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Have you ever met a person who captured your imagination and spirit in ways different than most others?
They seem so alive, so with it, that you can’t help but want to be with them and almost sit at their feet in awe and admiration. You can’t help but catch their enthusiasm, and are also inspired to become better.
One such person I’m blessed to know like that is my longtime friend and barber, Joey Festa, owner of the State Barber Shop in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. I started going to Joey’s shop as a young 21-year-old in 1971, when I worked in a downtown state office building and it was convenient and quick. Now I’m much older but Joey still radiates a contagious youthfulness—although he just turned 82.
It’s not just the jokes and songs, of which Joe has many, but also his love and enthusiasm for his customers and all the people of Trenton. His oft-stated goal is to make our capital city shine just like the gold dome over the Statehouse. He is a tireless promoter of the city, especially the downtown with its thousands of state workers during the weekdays. He is convinced that with the right mix of programs and businesses, Trenton could be an enviable place to live, work and shop. I agree, not just about Trenton, but about the world. It’s because we both have faith in people. Joey believes as I do, that it takes good people to build a good world.
For example, one of Joe’s oft-repeated ideas is to bring back the Trenton YMCA which was torn down to make room for another office building. “Think of it Reverend (he calls me “Reverend” because we talk about religion, too). A place to get in shape and stay in shape. A place for children and youth to attend all kinds of programs. A place for them off the streets and where they can be productive. A place that’s much better than a jail,” Joe says. I couldn’t agree more.
When a new business starts up near Joe’s shop, he immediately walks over and offers to help them in any way he can. His excitement over the new Starbucks opening up three doors down overflows. “Just think, 20 jobs for 20 of our kids. Gives them something productive and money in their pockets and good benefits.”
Joey is all about how important it is to occupy our youth, train them and teach them how to give back to society and make their own lives better. He’s proud of all the customers he’s served, and the so-called “hopeless” cases he’s given a hand to, youth and adults. One such is his current tenant, previously homeless and alcoholic, living rent-free and sober with Joe’s help. Just like Joe, our acts of charity and goodwill make life better for everyone.
One of Joe’s mottos is, “All the help you need is at the end of your elbow,” in other words we must help ourselves with our own efforts. Another is, “If someone reaches out a helping hand to you, do you care what color it is?” Joe is colorblind, and his diverse clientele proves it. Even mayors and county executives and governors have sat in his chair, and he preaches the same messages of love, unity, helpfulness and education to everyone. These are basic Baha’i principles.
I asked him once, “Joe, where do you get your energy? How is it you have such a positive attitude?” His answer was simple and direct. “Sixty years ago I turned everything over to God, and He hasn’t disappointed me yet.”
On my way home from my bi-monthly visits to Joe I reflect on that. I wonder where I’d be today if I had not found God through the teachings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, just two years before my first visit to Joe’s shop back in 1971.
Do you know anyone like Joe, whose attitude and outlook can have such positive effect on others? Or do you aspire to be like Joe? It’s a great goal to have, to be like that person who, by their example and words, exemplify the best and most positive human qualities.
That’s what religion does for us—it encourages us to develop and demonstrate our best inner virtues and qualities.
This is exactly how learning about Abdu’l-Baha’s life and reading his words of wisdom have always affected me. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in his presence, a never-failing example of dynamism and hope to all he met. Shoghi Effendi wrote:
Let those who have known Abdu’l-Baha, who through their contact with His magnetic personality have come to cherish for Him so fervent an admiration, reflect, … on the greatness of One Who is so far above Him in station … – The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 132.
Of course, Shoghi Effendi refers here to Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith—Abdu’l-Baha’s father and the one whose teachings so many millions of Baha’is all around the world follow. Indeed, of all the stories of Abdu’l-Baha’s captivating talks to hundreds of audiences in Europe and America, and the galvanizing effect he had on those he met, none compare to the effects of Baha’u’llah’s humble kindness and overwhelming transcendence on stranger, friend and foe alike.
Baha’is and the people of the world are fortunate to have so many writings, recordings, talks, stories and first-hand accounts of meetings with these blessed personages. Each one is meant to demonstrate the principles they taught and lived—principles worth living for and sharing today.