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A half-century ago, Baha’is around the world were eagerly anticipating the fiftieth anniversary of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha on Sunday, 28 November 1971. I took part, and it changed my life.
In response to the appeal of the Universal House of Justice – the democratically-elected global leadership body of the world’s Baha’is – Baha’i communities everywhere set aside that weekend for gatherings to culminate at 1:00 a.m. in that memory-laden night as a source of inspiration and renewed dedication.
As a young person attending the University of Texas at Arlington, I would join other Baha’is for the event at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, 310 miles distant. Because it was to be hosted by a wonderful long-time Baha’i named Edna True, we eagerly looked forward to attending the commemoration.
Edna was an historic figure. In 1903, when she embraced the Baha’i Faith at 15 years of age together with her mother, she had written to Abdu’l-Baha, asking him how to become a better Baha’i. He replied:
Thy letter was an inheritance of joy and happiness unto me, for its significance was a supplication and an entreaty unto God to make thee a pure servant, exempt from all material desires, sanctified and severed from all save God, that thou mayest be characterized with the attributes of the heavenly angels … Verily, I pray God to nourish thee upon the breast of bounty and rear thee in such a manner that all men of learning shall be amazed, and to make thee a miracle of guidance among the servants.
Less than four years later in 1907, he directly asked her mother, Corinne True, to take on the daunting task of working to build the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. For her stalwart and successful efforts to fulfill that mission over a 45-year period, Corinne became known as the Mother of the Temple. In 1952 Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, appointed Corinne True as a Hand of the Cause, an honored institution composed of prominent and devoted Baha’is.
Edna would be intimately involved with her mother in the work of completing the Temple, serving on its construction committee from 1947-1953, contributing expertise toward its interior design, and planning the formal dedication in 1953.
In the interim years, Edna served tirelessly as chairperson and secretary of the Baha’i Inter-America Committee, as recording-secretary for 22 years on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, as chairman of the European Teaching Committee from 1946 – 1964, and as a Counselor from 1968 – 1980.
In addition to such a remarkable legacy of service, Edna had first-hand knowledge of Abdu’l-Baha, whom she met in 1912 at the dedication of the Temple grounds outside of Chicago and again in 1919 in the Holy Land. As a member of a college relief unit, she had drawn his praise for her efforts to help displaced and wounded persons in devastated France during the First World War. More than amply qualified to host the commemoration in 1971, she was a treasure that many of us underappreciated.
Perhaps anticipating that she would be sharing her personal experiences with Abdu’l-Baha, Edna prepared an article entitled “Sixtieth Anniversary of Abdu’l-Baha’s Travels to the Western World”. Published in the November 1971 issue of Baha’i News, she described him by citing:
His wonderful qualities, His exemplary life, His radiant and loving personality, His wisdom and dynamic spiritual power. … All doors and avenues of approach,” she further recalled, “seemed to be mysteriously opened to Him. He was cordially invited to give addresses in several universities, to speak before scientific associations, socialistic bodies, and welfare organizations. He was the honored guest speaker in churches, temples, synagogues, women’s clubs, and metaphysical groups. … In meeting after meeting and in private conversations, over and over again, He called upon the believers clustered around Him to strive to acquire Baha’i virtues, for, He asserted, ‘without the inner change and development of character, no outward good could be accomplished.’”
During her talk, Edna had invited attendees to gather at the large University of Arkansas amphitheater at midnight. Seating myself near the top row for a bird’s eye view, Edna’s presence uplifted my spirits, and those of everyone around me. A few in the audience, like her, had met Abdu’l-Baha. Then as the moment of the commemoration neared, she told us: “You know, friends, that you can make a wish to Abdu’l-Baha and he will grant it.”
My reaction was off the charts. At the time my deepest yearning was to find someone with whom I could share a life that very much involved the Baha’i Faith and its profound principles. So at 1:00 a.m. in the midst of prayers I made my wish.
Back in Arlington the next day, I found a letter from Nancy Lee in the mail. At the time she was studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. We had met in 1969 through a Baha’i couple in Austin just after she had become a Baha’i. Although nothing romantic surfaced during that initial meeting, I sensed in her a spiritual capacity that stirred my heart.
Soon after we met, though, she had became engaged to another Baha’i. But after several tries to obtain consent from her parents who vowed never to agree to her marrying a Baha’i, Nancy broke off the engagement and left for London. Meanwhile, she agreed that we could correspond in what eventually became a long-distance courtship by mail.
In her letter, Nancy wrote that she was coming home to Arkansas to see her parents for Christmas, 235 miles east of where I lived in Texas. During her holiday, we were able to confirm our love for each other. But because consent appeared impossible, and parental consent is required for a Baha’i union, she returned to London without our considering marriage.
Meanwhile, bewildered, I sought refuge in prayer and reflection. Remarkably, a blind friend and fellow follower of the Baha’i teachings unexpectedly phoned and emphatically said to me: “Baha’u’llah intends that you and Nancy marry!”
Astonished, I did not know until later that Nancy would obey an irresistible urge to leave London for Arlington, where she resolved to find employment and settle – and be near me.
Within two days of her returning to the U.S. to stay with a mutual Baha’i friend, I found a note from my roommate to phone Nancy’s mother – who had discovered her daughter’s departure from London and my phone number. In the call, which we made together, her mom asked Nancy: “Do you love him?” “Yes!” Nancy immediately and emphatically replied. “Well your father and I have decided to give you consent to marry. Your former suitor explained that consent is not condoning the Baha’i Faith.” Three weeks later, Nancy and I had a Baha’i marriage attended by close friends and family.
This year the Baha’is commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha. On this historic hour as in past years, whatever we may ask of him will require sincerity and purity of motive. Maybe Nancy and I will ask him to bless Edna True, who left this world in 1988, and who planted the seed of our union a half-century ago – when, with perhaps a twinkle in her eye, she urged her audience to open their hearts to Abdu’l-Baha, who is reported to have proclaimed:
There is a power in this Cause, a mysterious power, far, far, far away from the ken of men and angels. That invisible power … dashes into a thousand pieces all the forces of opposition. It creates new spiritual worlds. This is a mystery of the Kingdom of Abha. … Ask whatsoever thou wishest of Him alone; seek whatsoever thou sleekest from Him alone. With a look He granteth a hundred thousand hopes, with a glance He healeth a hundred thousand incurable ills, with a nod He layeth balm on every wound, with a glimpse He freeth the hearts from the shackles of grief. A few months after this 100th anniversary commemoration, my sweet Nancy and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary and the wonderful loving memories of a shared Baha’i life together.