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Building Spiritual Immunity to Racism

Cynthia Barnes-Slater | Apr 20, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Cynthia Barnes-Slater | Apr 20, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Sitting alone in my apartment, practicing “social distancing” from friends and family during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, my thoughts focus on the purpose of life — of my particular life — at this critical period of the world’s existence. And I’m thinking about how this pandemic is exposing all the ills of our American society: rampant social, economic, and educational inequities woven together with the persistent, unresolved poison of racial prejudice.  

“My spiritual path has provided ‘spiritual immunity’ through the daily study of the Baha’i Writings”

In my mid-sixties, I am technically an “elder” — part of the “boomer” generation about which much has been written, and who are more susceptible to COVID-19.  Having lived through many of life’s inevitable crises, I now have unstructured time and space to also consider “what does it all mean?” 

My answer: My spiritual path has provided “spiritual immunity” through the daily study of the Baha’i Writings on the dual — material and spiritual — nature of human existence. In my material life, I sleep, eat, survive, and try to do acts of service in my community. And in my spiritual life, I pray, meditate on the Word of God: the Baha’i writings, the Bible, and the Quran. This spiritual practice has nurtured my spiritual immunity: an essential source of inner comfort, hope, and resilience during difficult, challenging times, such as burying my beloved parents within seven months of each other.

A daily spiritual practice has provided me with a calm, composed focus, an ability to enhance latent skills of perception and resilience. As Abdu’l Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith said, “Spirituality is the greatest of God’s gifts, and ‘Life Everlasting’ means ‘Turning to God.’” 

This gift of turning to God is one that I have witnessed during times of calamity growing up black in America. I often marvel at the deep spiritual immunity and resilience that multi-generations of black Americans displayed over 400-plus years of chattel slavery, racial segregation, racial terrorism, and rampant, persistent racial discrimination. 

“the purpose of human life and the true reality of man is both material and spiritual”

According to the Baha’i Writings, the purpose of human life and the true reality of man is both material and spiritual. As humans, our spirits, our souls reflect an eternal essence, an ethereal part of being human with the potential to gain clarity, power, and resilience through withstanding and rising above the unavoidable downs of life. I believe that each of us can nurture this inner power to overcome unforeseen problems, disappointments, and calamities that can overwhelm our equilibrium. 

Each of us has the power to choose how we will react through building this capacity for spiritual immunity. Baha’is are encouraged to develop this capacity of the soul through daily prayer and meditation. I meditate on these words of Baha’u’llah each day: “I have wakened every morning to the light of Thy praise and Thy remembrance, and reached every evening inhaling the fragrances of Thy mercy.”

Fortifying my spiritual self is an essential part of being human, of overcoming challenges, and of helping others. It is the way I can try to, as Abdu’l Baha said, ”become the very soul of the world, the living spirit in the body of the children of men.” 

I learned about building spiritual immunity from my late father, one of the first African Americans hired by the San Francisco Police Department in the early 1960s. Early one Christmas Day, he was on his way home after his shift when he was stopped in his car by a white rookie policeman five blocks from our family home. The rookie stopped him for what is euphemistically called a “California” stop at a four-way stop sign. Apparently, my father only touched his brakes, and seeing no one coming from any direction, he kept on driving towards home to his wife and six children.

Dressed in civilian clothes, my father told the rookie officer that he was a fellow police officer and showed him identification and his badge. The white officer did not believe him. My father was a black man driving alone in an older station wagon in a predominantly white, middle-class San Francisco neighborhood. The officer subsequently arrested him, put handcuffs on him, and brought him into the same police station where they both worked. My father told us that he felt this was an act of intentional humiliation, a white man “putting him in his place” — subservient to any white man. 

If my father had reacted with justified anger or physical resistance, it would have been a calamity.  At the time, he was the sole breadwinner of our family. Had he lost his job, or worse been shot, the result for our family would have been a disaster. Yet, my father, a spiritual and strong-willed (and often cantankerous) person, demonstrated the spiritual immunity and resilience typical of black people of his generation when dealing with daily, unpredictable racial discrimination and disparate treatment by whites.  My father did not resist. He acquiesced, and consequently, he was immediately released at the station with his fellow white police officers laughing at him and not holding the white officer accountable. The spiritual immunity my father displayed, despite his apprehension and distress during this incident is an example of what Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, said are “grievous and slow-healing wounds” of “the most vital and challenging issue” of racial prejudice. 

Although he loved Jesus Christ and considered himself a spiritual Christian, the unseen wounds of discrimination during his 25-year career as a policeman caused my father to be suspicious of most white people for the rest of his life. Daddy perceived the sufferings of Jesus, the trials and tribulations suffered during his divine ministry on earth in the Bible, as emblematic of the spiritual immunity required of being black and surviving in America. My father explained how trials and tests are inevitable for every human being, that deliverance was through faith in God — through spiritual resilience — and that each of us has the choice and capacity to develop spiritual immunity by choosing not to react to injustice in self-destructive ways. 

This capacity for overcoming “grievous and slow healing wounds” through spiritual immunity was apparent to me on a visit in April 2019 to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Monument for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. It memorializes over 4,000 victims of domestic terrorism — lynching — perpetrated on innocent black men, women, and children. During that unforgettable visit, I was better able to understand the power of the human spirit — of the spiritual strength, resilience, and capacity for immunity demonstrated by people of African descent in this country.

This photo shows a bronze statue called “Raise Up”, part of the display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial to honor thousands of people killed in lynchings in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial and accompanying museum are part of a project by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy group in Montgomery.

It’s a spirit that’s been honed through unimaginable suffering. As Abdu’l Baha said: “The souls who bear the tests of God become the manifestations of great bounties; for the divine trials cause some souls to become entirely lifeless, while they cause the holy souls to ascend to the highest degree of love and steadfastness. They cause progress, just as they cause retrogression.” 

Through calamities such as pandemics, war, violence, economic inequities, racial injustice, and discrimination, there are millions of stories like that of my father’s — of being forced to survive circumstances outside of one’s control, of being unjustly accused, attacked, and threatened by external forces. These experiences create overwhelming feelings of fear, panic, and helplessness.

My father had a copy of a Bible given to him by his parents in segregated Texas when he was a child. He kept and read that Bible all his life. Regardless of his ups and downs with my parents’ church, my father tried his best to stay immersed in the Word of God. As Abdu’l Baha said

“All the Prophets have come to promote divine bestowals, to found the spiritual civilization and teach the principles of morality. Therefore, we must strive with all our powers so that spiritual influences may gain the victory. For material forces have attacked mankind. The world of humanity is submerged in a sea of materialism. The rays of the Sun of Reality are seen but dimly and darkly through opaque glasses. The penetrative power of the divine bounty is not fully manifest.” 

Reflecting on my father’s spiritual example prepared me to investigate the Baha’i Faith and develop my inner immunity to face life’s inevitable hardships. When I would complain to my father about the racism I experienced in the working world, he used to tell me an adage of spiritual immunity — that I had to learn how to let these challenges run off me “like water off a duck’s back.” 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we see examples of spiritual immunity in the selfless, compassionate actions of millions of human beings who are serving others in hospitals and grocery stores and by delivering mail and packages. And the spiritual immunity my father demonstrated is available to me by reading and reflecting on the Word of God, providing eternal guidance, comfort, nurturing the spiritual resilience of turning to a Divine force greater than myself. Each of us has the capacity to keenly see the bounties of God in each other, and to nurture and develop our own and others’ spiritual immunity, 

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  • Mark David Vinzens
    Apr 20, 2020
    “Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Verily, in that are signs for people with knowledge” (Surat al-Rum 30:22)
  • Mark David Vinzens
    Apr 20, 2020
    „Become the very soul of the world, the living spirit in the body of the children of men.“
    Very beautiful. May we all attain this transcendent and most sublime station. Indeed, the souls who bear the tests of God become the manifestations of great bounties. Malcolm X said in his „Letter from Mecca“: „America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem [...] I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.“ - I think he is right ...with that. The racial egalitarian teachings of Islam can be traced directly to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muĥammad. The Bahá'í Faith renewed these teachings.
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