150-year anniversary, 170-year calendar

walking these blessed pathsThis year, Bahá’ís in all corners of the world celebrate a special anniversary: 150 years since Bahá’u’lláh, the Manifestation of God for this age, openly declared His mission to humankind. Round numbers inevitably give pause for reflection, and there’s been quite a lot of it recently. Lots of blogs and news sites have posted some potent reflections about Ridván, including Bahá’í Blog (written by Ottawa/Dalian’s own James Howden), Bahá’í Perspectives (returning after a long hiatus), the Canadian Bahá’í News Service, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Huffington Post, have all posted meaty articles about Ridván this year. Moreover, this year is that one year out of every five during which the Bahá’í International Convention takes place, a grand international gathering whose purpose is to elect the Universal House of Justice, the Institution at the head of the Bahá’í Faith. The convention starts on April 29, and delegates from around the world, from Virginia to Vietnam and from Finland to Fiji, have already gathered in the Holy Land to pray at the Bahá’í Shrines in Haifa and ‘Akká to prepare themselves for this most sacred duty.

The exhilaration one feels at living in this day, the day in which the newly reborn Faith of God is coalescing, raising up its Institutions and putting in place the structures that humanity needs to advance into the long-awaited stage of maturity, is incredible. So hard is it to describe that I don’t have too much to write about it yet. For the time being, I did want to address one very good question that’s come up recently that a few friends have had trouble putting to rest, one that has to do with the Bahá’í calendar.

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world religion day in vietnam

In reading through the storied past of the Vietnamese Bahá’í community, I’ve been particularly impressed by its interfaith work. It seems evident that no other community worked more tirelessly for interreligious understanding during the war years than did the Bahá’ís. One of the early contributions to this work was the organization of national and local commemorations of World Religion Day, an interfaith observance, initiated in America in 1950 and thereafter celebrated worldwide, on the third Sunday in January each year. Its purpose is now as it was then: to call attention to the essential harmony of the spiritual principles underlying the world’s religions, and to emphasize the role of religion as a unifying force for humanity. Observed for over a decade prior to the end of the Vietnam War, it became, according to observers, “by far the most important inter-faith event in Vietnam”.

The first observance of World Religion Day, or Ngày tôn giáo Hoàn cầu, in Vietnam took place on January 21st, 1962, at the Bahá’í Centre at 193/1C Cong Ly Street, Saigon. “For the first time in Viet Nam,” the papers announced, “representatives of seven of the world’s religions will meet to discuss ‘the fundamental oneness of religion’ on the 13th annual World Religion Day…” Representatives of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity (Baptist), Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and the Bahá’í Faith were in attendance, and addressed the crowd regarding the fundamental tenets and principles of each of their religions. “We are for a world where every one will see his neighbour as his own brother, and we are working toward the day when affection will make the boundaries between states useless,” the Bahá’í representative, Nguyen Ke Tong, declared. His words must have struck a chord with the listeners, as Vietnam itself was at the time bisected by one of these boundaries, one that had torn families apart and turned brothers, cousins and friends against each other, as they separated into North and South.

The observance of World Religion Day provided a much-needed forum for interreligious dialogue to address the enmity that had developed between the country’s Buddhist and Catholic communities as a result of the prejudicial policies of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. Hoping to address this growing conflict, the Bahá’í speaker at World Religion Day in January 1963 publically appealed to the leaders of Vietnam’s faith communities to establish an Interfaith Council that would work towards unity, reconciliation, and the protection of the rights of all religious communities in Vietnam. The need for such an institution was undeniable, but the injustices perpetrated by Diệm’s government against the Buddhist community—forced conversions, looting, shelling and demolition of pagodas—had become too great to bear. When a rarely enforced law was invoked to prohibit Buddhists in the city of Huế from flying flags on Buddha’s birthday in May 1963, protests broke out, which were met with live fire from the police and army. The Buddhist Crisis broke out, which would end six months later in a military coup and Diệm’s assassination.

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how much longer?

On the same day, December 14, 2012, two attacks on schools happened on opposite sides of the globe: a stabbing spree in Chenpeng village, Henan, China, in which 22 children and an elderly woman were injured; and a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, in which 27 were killed, including 20 children. I jotted down these thoughts soon after I heard the news.

I remember recently watching a mini-documentary about World War I that explained how the horrors of trench warfare led to cynicism becoming “normal”, first among the soldiers who had witnessed them, and then among the society they returned to. Man’s inhumanity to man had turned him sour, leaving him to despair. This sense of despair was reinforced by World War II and the conflicts that followed, and although economies recovered and material wealth grew, a crisis of spirit persisted. A new, idealistic generation rebelled against war in all its forms in the 1960s and 70s, showing a true and profound craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal in what they called the “Age of Aquarius“. For the most part, though, this craving was denied, and mankind sunk deeper into despair and cynicism.

How much longer will this craving go unsatisfied, and how many more bodies will have to pile up, not only in our schools but throughout our bruised, battered and shell-shocked world? What will it take for things to change? I don’t really know the first answer, but for the second, I’ll tell you.

are you learning how to make a difference?In the junior youth group that my wife is running in our neighbourhood, she and the girls—aged 11 to 13—are reading about the story of Kibomi, a young boy who believes he can make a difference. Kibomi lives in a country full of strife, and his parents are killed in front of his eyes one day. He runs for his life, and along the way, as he struggles to come to terms with the horrors he has just seen, he meets people who help him see that he has a choice: either to sink into despair, rage, violence and revenge; or to turn his suffering into fuel that will help him change the lives of those around him for the better. Doing the latter takes strength of character that he’s not sure he has, but as he meets more and more people who are working hard to build bonds of loving-kindness and unity between the warring tribes, he realizes that he can draw on their strength to build up his own. Eventually his feelings of fear and despair fade away, and he makes his choice—to work actively towards the betterment of the world.

Now ask yourself again: How much longer will man’s craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal go unsatisfied? As long as we choose to let it.

Read some of my previous reflections after the shootings at Virginia Tech or Montreal’s Dawson College.

united across the battle lines

flags flyingPrior to going to Vietnam in 2009, I really had little idea about the history of the place. I knew my father had made the choice to come to Canada from America in the 1960s to avoid being drafted into the army and sent to fight the war in Vietnam, but I had little knowledge of that conflict itself, its background, or indeed of any of Vietnam’s thousands-of-years-long history. I suppose until the country and its culture became a part of my life through marriage, I was too lazy to learn much about it. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the history of Vietnam, and even compiling information about the history of the Bahá’ís of Vietnam. The latter has been really fascinating, as I’ve learned just how active the Bahá’í community was in the 1950s and 1960s, and how far it had been able to develop by the end of the war.

One of the most amazing stories was related to me and Quynh on a trip to Moncton this past summer, about a Bahá’í who had fought as a soldier during the Vietnam War. There seem to be a few versions of the story floating around, but the one we heard was similar to this one related by a Mr. “B. Knott Wildered” on a Yahoo Answers thread:

[…T]here was a young American soldier in Vietnam, experiencing his very first time in an actual battle and scared to death. In an attempt to gain some courage, he yelled the Bahá’í greeting [Allah’u’abhá] and was surprised to hear it returned from the other side of a clearing. But after a bit of hesitation, he went in that direction, saw a Viet Cong soldier who again repeated that greeting. They met, hugged each other and each took off in the opposite directions. While I was not there to see it, I can well believe it actually happened, and probably more than once, and the one I heard it from told it with conviction and with tears in his eyes.

TheMerryOnion, a Bahá’í blogger formerly from Newfoundland, blogged about a similar story last year in a post about her personal heroes, the first of which was the subject of the story, a Vietnam War veteran named Reggie Baskin.

Reggie was the first person I ever interviewed. […] I chose Reggie because I knew he had been to Vietnam as a soldier during the war, and also that he was a Bahá’í and therefore fighting and violence had to have been against his conscience. The interview went well and he told me some fascinating stories that I still remember. One in particular sticks in my mind: he got separated from his group and met up with a group of about twenty Viet Cong soldiers. He figured he was about to be killed, but the CO of that group recognized the symbol on his Bahá’í necklace. This man was also Bahá’í, greeted him with “Allah-u-abhá” (the universal Bahá’í greeting), and took his men on their merry (or not) way. Who says religion always causes conflict? In this case, it saved a man’s life.

Look forward to more of these stories in the future as I continue to dig through the history books. There are just too many amazing things to share.

abdu’l-bahá’s visit to montreal

at the door of the shrine‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, arrived in the city of Montreal after an eleven-hour journey from Boston, on the night of August 30th, 1912. His business, far from any material pursuits, was to spread His Father’s message of universal peace, brotherhood and unity. Settling in to the home of Mr. William Sutherland Maxwell and Mrs. May Maxwell, nestled snugly onto the side of Mount Royal, he declared, “This is my home.” A hundred years later, this house is now regarded as a national Shrine, a grace conferred onto the Canadian Bahá’í community that stands unequalled among most of its sister communities worldwide. Montreal was the only Canadian city he visited during his 239-day-long journey, bestowing a priceless spiritual heritage to that city and to the country of Canada—and, at the same time, making an important and profound social statement.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had ample reason to come to Montreal: the Maxwell family, with whom he had already been acquainted many years earlier and who would develop a unique and special relationship to the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, had succeeded in raising up a small but active Bahá’í group there, and it was at their invitation that he made the long trek north from Boston rather than simply cutting across the west on his way to California. But beyond being a gracious visit to long-time friends, his visit to Montreal was also, in a way, an example to the early Canadian believers, many of whom came from Anglophone and Protestant backgrounds, and who carried with them, to varying degrees, the prejudices prevailing in society regarding the French Catholics of Quebec. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, known by the Bahá’ís as the Perfect Exemplar, was no stranger to making examples when there were lessons to be learned, especially when it came to social conventions. He it was who insisted on having Louis Gregory, a black American lawyer, sit next to him at the head of the table at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.—an unthinkable act in a society for which racial segregation was just another fact of life.

It can safely be said that racism is the most challenging issue confronting America, as was stated clearly in a 1991 statement by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of America, The Vision of Race Unity. Canada’s challenges, though slightly more nuanced, are perhaps just as serious. Broadly, it can be said that intercultural prejudice—a combination of racism, nationalistic sentiment and economic and religious prejudice—is Canada’s most challenging issue. This issue was directly raised by the Universal House of Justice in a message to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, dated 5 September 1999. As in many parts of the world, the letter explained, Canada is “affected by various social divisions… In Canada’s case, such issues tend to be cultural in nature, particularly those separating peoples of Native and European origin or those between Canadian of French- and English-speaking backgrounds.” These issues, the Universal House of Justice affirmed, are rooted in “long-standing conflicts that weaken the country’s basic social fabric.” Continue reading

dr. ali-muhammad varqá

mirza mihdi and navvabIt’s with great sadness that the Baha’i world learned today of the passing of Dr. ‘Ali-Muhammad Varqá, the last living member of the Hands of the Cause of God, those selfless, sanctified souls appointed as servants and guides to the worldwide Baha’i Community, whose work, whose only passion was to protect and proclaim the Baha’i Faith in every corner of the globe. According to the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Hands of the Cause were appointed by the Guardian (Shoghi Effendi) and served under His direction. As the Guardian is no longer with us, however, the Hands of the Cause are no longer appointed, and their work is now taken up by the Continental Board of Counsellors, appointed by the Universal House of Justice.

In a message sent today to the Baha’is of the world announcing the passing of Dr. Varqá, the Universal House of Justice pays him tribute and requests the prayers of the Friends everywhere for the progress of his soul through all the worlds of God. We have truly witnessed today, as Barney Leith puts it, the passing of a link with Baha’i history.

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