It is a cold winter afternoon and the Starbucks coffee shop on Second Avenue and East 13th Street is crowded and noisy. Four friends in their 20’s — Shirin Montenegro, Carmel Kappus, Anisa Heavia and Kenneth Lao — seem unperturbed by the loud voices of coffee buyers and drinkers – as they talk to me, passionately, about their religion – the Baha’i.
They had just finished attending a Baha’i Junior Youth fundraiser at the nearby Tompkins Square Park. Lao, 25, leads one of such groups where teenagers are encouraged to be kind and of service to their community.
Lao explains that, “The aim of the Junior Youth Group is to train teenagers so that they too can become animators and train others after four or five years of grooming.”
Heavian, 28, adds that the Junior Youth Group is not limited to Baha’is.
“Non-Baha’is are welcome. But we make sure their parents know that we are Baha’is,” Heavian said.
Kappus, 25, also added that, “We teach the kids by doing. For example, I would pick one virtue and demonstrate it and ask the kids to do the same and then tell them to practice it at home and with friends.”
This approach is in line with the teachings of Abdu’l-Bahá, son of the prophet Bahá’u’lláh, who once said:
“The man who lives the life according to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is already a Bahá’i. On the other hand, a man may call himself a Bahá’í for 50 years, and if he does not live the life he is not a Bahá’I.”
Montenegro, 28, is the office manager at the New York City Baha’i Center. She says the Junior Youth Group is just one of several ways in which they reach out to the world with the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.
“We use social media… organize poetry nights, jazz nights, Sunday Devotionals among others.”
As Montenegro mentions Sunday Devotionals, I remembered attending one about a week earlier at the N.Y.C. Bahai Center at 53 East 11th Street in Manhattan.
About 12 people, mostly male, attended the session, which was led by Windsome Linton, 39. Linton distributed excerpts of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. About five more people came in later. After explaining to us that Baha’i has no clergy and that volunteers mostly coordinate such meetings, she introduced the topic of the day as “The Purpose of The Soul.” She then asked us to each read the printouts she had distributed.
Participants read, prayerfully, in a variety of accents and levels of eloquence, which depicted their membership diversity. They included an Ethiopian, an Egyptian, Jamaicans and a few other Caribbean Islanders and Americans. I, a Cameroonian, was a first time visiting non-Baha’i in the group.
I was given a passage from page 257 of a book called Payers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah. My reading opened with, “From the sweet-scented streams of Thine eternity give me to drink, O my God…” and ended with the line, “Thou art, verily, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious, the All-Highest.”
We didn’t have much time to reflect on each reading or, at least, the one we each had in our hands before Linton read a presentation she had prepared with several quotes from the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Baha’i holy book. She explained that:
“The soul is a spiritual entity. It has no physical existence; one cannot observe or understand it through scientific or other material means…” She then quoted Baha’u’llah as referring to the soul as a “divinely ordained and subtle mystery” and the “sign of the revelation of the All-Abiding, All-Glorious God.”
Sitting three persons away from me was 27-year-old Edward Hall. I noticed him because he seemed deeply absorbed by what Linton was saying. He would nod his head from time to time and occasionally adlibbed audibly, but not distractingly, with sounds like ‘Uhm, yea, ah ha!, right!”
Everyone in the room was then invited to share their understanding of the purpose of the soul. It was not a typical setting of one person teaching all. Rather, everyone had an opinion or thought that was shared either for the benefit of others or to seek clarification. The opinions, generally, fit into Baha’i teaching.
After the session, I caught up with Hall who said:
“It is uplifting to hear someone teach something in a way that is in line with your understanding and expectation. I became a Baha’i three years ago and besides doing my own research it is through sessions like this that I have been able to understand God’s word and built my faith.”
Montenegro, the Baha’i office manager, explained that Devotionals or teaching sessions of that nature could be organized anywhere, anytime, and by anyone who wanted to:
“It could be in a coffee shop like this, in someone’s apartment or in some quiet corner of the street or in school.”
Lao is an example of a Baha’i whose conversion from Christianity happened in School.
“Some of my high school mates were Baha’i and were really cool because they were not trying to force their religion on anyone,” said Lao. Lao is a native of China. He says adhering to the teachings of Baha’i was effortless for him especially because it didn’t come with threats of hell for non-adherers, as is the case with his former Christian religion.
Montenegro was born into a Baha’I family. Asked what first lesson they would give a non-Baha’i who wants to join the faith, she said,
“First, the person must understand our believe in progressive revelation. Meaning, we recognize the divine origin of several world religions as different stages in the history of one religion and the revelation of Baha’u’llah is the most recent.
So that person needs to accept Baha’u’llah as the prophet for this time and age.”
She then continued to say it is important for a wannabe to know that smoking, alcohol consumption and premarital sex are some of the things you can’t do as a Baha’i.
Lao, Heavian and Kappus all agreed that these are the commonest areas they always address with persons interested in joining the faith.
None of us ordered coffee but I left the place happy to have learned something about Baha’i, while my Baha’i new friends said they were happy to have taught me something about their religion, and in a coffee shop.