‘HEART OF THE FAITH’ Principles of unity, equality and peace emphasized in Bahá’í community

ENID, Okla. — If you browse the listings for area churches, there’s no shortage of options in Christian congregations. But, there’s one listing that stands out, if only because few people are familiar with it — the Bahá’ís of Enid.

Background to the faith

The small local congregation is part of a worldwide faith that is one of the world’s youngest major religions — it was founded by the prophet Bahá’u’lláh in Iran in 1863. And, it is a comparatively small faith — estimates range from 5 to 7 million people worldwide. But, it also is one of the widest-spread world religions, with members in an estimated 235 countries.

According to the Bahá’í website, the faith is based on “the oneness of humanity and freedom from prejudice, the inherent nobility of the human being, the progressive revelation of religious truth … the fundamental equality of the sexes, the harmony between religion and science, the centrality of justice to all human endeavours,” among other principles. 

The Bahá’í faith recognizes the truth of all other major world religions and teaches that Bahá’u’lláh and the Bahá’í are only the latest in a series of ongoing revelations from God to all people, according to the website.

Bahá’ís in Enid

The Bahá’í faith came to Enid about 14 years ago, when Nathan Palmer and his wife, Jodi, moved here from Maine, shortly after they got married.

Palmer said he and his wife moved here specifically to build up the faith, because of their love of the unity and equality in its teachings. 

But, introducing the Bahá’í faith in “the buckle of the Bible belt” did not come easily. Palmer said he took on the challenge of trying to plant a Bahá’í community in Enid out of a sense of calling and a sense that life is harder when you ignore your calling.

“I learned pretty early on, if I’m serving the faith life goes pretty easy,” Palmer said. “If I’m not serving the faith, life doesn’t go that easy.”

Progress initially was slow, with few members taking up the faith in Enid. Local Bahá’í assemblies work on five-year development plans. Well into their first five-year plan, Palmer said they were considering moving on to another community.

“We were here three years, and there wasn’t much traction,” Palmer said. “We thought for the next five-year plan we’d move somewhere else.”

Things turned around when Palmer was introduced to a Marshallese woman whose family had been part of a Bahá’í community in the Marshall Islands and who wanted to continue practicing their faith in Enid.

She and her close relatives, between them, had 12 children. And suddenly, the Palmers had a Bahá’í assembly. Soon, more families moved to Enid to be near the fledgling Bahá’í community, which now has about 50 members.

Choosing Bahá’í

Like many Bahá’í, Palmer said he wasn’t born into the faith. He grew up attending Christian churches in several different denominations.

“They all said I was going to hell if I wasn’t baptized, so I ended up getting baptized in every one of them,” Palmer said with a laugh.

His father died when Palmer was a teenager, leaving his mother struggling to raise four children.

They began attending a church that at first seemed eager to embrace and help the family. But, things went badly, Palmer said, when his mom asked a pastor to come to the house and minister to the family.

Palmer said the church refused to provide the family ministry because his mother drank coffee — which was forbidden by that particular church.

And that was the end of church for the Palmer family.

“My mother said that was it, and we would never go to any church, of any kind, again,” Palmer said. 

Even though he was removed from church, Palmer said his faith in God remained strong.

One night, while finishing a shift at a restaurant, he confided to a co-worker he didn’t like to see faith used to divide people and was dismayed to see so much racism and sexism in society.

“She said, ‘You sound like a Bahá’í,’” Palmer said, “and I said ‘a Ba-who?’”

His co-worker shared with him writings from the Bahá’í faith, emphasizing equality and unity.

“It was a no-brainer to me, and I just fell in love with what I was reading,” Palmer said. 

He declared his faith as a Bahá’í when he was 17 years old. But, he said, because the Bahá’í faith sees all religions as true, he never felt like he was leaving Christ behind.

“I tell people it was my love of Christ that allowed me to see the truth in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh,” he said. 

The broader Bahá’í community

The Bahá’ís of Enid primarily meet in each other’s homes. For larger gatherings, and to connect to the broader Bahá’í community, they frequently travel to the Edmond Bahá’í Community, which has a former church building that now is a Bahá’í center.

Terri Angier, spokesperson for Edmond Bahá’í Community, said Bahá’ís from numerous communities come to the Edmond Bahá’í Center, and the Bahá’ís from Enid always are welcome.

“They are so wonderful and so inclusive,” Angier said. “We love having them come down.” 

Angier said the Edmond Bahá’í Community is blessed to have its own center, but the center is “not looked at in a similar manner as how Christians would look at a church.”

Bahá’ís have no clergy, and their primary place of worship is at home. Centers are used only for larger gatherings — usually of multiple local assemblies — and the faith has only one large temple per continent. The North American temple is in Wilmette, Illinois.

Each community of nine members or more elects a local spiritual assembly to manage the ministry, and all assemblies elect a national nine-member assembly each year. The national assemblies, in turn, elect the Bahá’í Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel.

But, the heart of the faith, Angier said, is always in the home.

“Whatever we do, we are encouraged to consider having it in the home first,” she said. “That way, it remains part of our daily life, and not a place where you go and worship and then go home and have a different life.”

A different approach 

Since the Bahá’í faith is focused on the unity and truth of all world religions, Angier said it’s not uncommon for the Edmond Bahá’í Center to host guests of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh and other faiths for interfaith events.

And, she said, the Bahá’í always are looking for ways to serve alongside people of other faith groups.

But, there’s one thing you won’t find the Bahá’í doing with people of other faiths. 

“We are forbidden to proselytize,” Angier said.

She said people find and fall in love with the Bahá’í faith, but it is against Bahá’í teaching to try to convince someone else to become Bahá’í.

“It has to be a personal relationship with the person,” she said, “and with them personally understanding the message — never with someone forcing them to.”

Not only do the Bahá’í not try to convince others to become Bahá’í but, Angier said, they may discourage it if joining the faith causes stress or friction within the family.

“If religion begins to bring disunity, then it defeats the whole purpose of religion, and it’s better not to have it,” Angier said. “That’s not the purpose of any religion.

“Spirituality is such a personal thing for people,” she added. “We offer and share what we can, but we don’t engage in any kind of disunity.”

And, people who enjoy arguing over points of faith and theology may find themselves disappointed by Bahá’í principles. Angier said if there’s to be an argument over faith, the Bahá’í have one simple answer: “We don’t argue over faith.” 

“If there’s ever a situation where there’s an argument over faith, we won’t engage in that,” she said.

Preaching love and service

While differences in theology can be found between all faiths — and within most faiths — Angier urged people to instead focus on the more-important similarities.

“If you look at all the major world religions, the basic principles are all the same,” she said. “What changes is the social principles.”

She said many differences between the faiths are as much cultural and contextual as theological. But, there’s one principle that is uniform across faiths, she said. 

“The basic Golden Rule principles of all religions are the same, always,” she said.

Palmer, with Bahá’ís of Enid, said he hopes people of all faith can come together around that unifying principle. 

“If you go to the basics of all our religions, they’re all preaching love and service,” Palmer said. “It’s just a matter of how it’s revealed and presented in our texts that differs.”

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