Why I am a Baha'i

I'm a base brat; I grew up on Air Force bases all over the US and Southeast Asis. Because my family traveled so much, I was exposed to different people and cultures at a very early age, and I met a lot of people who seemed to be just as kind, patient and loving as Christians. In fact, many of them were even more kind and patient than the Christians I knew. I couldn't and wouldn't believe that God would condemn them to an everlasting fiery hell just because they were not Baptists, or Methodists, or Pentecostal or...whatever. And besides, why are there so many denominations of Christianity in the first place, with each one claiming to have the number one direct pipeline to God? Which one is "right"? I was bothered by these questions at a young ag4e, even as early as seven or eight years old. In fact, at five I was frightened by the concept of God burning people who did not accept Christ as their personal savior, and I would cry at night for the poor souls who were caught in the lake of fire. Isn't that a horrific image to plant in the mind of a child? I remember praying very fervently on my knees every night for the "sinners" who needed to be saved. I didn't want anyone to burn in hell.

My parents definitely have their faults, but one thing they did right was emphasize education and the need to discover the truth by gathering as much information as possible. The best weapon against religious programming is the ability to read well and think critically, and that's what Mary and Richard did for their three children. By the time I was eleven, I was reading the Bible along with the pastors in the churches my family attended over the years, and interpreting Biblical verses very differently from them. I saw a very different story than what they were reading and "translating" to the congregation in the Gospel or the Old Testament, and I wasn't buying their version of God's Word. But pastors are considered the ultimate authority on Biblical interpretation, and without their knowledge, a lowly parishioner can't possibly understand how to be "saved" and go to heaven. Certainly a young girl like me couldn't have understood what God has written in His Holy Book. Unfortunately, my parents taught me to question about everything in life except their parental authority, which they considered to be absolute. But a preacher was fair game. So I went for it. Compared to Richard and Mary, a preacher was a flyweight.

I learned the hard way what happens to people who ask too many questions in church. Social isolation is an effective tool to silence young, enthusiastic truth-seekers. I went to church to church asking questions, often without my family. I had to know what God REALLY said, and what He MEANT by those words in the Bible. My questions were argued down, or I was completely ignored. After a while, people wouldn't sit next to me in the pews, as if I had some communicable disease. I didn't know what the word heretic meant back then, but I'm sure people called me that. Yet, I never gave up the search. I became discouraged, and very hurt by the way I was treated. But I kept searching.

The 70s made it easy to investigate Hinduism and Buddhism, so I started reading about those religions. I guess I was one of those people who was influenced by the Beatles in that way. Then my parents bought "The Autobiography of Malcolm X", and as a result, I started reading about Islam. That did for me. There was a puzzle, and some of the pieces were missing. All of those religions had a lot in common with each other, namely, they all said, love God, love your neighbor and love yourself. That's what I got out of reading those books. Since they all have the same basic spiritual message, why did all those religions fight each other for dominance over peoples' hearts and minds? Is there one God for the Jews, another for the Christians, another for Buddhists and the others? Does God split Himself up like that? Or is it possible that there is only one God for all mankind, and religious people have twisted His message over the years? In my heart, I believed there is only one God, but I didn't know how to prove it. That feeling was just a theory, and I had no text for evidence.

I first heard about the Baha'i Faith during a radio program that I was listening to with my ex-husband one evening. Clarissa was about eight months old, and I was pregnant with Marc. We didn't have a TV (we were broke and living an impoverished neighborhood), so we listened to the radio a lot. The late, great jazz trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, was on a talk show with three other people, and the topic was morals and beliefs. When Dizzy started talking about being a Baha'i, I really tuned in. He was talking about things that I had always suspected were true, but I couldn't prove--that there is only one God, and God reveals the mysteries of His Being when mankind as whole is mature enough to understand His message. God does this through human Manifestations of His Essence, and there have been nine of them, beginning with Adam--Abraham, the genetic father of all of the Manifestations, Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Zoroaster (not well known in the West, but the three Wise Men who first recognized Jesus as the next Messiah were all Zoroastrians), Jesus, Muhammad, and the two Manifestations of the new era of mankind, the Ba'b (meaning the Gate) and Baha'u'llah, known as the Glory of God. All of this made perfect sense to me. I was excited, but it took me five years to meet any Baha'is.

I declared my belief in Baha'u'llah in 1986, during first night I ever attended a fireside, which is an informative and very casual gathering of both non-Baha'is and Baha'is coming together to talk about the Baha'i Faith specifically, and religion/spirituality in general. It was a turning point in my life. The fireside started at six pm with a huge potluck dinner, and it didn't end until six the next morning as we finally wound down the discussion. I asked question after question after question, and no one seemed to be bothered by it. In fact, the Baha'is welcomed my questions enthusiastically, and they would refer to different religious texts to help me make the connections and see how these weren't separate religions that worship different gods, but One Religion revealed at different times throughout history that told the eternal story of God's love for humanity. I was with my ex-husband and three children, and the couple that hosted the fireside pulled out sleeping cots for the kids, and we kept talking while they slept. By the time we woke the kids up the next morning to go home, both of their parents were Baha'is.

I don't know if my ex is still a Baha'i, but it doesn't matter. We have the precious gift of free will, and we can choose to believe or not. I've always believed in God, but I just couldn't get with the nonsensical, condemning traditional message that some of the Christian clergy ladle out to their congregations every Sunday morning. God is present in my life every nanosecond, and I'm at my best when I remember that.

Whenever I forget, food becomes tempting and I become anxious, doubting, and afraid of everything and everyone. I draw strength by asking God to guide toward the right actions to take each day, or more specifically, submitting to His Will for me in life, instead of trying to ram my way through on my own unsteady will power. I've tried doing life on just my own willpower, and I've had mixed results. Where I've failed most miserably is with my health, obviously. But I've learned, and continue to learn that God has a very different path for me, and all I have to do is make the choice each day--to either put addictive and excess food in my mouth, or to eat healthy food in measured amounts. I'm learning, however imperfectly, to use the tools that give my life the structure that I've never had before. I believe that if I hadn't made the decision years ago to search for a truth about God that makes sense to me, I might not be a Baha'i or recovering from food addiction. I'd be another one of those huge women people often see in Baptist churches, squeezing into the pews every Sunday morning and eating a whole fried chicken with a bucket of mashed potatoes, gravy, corn bread and collard greens after the service. I was at that point, actually. And eventually, hypertension, diabetes, chronic heart disease, goiters and a host of other obesity related diseases would have killed me by now.

To me, the meaning of salvation is learning to open up to the life-saving guidance God provides when I seek it out, and abiding by that guidance. I don't always do it as much as I think I should, and I feel horribly guilty when I fall back into old destructive thoughts and actions. This much I am certain--I know when I am abiding by God's will for my life because I feel comforted, safe and serene. By changing my thoughts and actions to reflect more of my inner communication and guidance from God, I'm getting to be more present and available to do service, as both a Baha'i and a recovering person, for others. Being "saved" doesn't mean I get an automatic pass to heaven by merely professing a belief. It's living the life God intends for me, thus saving me from a certain and early death by my own hands. That's my take on what it means to be a Baha'i, and to be saved.
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