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Now that I had decided to become a Baha’i, I felt my decision required a meeting with my minister at St. Mark’s church. This was an unnecessary move on my part. Officially Baha’is don’t belong to other religions, though they can attend services and are even exhorted by Baha’u’llah to:
I knew that my lack of attendance would surely signal my withdrawal from the church. But I still received the weekly church bulletin in the mail, which meant that according to their rolls, I was officially a Methodist, and I did not want that. Furthermore, this was my first opportunity to test my mettle in defending my newfound beliefs.
Dow Kirkpatrick was a fine man, a daring minister, a capable theologian, and a respected friend to my family and all their friends at St. Marks Methodist Church. He continued to be so until he passed away when my mother was in her nineties. Consequently, I felt certain that Dr. Kirkpatrick would discern in his theory of religion a moral imperative. Wouldn’t he feel a sacred duty on his part to test the thesis at the heart of the Baha’i teachings, especially that the advent of Baha’u’llah represented the Second Coming of Christ as foretold in scripture? Was this indeed an accurate account of God’s plan? Was Baha’u’llah actually who he claimed to be? Was he indeed the return of Christ promised to occur in the Time of the End? And if these assertions were accurate, should he himself not follow my “Fourth Proposition”? And if he felt these were bogus claims, shouldn’t he protect one of his “flock” from a spurious theology.
As one of the stalwart members of the church and former president of the youth department elected by other students, some of whom were pre-ministerial majors, wouldn’t I present him with some sense of challenge, some sense of duty? Surely he would feel the need either to save me from this wayward and perverse notion, or to point out some subtle flaws in its thesis, or, failing either of these, to investigate its assertions for himself. How could he, or any person in such a station and with such a fine mind, find an alternative? I was prepared for action!
I dressed in my best suit. I selected a Baha’i text or two to take with me, with particularly powerful passages marked. I brought my Bible, which my parents had given me as I went off to college. I made an “official” appointment to meet with him. I said a few prayers and drove to the church with grim determination to hold my own against whichever of the three responses might ensue.
He cordially invited me into his office, and I seated myself opposite his executive desk. “So, how can I help you, Johnny?” He had a lovely, knowing smile, and an incredibly warm and comforting voice. He had always been most kind to me. I remember he had gone to the trouble to send me a newspaper clipping of my picture when I had won some award in high school.
“Dr. Kirkpatrick, I wish to have my name officially withdrawn from the rolls of St. Mark Church.” I had planned out the first sentence or two, and what I said next would depend on his response, like the opening gambits of a chess match.
“Oh? Why is that?” He was serious now, but not in the least disturbed, it seemed, and that unnerved me—this was nothing at all like the Baptist minister who had cautioned me about the road to hell should I continue down the path of studying the Baha’i Faith.
“I have decided to become a Baha’i.”
“Is that so?” He knew about the Baha’i Faith because he was well aware that Bill had become a Baha’i. Even though Bill had not belonged to St. Mark church, Bill was still Helen Hatcher’s son, and Helen Hatcher was a close friend, was head of the junior youth department, and was a firm pillar of the St. Mark community of believers.
“Yes, I have come to believe that Baha’u’llah is the most recent manifestation from God, that he is… [pregnant pause for dramatic effect]… the return of Christ!” He sat back away from his desk a little. There were a few seconds of silence.
“And you want your name removed from the rolls, then?”
“Uh, why, yes. That’s right.”
“Okay,” he said. “That’s no problem.” He smiled, leaned over across the large desk to shake my hand. “I wish you the very best in your religious journey, and I will certainly keep you in my prayers and take care of this for you.”
What sort of gambit was this? This was none of the three responses I had anticipated. The non-answer answer! I would much later encounter this technique when I read Melville’s wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scribner,” a remarkable work about a character who successfully befuddles and manipulates his employer (the first-person narrator) simply by responding to every request that he do something with, “I would prefer not.”
That’s what Dow had done to me, the “I prefer not” answer to any possible debate or discussion or attack or caution. I now know he was more experienced than I. Through my life-long journey as a Baha’i, I would encounter this very same non-response response from some of the best minds I encountered. In time I came to respect that response as not being a denial of reality or religion or the desire to discover the truth. I came to regard it as a matter of timing, of circumstance, and, most of all, an indicator of the serious mysterious regarding the spiritual journey that each soul must take. Even as Christ had taught in the parable of the Vineyard, it matters not when you discover the truth in your journey; your reward will be the same—eternal reunion with the same God.
Even though mother through the years would send Dow copies of books on the Baha’i Faith penned by Bill and me, and even though she herself would become a Baha’i at the age of ninety-three, Dow never expressed too much interest that I became aware of, though he was always kind and cordial whenever we met and talked in the years to come.
In a bit of celestial irony, however, a few years after my meeting with him, Dow was transferred to one of the highest ranking jewels among Methodist church assignments, the Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. The great irony in this was that the entrancing and astoundingly beautiful Baha’i House of worship in Wilmette, Illinois, is but a few blocks up Sheridan road from the Methodist Church. What is more, during his entire tenure there, he was forever having Baha’i students from across the street at Northwestern University plague him with questions about the Baha’i Faith and Christianity, though I have no idea if he also gave them the non-response response.
Next: How Does the Baha’i Faith Spread?