Baha’i Centre of Ottawa in Vanier since 2007
by Ruby Pratka
Heather Harvey and Ayafor Ayafor want to build a better world. And they believe that a better world starts in the front room of a former Mexican restaurant on McArthur Avenue.
Ayafor and Harvey are members of the Baha’i faith, a religious community that they say has about 1000 adherents in Ottawa and about 5 million scattered across the world. The Baha’i presence in Ottawa dates from 1948, says Harvey.
“We’ve gone from nine in 1948 to over 1000 now,” she says. The Baha’i Centre of Ottawa has been in Vanier since 2007.
The Baha’i faith was founded about 150 years ago in Iran, by a spiritual leader who believed he was the next in a series of prophets serving the same God. Baha’is consider Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad to be prophets as well. There is no clergy, only a democratically elected ‘spiritual assembly’ in each area with a Baha’i presence. The faith has since spread worldwide; according to the Centre for Faith in the Media it is the second most geographically widespread faith after Christianity. Baha’is, Harvey explains, respect the texts of all major religions and believe in the “unity of God” across world religions.
“At its basis there is a commonality to what our relationship is with God…and to life after death,” says Harvey.
“One of our fundamental principles is the idea of the oneness of mankind,” says Ayafor, who was born in Cameroon and raised a Christian. “Fundamentally we are like cells of a body; we’re evolving. The writings are there to bring unity in the world, but Baha’is don’t know how that is going to happen.”
Harvey and Ayafor say they believe that it is impossible to separate science and religion, and that world peace is inevitable. They also believe in the importance of community service.
“To work in the service of humanity is highly looked upon,” says Harvey.
To that end, she says, the centre holds youth study groups for teenagers to figure out how to best serve their community. “It’s all about ‘what can I do tomorrow?’,” Harvey says. “The reality of what you can do varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. In those study circles things emerge, like a literacy campaign or a health campaign. . Our junior youth groups clean the parks; simple things can be done and something leads into something else. It’s very important for youth–and everyone–to believe they have a purpose.”
In addition to the youth groups, the centre holds devotional meetings where attendees study the texts of all major religions, children’s classes, and summer day camps. And anyone is welcome to come to the centre and have a look around. These programs are open “to all people, whether Baha’is or not,” says Harvey. “We are not an inward-looking community.”