When Abdu’l-Baha traveled to London in 1911, he encountered not only wealthy British society, but also extreme poverty – an issue he described as “one of the blots on the civilization of this enlightened age.”
In this episode of the Moments of Meaning podcast, we speak with author and Baha’i administrator Kenneth Bowers, who serves as the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, about the impact Abdu’l-Baha’s trenchant observation has had on his own spiritual journey.
In his conversation with an English clergyman more than a century ago, Abdu’l-Baha outlined the problem of the extremes of wealth and poverty in contemporary society and its spiritual solution:
The condition of the destitute in the country villages as well as in London impressed Abdu’l-Baha greatly. In an earnest talk with the Rector of a Parish, Abdu’l-Baha said: “I find England awake; there is spiritual life here. But your poor are so very poor! This should not be. On the one hand you have wealth, and great luxury; on the other hand men and women are living in the extremities of hunger and want. This great contrast of life is one of the blots on the civilization of this enlightened age.
You must turn attention more earnestly to the betterment of the conditions of the poor. Do not be satisfied until each one with whom you are concerned is to you as a member of your family. Regard each one either as a father, or as a brother, or as a sister, or as a mother, or as a child. If you can attain to this, your difficulties will vanish, you will know what to do. This is the teaching of Baha’u’llah.
In our interview, Bowers cites the final paragraph of this powerful quotation from Abdu’l-Baha, saying that it influenced him deeply as he grew up in a Baha’i family in a small town in Georgia during the Civil Rights era:
“I also had the experience of growing up with a small group of people whose aim was to actually achieve unity and equity and love among people of different races. And more than a belief, it was something that they put into practice. And it was because of that experience, that I came to understand the importance of this quote …”
This spiritual endeavor – to actually put the Baha’i teachings on unity, equity, and love into action – had a lasting impact on his soul, Bowers says.
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In fact, it had influenced his parents as well. They openly practiced the Baha’i virtues of love and unity, and in the segregated American South at that time crossing racial lines could quickly become dangerous. Bowers says:
“My parents and the small group of people that they had, as their friends, very much believed in the equality, the social equality of black and white people. … And because of the belief in the oneness of humanity, which was a central part of those meetings, the [Baha’i meetings they had] were integrated meetings. So African Americans came and whites came. And soon, in the neighborhood, these meetings became notorious, they came to the attention of neighbors. And before too long, we began to receive threatening phone calls from the neighbors …”
In our podcast interview, Ken Bowers tells the harrowing story of how those phone calls turned from perceived threats to a real one, when some of those neighbors, armed with shotguns and dynamite, came to violently intervene in a Baha’i meeting one night.
Join us as we explore the implications of what it really means to regard every member of the human race, whether rich or poor, as a member of your family.
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