Already in this Gregorian Calendar New Year, Christians, Shintos, Sikhs and Buddhists have observed religious holy days or holidays. And on Sunday, Baha’is will add to the listing their annual celebration of World Religion Day. I find it refreshing that a religion has the grace to respect and honor other religions by focusing on the roles religions play in unifying humanity.
The day was conceived at the National Spring Assembly of the Baha’i of the United States, the national governing council of the Baha’i religion, in 1949, and first celebrated in 1950. Born in Persia in the 19th Century, the Baha’i faith was brought to the United States in 1893. It reports more than 5 million followers worldwide and according to the Leon County, Florida Religion Statistics profile, as of 2010 (the last year data were collected) we have 133 people of the Baha’i faith in Tallahassee in two congregations. There is a Baha’i Association at Florida State University and that is where I first became associated with Baha’i in 1991.
Hoping to inject some new life into Sunday School at Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church where I was on staff as the Christian Educator and Singles’ Pastor in 1991, I proposed that we have Fabulous February. During the Sundays of this month, I asked all adult classes that were willing to do so, to take a sabbatical from regular teachings, and class members were encouraged to select among a number of topics to broaden their understanding of spiritual matters. One offering was World Religions and we had guests from four different faith traditions to come and share about their faith and why it was meaningful to them.
I had read in the Tallahassee Democrat Faith Section about the Baha’i Association at FSU and their invitation for people to come and enjoy religious dialogue in celebration of World Religion Day, held the third Sunday of January each year. So, I invited a person from the Association, who was also a faculty member at FSU, to join us at Saint Paul’s on one of the Fabulous February Sundays.
I was moved by his passion for unity in the world, among each other, and among religions. He spoke of the need to abolish prejudice, to achieve equality of men and women, to foster harmony between science and religion, and to level the playing field between rich and poor.
I imagine that those in the class did not agree with his belief that their prophet Bahaullah, who wrote thousands of verses, letters, and books revealing God’s plan for a global community, was the latest revelation of God to humankind and fulfilled Messianic prophesy. But they did agree that our visitor was a kind person with a heart-felt desire for human unity and the Baha’i faith became a little less mysterious to those of us who had never before knowingly met a Baha’i.
Since 1950, World Religion Day has taken on a life of its own and many events associated with the day are no longer sponsored by the Baha’i faith. I believe that is because the notion of civil discourse between people of diverse backgrounds and religions, the concept of coming together around our common humanity and focusing on that which unites, not divides us, is something we all hunger for.
As we come to this weekend that celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we are reminded of the importance of his life and words in inspiring human unity. He counseled that we need to engage and confront the sources of disharmony and brokenness. He urged us to appeal to our conscience and higher self in our interactions with others. He taught us to empower the victims of disunity to become full and equal partners in our communities.
In a time when it seems more comforting to seek out the safety of those who are like us and avoid the dis-ease of hearing those who are different, or standing with those who are disenfranchised, it is important to hear the call of this weekend to improve understanding among the world’s religions and advocate for human dignity and justice for all.
Unity is not uniformity, rather a deep appreciation for the ways in which our diversity make us wiser, stronger and richer together. It is about relationships and refreshing grace when we respect and honor each other.