My experience with faith and race is an improbable journey of growth and spiritual transformation.
That transformation has played out against the backdrop of weighty social changes in the United States, during a time in which the nation grappled with the challenges of re-imagining how equal rights for all might look in practice, if it were the sine qua non-of American public life and supported by force of law.
I am just old enough to have been born in a segregated hospital, in a segregated city, in the segregated American South. In its earliest stages, the profound changes ushered in by the civil rights movement brought with them a national wakening to the disparities in the lives, opportunities and treatment of the country’s black and white citizens. As profound and necessary as those changes were to achieving legal parity for all citizens, they did not bring racial unity to America’s restive social landscape.
This story began in the cauldron of social change that was the 1960s and 1970s in America. It is the account of the intersection and transformation of two families, which on the surface could not be more different. Their story can be viewed simultaneously as an indication of what is possible in human relations and as a model for building racial unity and community.
The transformative impact of the teachings of Baha’u’llah are at the core of this family narrative.
Baha’u’llah is the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith. Followers of Baha’u’llah’s, called Baha’is, try to live their lives according to his teachings—and believe that those teachings can be an agent for positive transformation of the individual and society. Baha’is also believe that Baha’u’llah is the most recent in a never-ending series of divinely inspired messengers or prophets from God, whose continuous guidance throughout human history is an evidence of God’s grace, which will endure as long as humanity endures.
Each of the messengers of God, Baha’is believe, is the most magnificent and perfect spiritual teacher from our one common Creator. Those messengers guide humanity from its current condition to the next stage in its spiritual and social evolution. These great messengers come to the world in the role of divine physician, diagnosing the critical needs of humanity at the time in which they appear and prescribing the divine remedy specially formulated to the needs of the people of that time. In doing so, they unleash spiritual and temporal potential latent within the world of being, heal what ails humanity, and encourage it towards the next great leap in its social and spiritual development.
The Baha’i Faith has many teachings, each intended to guide and improve the lives and communities of its adherents. Like the spokes of a wheel, each of the Baha’i teachings connects to, and radiates from, a central theme in Baha’u’llah’s scriptures—each re-enforcing and adding tensile strength and structural integrity to the whole. At the heart of Baha’i teachings, the hub around which all other teachings revolve, is the oneness of humanity. Baha’u’llah wrote:
Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Day Star of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 288.
To this Baha’u’llah added the following passages, reinforcing the universality of the principle of the oneness of humanity:
It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens. – Ibid., p. 250.
Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 20.
The Baha’i teachings also say that prejudice and injustice distort the edifice of humanity, robbing large segments of the human family of the full contributions they can make to society, as well as benefits they should draw. Race prejudice has long been America’s most challenging issue—a stain on her great contributions to the world. However, Baha’is believe that recognition of the spiritual reality and connectedness of all human beings implied by the oneness of humanity can unleash the full potential of all human beings to contribute the full measure their capacity to the advancement of civilization. The recognition and application of this principle has the potential to ignite individual and community transformation. That is what the Baha’i teachings did for my family.