When you hear “Baha’i” what image pops into your head? For me it was a childhood memory of an elderly Indian woman wearing a scarf loosely over her head walking through rose gardens. Instead, who waited for me on a park bench outside of a hometown diner, in what was arguably the Middle-Of-Nowhere, USA, were Deanna and MaryAnne. They were two women who reminded me most of my mother and her best friend – almost immediately they gave off an easy-going vibe which made me feel right at home, as though my mother was right there with me. Later, while the three of us got inordinately excited about the prospect of tater tots with dinner, my suspicions were confirmed: these ladies were a group of people I could be entirely myself with.
Going to a diner by yourself with women you’ve met online through a contact page, can be more than a little nerve-wracking. I pulled up to the diner at 5:30pm and texted my best friend something along the lines of “If you don’t hear from me by 9pm, I’m either dead or in some lady’s basement” (a joke I later shared with my company for the evening). After exchanging pleasantries and introductions, we launched into my backstory – a tale that is generally seen as too long for the short life I’ve lived. Most notably we talked about my spiritual journey: how I grew up, how I moved away from Islam, how I stumbled through the gamut of faith-based paths in life, how I found my way down three hours south of my family, and how I found out about Baha’i. It was the first time I told my story and was met with genuine interest in listening. Both ladies listened to my story with only the intention of listening and understanding instead of listening to try to convert – a refreshing response I’m not often met with when chatting with folks about faith.
The conversation eventually turned from my journey to theirs and both Deanna and MaryAnne talked to me about how they found the Faith and what drew them towards it. Deanna was drawn to the Faith by her impending marriage – a path I could relate to from my mother’s back story. Listening to her say “If I’m going to marry this guy I should probably learn about his faith since we’ll probably raise his children that way”, I could almost hear my mother say that at 18 years old having my brother. Deanna was quick to point out that while her marriage was certainly not perfect, being of the same faith certainly made for one less hurdle to jump together. MaryAnne was drawn to the faith by the idea of gender equality. She explained a sort of story she heard which stated in more or less words that when finances were tight, if a family had the option to educate their son or their daughter, they would send their daughter. Being viewed as the future mother of children made for an easy choice to make when it came to education: if the mother is ignorant and uneducated, so shall the children be. This idea is admittedly refreshing, and quite frankly something I’m sure not many of us had heard of before the Faith.
Truth be told I came to dinner knowing a lot less than I would have liked. After perusing the Baha’i website for a very short time the night I put in a request for more information, I got busy with life and never returned to research more. I knew the basic history of Baha’i and how it came to be, but didn’t dive deep enough into the website to learn more about basic tenets and core beliefs. Deanna and MaryAnne were happy to fill me in on the details of what I missed. They told me about the growth of humanity and how the whole of humankind grows as does a child – currently humans are in their adolescence with many lessons behind them and many, many more to come. They told me about the aim to eradicate all prejudice and how Baha’i is all about love and community and inclusion and peace. They told me about the unity of all religions and how each religion and faith was Divine in source and sent from God to be one among many lessons unto humankind. They talked to me about how they studied their own faith from the teachings of those in the ranks of Jesus, Krishna, and Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). What they didn’t talk about, I found readily available on the Baha’i website: topics like the harmony of science and religion, the history of Baha’u’llah, the construction of the House of Worship in Wilmette and how it’s used as a temple for all to contemplate faith and meditate and feel the Oneness of God, and so much more. The more I listened, the more I found that my eclectic beliefs weren’t so eclectic after all.
What really hit home for me, was the idea of progressive revelation. Deanna and MaryAnne told me the basic idea of God’s messengers to earth – that all of them are to be revered and were sent down to teach humankind useful life lessons. Deanna’s husband, Gary, later joined us for dinner and explained this in a more specific analogy that was easy to understand. The idea is that God has sent messengers through time to teach us as a human race. Gary explained that it’s much like elementary school. You go through first grade and learn everything you can from your teacher. As the years and cycles wear on, you find yourself in fifth grade learning new things from a new teacher – this does not mean that you forget the teachings of your first grade teacher. In fact you’ve carried those lessons with you through the years, you’ve let them shape you and mold you into who you are – those lessons from first grade have prepared you for the lessons that are coming your way through the years. You never give up on the ideas of the first grade teacher, but you make room for the second, third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers to help you understand and learn new things.
If I’m being honest, when Deanna and MaryAnne were telling me about this idea, I got emotional (heck, I’m a little emotional writing about it the next day!) Anyone that knows my spiritual journey knows the paths I’ve walked, the many, many paths that have guided my life to where I’m at now. I’ve been Muslim, and Christian, and Pagan, and Buddhist. But where I’m at now, I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned as a Muslim child. I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned as a teenage Pagan and Buddhist. I haven’t forgotten the lessons I’ve learned from Christianity as an adult. So this idea of progressive revelation, that God has sent messengers to humankind to reveal to us lessons to make us better over time periods, is extraordinary. The idea that all prophets across all faiths have come to teach us lessons from One Creator creates a basis for international peace that is unlike any other I’ve ever encountered. That idea in itself spoke to my heart and my personal experiences with faith and the divine.
After dinner, Deanna invited me back to her house where the four of us sat and talked about faith, racism, current political climate and unrest, and just life in general. It was incredibly refreshing to speak to a group of like-minded people that were open, tolerant, and fun. Admittedly, when we got back to Deanna’s house we talked less about faith and more about backgrounds and family life. It was interesting to see how their faith played a role in their daily lives – in the lives of their children and the lives of the people around them. It was as if I had entered a sort of utopia, where faith was always a personal choice, and life continued on as the normal American family with faith operating still on the backburner yet somehow more ardently than anything else. This family was so passionate about their faith and about sharing it with others, but there was no evangelizing. There was no pressure, there was no constant need to speak of the faith. It was more about building a relationship rather than building another Baha’i. Having had faith be pushed on me by many people in many points of life, this is a welcome change, albeit a strange one.
After much more conversation (spiritual and non-) I left Deanna’s home with a reeling head, a handful of literature, and a much welcome invitation back next week for a religious study. I sat in bed that night mulling over everything we had talked about, and wondering where this journey was going to take me. When Matt got home I spilled everything I had learned, and to my great disappointment was met with strange faces.
We talked about faith, and exploring our own while simultaneously exploring others. We talked about how learning about other faith does not take away from our own, and if it truly calls to our hearts will only make our faith stronger in the long run. We spent nearly an hour discussing the desire to explore faith, the many things we could to learn, what we hoped to gain from this journey, and trying to find out why this exploration scared him so much. What this inspired was a tearful conversation on inter-faith marriage, where this journey would take us, and fear of the unknown. We are scared so easily by the thought of leaving “home” and by the thought of reaching new heights in education that we let it beat us into our little boxes where we surround ourselves with familiar objects. We dare not venture outside our box, simply because we don’t know what’s out there.
That night, I felt a page turn. I felt a new chapter start in my life, one full of learning and exploration. One that will take us to new heights both personally and as a married couple, and I can’t help but feel as though we’re meant to take this journey together. It’s a strange feeling, taking a spiritual journey together. All of a sudden I feel as though I’m responsible for carrying the faith of two people rather than just myself – I feel the crushing reality that I cannot save him though I may try. Faith is a personal journey, and I don’t want him to make any decisions based on me and my needs. But whatever decision we make, I want them to be informed decisions based on learned facts and the call of our hearts even if they call to us in different directions. We talked about a lot of variables last night, and the possibility that we not be of the same faith when this is over. But when I asked him, “Would you be upset? Would you be angry? Would you still want to be married?” my husband’s answers made this journey into something incapable of rendering fear into my heart, “A little, no, and of course.”