Most religions that accept converts have some sort of ritual or ceremony to mark the difference between the old life and the new. Baptism is, of course, familiar to Christians. Among Muslims one makes a declaration of belief in front of two witnesses. When you become a Baha'i, you declare your faith by signing a card stating you believe in Baha'u'llah, the Manifestation of God for this Day, and seek enrollment in the Baha'i community.
Not all Baha'is are enrolled, of course, In the Third World, where literacy is a problem, there are thousands of Baha'is who have never signed a card, but here in the West, it is a significant moment. I was told, before I was given a card, that it was the faith in my heart that made me a Baha'i, and that I would be a Baha'i whether I signed a card or not. But when I signed it, I could be part of the worldwide Baha'i community.
I signed my card in 1985.
Life in the Baha'i community can be extremely difficult. It is almost axiomatic among Baha'is that our greatest "test" is our fellow Baha'is. However, the pattern of Baha'i missionary activity, with its emphasis on forming Assemblies (the nine-member elected governing body) has meant that many of our communities are small, isolated, and struggling. I lived in two different local communities in the same county, and never did any of them grow beyond 12 adults, but once that number of nine was reached, we could not expect much outside help. So it's often just the local Baha'is that happen to be around that define one's experience. If they've got their act together, great. If not, it can be an endless round of frustration even to have a community life at the most basic level.
In most places, you can't expect to join the Baha'i community and just go to regular worship services and go on about your life. The all-important Assembly will demand your attention, because the Baha'i community is so structured that it is not the worship of God that is important, but the building of the Administrative Order, believed to be divinely ordained. As Baha'is will hasten to tell you, this is not the way things are laid out in Baha'i scripture, yet that's the way it often is. You cannot tell a circle of nine people that they constitute an administrative body and expect that someone among them will not push it into administrating, especially given the constant pressure to "teach the Faith."
As frustrating as this situation often was to me, I remained in the Baha'i community for thirteen years, although I became more alienated and inactive as time went by. However, I was committed to living my life as a Baha'i, by the Writings that I loved.
In 1988, I accompanied a friend of mine back to Wilmette, Illinois, where our National Center is, for the Convention that would elect the next year's National Spiritual Assembly. It was an exciting, one-in-a-lifetime trip for me, the only time I was able to see our House of Worship. (Baha'is don't yet have local houses of worship, and generally worship in each others' homes.) But a significant, and as it turned out, fateful event occurred when I was back there: External Affairs Secretary Firuz Kazemzadeh denounce a Baha'i magazine "Dialogue" that I happened to be subscribed to, calling the people behind it "dissidents" and disrespectful to Baha'i institutions. Especially offensive to him was a proposed article called A Modest Proposal, cheekily named after a famous satire by Jonathan Swift. I was convinced by his talk that I should not have anything further to do with such people and I obediently threw all my copies of the magazine away.
Eleven years later, in 1999, when I had access to the Internet for the first time, I found this article. It had never actually been published, but had been submitted for the prepublication review process that anything written by a Baha'i author about the Faith must undergo. So very few people had ever seen it, until it was published on the web. And to my shock, I found that this article was nothing more than a list of nine proposals for mild reform in Baha'i administration, politely offered to the community for discussion. I felt I had been lied to, and in a blaze of fury, resigned my membership from the Baha'i community.
I later discovered that what happened to Dialogue magazine was only one in a string of attempts to silence any voices that do not echo the official line. Especially distasteful to Baha'i authorities are the voices of academics who have the ability to research Baha'i history and read the texts in the original languages(Persian and Arabic). Western scholarship itself has been described as "materialistic". These people are really no different, in any substantive way, from Christian fundamentalists who object to the findings of modern Biblical criticism. The only real difference is that in the Baha'i Faith, they have the power to either insist that that a scholar fall into line, or he can be forced out of the Faith. [For information about an incident where this occurred, see my article "The Talisman Crackdown".]
I joined a religion committed to the investigation of truth. I joined a religion that believed in the harmony of reason and faith. I joined a religion that insisted on education and supported scholarship. I joined a religion that cherished justice as "the best-beloved of all things" as its Founder had written. To discover that these fundamental principles had been betrayed was more devastating than I can say.
I know that for some, this must seem like a tempest in a teapot. Why don't I just walk away and find myself another spiritual community? Forget the whole thing altogether? But a person can't just walk into America's vast spiritual supermarket, pick up a religion and say, "Hey, this looks like a bargain! I'll take it." Faith has been called "a movement of the heart", and you just can't make your heart move as a matter of will, any more than you could make yourself fall in love with the guy next door because your Mom likes him. I fell in love with Baha'u'llah, and there really isn't anything else that speaks to me in the way his Writings do.
Nor is a Baha'i at liberty to simply start another version of the Baha'i Faith; that violates our teachings on unity. However, it is my own belief that unity is most at risk where diversity of opinion is not allowed.( The "Baha'i watchword" is supposed to be "unity in diversity".) Unenrolled Baha'is like myself are not going away. We are Baha'is, whether recognized as such or not.
What does it mean to be an unenrolled Baha'i? It means to be in exile because one is faithful to the principles of Baha'u'llah before the institutions which are supposed to be the servants and vehicles for his teachings. And because we love his Faith, we will not be silent about the things that have gone wrong.
Author's note: This article first appeared on Themestream December 7, 2000. It was later published at Written By Me on August 2, 1001. My article My Life in the Baha'i Community is an earlier, more detailed account of my experience.
My Life in the Baha'i Community
An Informal History of a Rural Baha'i Community
A Religion Out of Balance
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