By Eric Stetson
I was an enrolled member of the Baha’i Faith from 1998 to 2002. Although I was very serious about my faith and took two trips halfway across America for evangelistic purposes (“travel teaching” in Baha’i lingo), I never visited the North American Bahai House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois — or any of the several other Bahai temples around the world — until now, eight years after I left the Baha’i Faith. I was inspired to visit the temple because of my renewed interest in Bahaism and the fact that it was on my way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was traveling to attend the 49th annual Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.
Last week, a friend of mine who lives near Milwaukee, Wisconsin and who had been to the Bahai temple before, drove down to meet me there. She has been a Bahai for more than 40 years, but resigned her official membership in the Baha’i Faith a few years ago and now attends Unitarian Universalist and Sufi meetings, while continuing to believe in the prophethood of Bahaullah. Both of us thought it would be best not to mention to anyone at the temple that we are former members of the Baha’i organization, since this tends to produce a reaction of coldness and suspicion among enrolled Baha’is. Therefore, my friend described herself to people there as simply “a Bahai” and I described myself as “a Unitarian Universalist,” mentioning that I share many beliefs in common with Bahais but saying nothing about the Unitarian Bahai Association or my encouragement of Bahais to join UU churches.
I found the temple to be impressively beautiful, more on the outside than within, but even the inside was a sight to behold. The gardens were lovely — filled with fragrant roses, lavender, and various other flowers and plants, plus bubbling fountains. Some of the gardens are under construction and this detracted a little bit from the atmosphere, but it’s good to see that the Baha’i Faith is continually improving the property.
There was an underground visitor center beneath the temple with promotional displays and videos aimed at the general public, and a bookstore selling Bahai books, publications, paraphernalia and souvenirs. Brochures were available in a multitude of different languages. My friend, a fluent Spanish speaker, expressed concern that there was a very limited selection of Spanish language materials in the bookstore. I found the videos we watched, which described the Bahai faith and the history of the temple, to be kind of hokey and seemingly low-budget productions. Other than that, the visitor center was okay.
Proceeding to the temple itself, the first thing I noticed was how empty it was. Only a handful of people were sitting inside it, despite that a daily scheduled worship service was about to begin. In the huge Chicago metropolitan area, could there really be this few Bahais and curious visitors wanting to take in a Bahai worship service? My friend and I sat in silence waiting for the service to start, listening to the peaceful and heavenly singing of birds who were trapped inside the vast interior space of the sanctuary and apparently lived in there. For me, a bird lover, the birdsong was the high point of the worship service — I would soon find out why so few people come to these events.
Two employees of the Baha’i Faith began to take turns walking up to a lectern where they recited verses from the Baha’i holy writings. They did so in restrained, unemotional voices. This went on for about 20 minutes, with no musical accompaniment, no choir, no recitations from the scriptures of other religions, and no original speech. When the service suddenly ended, my reaction was “That’s it?” It seemed that in such a spectacular building that has taken a monumental investment of time, energy, and money to build and maintain, not enough thought and attention are being paid to using this space for high-quality worship meetings that can energize and inspire souls.
The overall vibe of the Bahai temple felt like a tomb or a historical place, not a living home of the Holy Spirit. I got a sense of how secular Europeans must feel when they visit the great old churches of their continent — empty, silent places that are heavy with lingering karmic energy from the past but not much Spirit moving there today. I was left with a strong impression of “wasted potential” — that the Bahais could be doing so much more with this beautiful and impressive facility, such as regularly holding interfaith worship services in partnership with Unitarian Universalists, liberal Christians, Sufis, and other open-minded religious groups throughout the greater Chicago area, rather than letting their temple go largely unused as some kind of relic or visual advertisement of their religion.
After attending the 20-minute bare-bones worship service, spending some time enjoying the gardens and then returning to sit in the temple for private prayer and meditation, my friend and I encountered an older Persian lady on the temple steps who turned out to be a volunteer greeting visitors. We struck up a conversation with her, and I mentioned that I am a Unitarian Universalist and agree with many aspects of the Bahai faith. Her response to this was to tell me that Bahaullah is God’s messenger for our time, that he is descended from kings, and that the difference between the Baha’i Faith and the Unitarian Universalist church is that one of these traditions (her preferred spiritual affiliation) is “from God” while the other (mine) is “manmade.”
Despite her condescending remark, this woman genuinely seemed like she wanted to be nice and helpful — she even spent 15 minutes guiding my friend and me to a park where we could see a spectacular view of the temple from a harbor on Lake Michigan. I don’t think she realized that the triumphalistic tone she used in presenting her faith and characterizing the religion of a visitor would be a major turnoff to the average open-minded spiritual person. Most Unitarian Universalists who had never heard of Bahaism, for example, would likely have come away from a similar encounter as I had with this Baha’i volunteer by forming the impression that Bahais think their religion is the only divinely inspired modern spiritual tradition and that other new religious movements such as UUism are fundamentally inferior. Certainly if Haifan Baha’is wish to grow their faith and win friends outside their own religious community, they need to show greater respect for other people’s spiritual paths — especially those such as UUs who share a generally compatible pluralistic view of religion.
My friend and I met a Baha’i couple visiting the temple from out of state, and we ended up having dinner with them. They were nice people and we all enjoyed the time together. However, I did find some things they said a bit disturbing. For example, when discussing our respective religious commitments, I mentioned that one of the reasons I prefer the Unitarian Universalist church to the Baha’i Faith despite my agreement with many Bahai principles is that the Baha’i organization forbids its members from participating in political activism, whereas the UU church emphasizes individual freedom of conscience and action in all arenas of society. They denied or downplayed the restrictions on involvement in politics by individual Baha’is; and this indicated either that they are misinformed or trying to make their religious organization seem more palatable to outsiders — something I myself remember doing when I was an enrolled Baha’i talking to potential converts.
More disturbing was how the Baha’i couple described their Baha’i community encouraging its children to associate with children of other religions for the purpose of “teaching the faith.” I politely replied that I think such relationships of Bahai children should be primarily focused on learning about other faiths, since Bahais are supposed to believe in the validity and importance of various religions rather than just their own. What I was thinking but didn’t say was: Baha’i children are being encouraged to develop relationships with other children for proselytizing? Has the culture of the Baha’i Faith really become this cultish?
We had some frank talk about my concern that all religions and religious groups inevitably get corrupted, the Baha’i Faith being no exception, and that Bahais therefore need to be ever watchful to ensure that their faith moves in the right direction and doesn’t get bogged down in outdated policies such as censoring scholars and authors with different viewpoints. The Baha’i man replied that the Universal House of Justice ensures that the Baha’i Faith cannot become corrupted because it is divinely inspired, and that “the Covenant-breakers” have tried to corrupt the faith but have been unsuccessful. I replied that the leadership organ of every religion believes it is divinely inspired — the Baha’i Faith is not unique in this regard — but this doesn’t prevent major internal problems and the need for periodic reform. I made a point of emphasizing how wonderful it is to have total freedom in the Unitarian Universalist church, to believe, worship, speak and act according to one’s own conscience, and that I wished the Baha’i Faith would become more that way. There was some tension in the air but we maintained a cordial, enjoyable, and very interesting discussion.
The day ended pleasantly, and I felt that I learned a lot about the current state of affairs and attitudes in the mainstream Haifan Baha’i Faith community. Much of what I learned confirmed things I already suspected, but some of it was new. Overall, I would have to say that after my experience visiting the North American Bahai temple I feel more certain that Bahaism has taken a seriously wrong turn in its development but that there was once a lot of inspiration and passion in this spiritual tradition worth celebrating. A great deal of grassroots effort went into planning and constructing this great edifice in Wilmette, Illinois; but that was in another time, almost a century ago, when Bahaism was on the cutting edge and attracting Americans of high capacity, creativity and free thought — unlike today, when it seems to be on the decline and has made itself unattractive to religious liberals. This conclusion does leave a person with sadness, but I think it may also inspire us to positive action to reclaim the good that has been lost and eventually bring the stagnant stream of Bahaism back into the great ever-flowing river of modern progressive spirituality.
I continued on my journey up to Minneapolis where I attended the Unitarian Universalist Association conference. The opening worship service was passionate and relevant, with folk music, choir music, and an all-embracing, peace-creating message that “Everything is Holy Now.” I powerfully felt the Holy Spirit moving in the stadium-sized room with several thousand people on their feet singing “Earth come rising; Life come rising; God come rising up inside of me!” I listened to people and met people doing all kinds of amazing, tangible work to build what Bahais or Christians would call “the Kingdom of God on earth” — a world of universal love, justice, peace, freedom, higher consciousness and conscience – without resorting to tribalistic arguments about which religious creed or organization is God’s chosen one.
If, as the Persian lady at the Bahai temple exclaimed, the Baha’i Faith is from God and the Unitarian Universalist church is manmade, then God seems rather human and humans quite divine.
Addendum: It has been pointed out to me that there is choir singing in the temple three Sundays per month. That’s good! If I go back for another visit, I’ll be sure to go on one of those Sundays. However, the weekday worship services are very bland, and I would suggest to the temple staff that they spice it up a bit or risk giving a poor impression to visitors. There’s nothing wrong with a little creativity in planning a worship service — even a short one of 15 to 30 minutes. Including some singing, somebody playing a musical instrument, or some other type of variety besides just recitations from Bahai scripture from beginning to end, would give a better impression and probably be more inspiring. And if they insist on limiting it just to scriptural recitation, how about some call and response or other techniques to get the congregation more involved in the readings rather than totally passive?