (literally, New Year). The Bahá’i faith was established a century and a half ago and has more than 5 million members all over the planet. The religion is the second most widespread worldwide; only Christianity can be found in more regions on the globe. California is home to more than 19,000 believers, and therefore the largest Bahá’i community in the United States. The community in Oakland consists of nearly 200 members, who gathered in a private apartment to pray and celebrate the turn of the year with an open common dinner and prayers.

Approximately 40 people came together to welcome the New Year at dusk and to enjoy the potluck. Everyone contributed food or decorations to share with others, and unlike many New Year’s celebrations, no one drank alcohol or smoked. Instead, the guests played a number of musical instruments that were evenly distributed across the tastefully furnished loft.

“Naw-Rúz is the first day in the Bahá’i calendar,” said Robert Gillies, an Oakland member of the faith. The calendar is composed of 19 months with 19 days each. Including several intercalation days, one Bahá’i year has 365 days. The calendar was invented by the Báb, a key figure in the Bahá’i faith, during the 19th Century, and the New Year always falls on March 21. The sunset marks the beginning of the next day, because the Bahá’i calendar is a solar calendar.

Founded in Iran in 1863 by Bahá’u’lláh (literally “glory of God”), the Bahá’i faith is a monotheistic religion. Its members worship the same deity as the Jews and Christians. They believe that Bahá’u’lláh is the most recent form of the appearance of God, but not its last. Bahá’is face religious persecution in some places. The human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International publish yearly reports about the situation for Bahá’is in Iran. One Amnesty report from 2012 states that Bahá’is are subject to “Widespread restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly are described, as well as torture, other ill-treatment and poor conditions in detention.” In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch wrote that believers in Iran had been arrested on charges of “propaganda against the state” and that they had been targeted because of their faith.

Important elements in the Bahá’i faith are that every human being has a soul, which is immortal. The members are advocates of equality regarding races and sexes, and aim for a united single global community. They accept every other religion and tolerate them as valid. Their practice does not include a strict catalogue of rules for traditions or rituals, and it is uncommon to proselytize. “It doesn’t make sense to try to talk to people about religion or to try to convince others,” said Cynthya Slater, a member of the Bahá’i group in Oakland. “Religion doesn’t cause trouble, but people do.”

Every Bahá’i community has its own meeting place, but there are seven important houses of worship in different regions of the planet. Those houses are not only a common gathering point for Bahá’is, but true architectural masterpieces. The temple in New Delhi, India, is one of the most visited buildings in the world. The other six temples are located in Australia, Germany, Panama, Samoa, the USA (Illinois) and Uganda. One additional house is under construction in Chile. Services are held at every temple, but authoritative and legislative decisions are made at the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel. Therefore, many Bahá’is make a pilgrimage to this holy place.

Gillies and his wife Rezal Martinez-Gillies met at a summer camp in Colorado Springs organized by a Bahá’i community. Gillies’ has been a part of the Bahá’i faith since he was a child, and his mother, a Christian, was the driving force in his religious education, he said. To give her son a better understanding of religions, “My mum drew me a picture, which totally made sense. It was a sun and many mirrors surrounding it. That was her way of explaining that many religions have different approaches to interpret god. Bahá’u’lláh is the newest,” he said. At the age of 7 or 8, he joined the Bahá’i community. As the only child in the group, he felt in good hands.

In the Bahá’i faith, the spiritual age of maturity is 15. At this age one can declare him- or herself a Bahá’i. “I had an existential crisis at 16 and questioned everything,” Gillies said. “My parents divorced and I moved to a school in the US, my mum re-married. That all led to a bit of a breakdown for me.”

“I was in my bed and the question I asked myself was ‘Am I loved?’” he continued. “I sneaked out of my room past curfew to pray in the bathroom. I was secretly hoping for something, but nothing happened. A moment later, I found myself in a fall of light that came down on me. I repeated the words ‘I love you,’ over and over again. If there is a Bahá’i version of being baptized, that was it.”

Later, he went on a pilgrimage to the Universal House of Justice in Haifa. “When I went to the shrine I felt as if I stayed for 15 minutes, but after the security guy came to me and asked me to leave, because they are going to close soon, I realized I spent five hours at this place,” he said. “I didn’t want this to end, but I had to go back to the real world again and come out of my bubble. I felt home.”

Cynthya Slater was raised in the Christian faith but converted when she was 21 years old. “I remember when I was 8 years old. I got kicked out of Sunday church. They proclaimed that you have to believe in Jesus, otherwise you will go to hell. I started asking so many questions that they were fed up with me and kicked me out. My mom found that funny,” she recalled. Slater learned about the Bahá’i by reading books. She said, “When I read about it I knew this was the right religion for me.”

The Oakland Bahá’i community holds meetings every 19 days and talks about administrative, personal and spiritual topics. Community-building is always on the meeting list. One part of the meeting is the study circle, where they support young adults. The circles provide support and advices about difficult situations in life. In addition, the group offers children’s classes about ethical and moral decision-making. They also pray for victims of violence of any kind. Furthermore, the group connects with the local Vietnamese, Nepalese and Bhutanese communities, because the religion is widely known and accepted in those countries.

Naw-Rúz ended at around 10pm for the community in Oakland. All instruments were carefully put aside and everyone helped with the dishes. The guests were grateful to spend time together and to share the good food. “Thank you all so much for coming and happy Naw-Rúz,” Slater said. They will be back together to celebrate in 365 days.

Lead photo: Members of the Bahá’i community rake leaves as community service. Photo courtesy of Sasha Shahidinejad.

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