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The Followers of Baha'i : Founded 150 Years Ago, the Faith Preaches Unity Through Diversity and Promotes a Progressive Agenda of Social and Economic Justice. Its Central Message of a Peaceful World Without Borders, Followers Say, Has Special Resonance in Racially Divided L.A.

October 09, 1994|MARY HELEN BERG

On a cool, breezy evening in Chinatown, beneath a soulful black-and-white portrait of a man wearing a turban and white beard, weekly visitors trickle into the comfortable living room of Lourdes and Vahid Sanaei. An unemployed secretary, a computer programmer, a full-time mother, a flower shop owner, a building supervisor. White, black, Latino and Iranian. Some murmur an Arabic greeting: Allah' u Abha: God is most glorious.

Most have embarked on spiritual quests to arrive here, at a Baha'i "fireside," an informal educational gathering that mingles believers in the Baha'i faith with prospective followers and the merely curious. Under the photographic gaze of one of the faith's leaders, Baha'is talked about their independent religion.

"Los Angeles needs the Baha'i faith," said Bob Hopper, 58, a Baha'i and a city tour guide who regularly attends firesides. "Other religions have brought similar principles, but they need to be renewed and looked at again, and that's what the Baha'i faith does."

Founded 150 years ago by a Tehran-born nobleman now called Baha'u'llah, the Baha'i faith preaches unity through diversity and promotes a progressive agenda of social and economic justice and racial and gender equality. For believers, it is the means to accomplish what no war or political movement has--a peaceful world without borders uniting all people, all religions and gods.

Baha'u'llah's central message, "The earth is one country and mankind its citizens," followers say, has special resonance in Los Angeles, a city so recently shattered by racial divisions.

"We're pioneers in living in unity and diversity," said Amin Banani, a Baha'i and UCLA historian. "Los Angeles is becoming a multiracial, multicultural place and we are a people who have practiced living as a unified people and have a (systematic) plan for doing it."

In Los Angeles, that plan has included launching an institute on healing racism, a multiethnic youth theater group and an after-school enrichment program and a multicultural gospel choir, all based out of the Baha'i headquarters in Baldwin Hills.

One of those groups, the Baha'i Youth Workshop, founded in 1974 by Oscar and Freddie DeGruy in their living room, has worked toward encouraging youths to find common interests. The traveling theater troupe, which has toured nationally, has included black, white, Latino, Asian, Iranian and about 10% non-Baha'i performers.

As workshop members, "they can be together from different religions and different cultures and different races and they can find a point of unity," Oscar DeGruy said.

The group visits schools, community centers and other sites and uses hip-hop, rap, jazz and other styles to address topics such as peace, equality, education and social ills.

"We're brought up to believe that if you don't fit, we don't want you," Oscar DeGruy said. "We're all different for a reason and now it's time to share those differences with each other. . . . The Baha'i faith gives (the youths) the opportunity to come together."

The Los Angeles Baha'i community's aim is to triple its active members from its base of 1,500 in the next two years. There are 5,000 active Baha'i members in Southern California and about 110,000 nationwide.

Already, the Baha'i community in Southern California is one of the largest in the country. Its hub is the Baha'i Center, located at the edge of Baldwin Hills at Rodeo Road and La Cienega Boulevard. Thornton Chase, an insurance company executive who became the first American Baha'i, is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery and his grave site is considered a holy place of pilgrimage. Los Angeles is also home to a Baha'i radio show and Kalimat Press, one of three Baha'i publishers in the country.

The Los Angeles Baha'i community formally organized in 1909, making it one of the country's earliest multiracial religious communities, said Muhtadia Rice, public information officer for the Baha'is of Los Angeles.

The religion forbids missionaries and Baha'is are not allowed to proselytize, so the informal firesides held every week across the city are the foremost way believers spread the faith. Perhaps because of this low-key approach, the faith is relatively unknown, despite an 85-year presence in Los Angeles.

"We're confused with B'nai B'rith, we're confused with Buddhists, or people have never heard of us at all," Rice said. "It's critical for us that we are accepted as credible and very mainstream."

Islamic fundamentalists have called the Baha'i heretics. Other critics dismiss the religion as a cult. Scholars still view the faith as somewhat new, small and exotic, and there are few non-Baha'i specialists in academia.

Nevertheless, said Diana Eck, a professor in comparative religions at Harvard University, the Baha'i faith is a world religion in the sense that, "though it is neither very ancient nor very large, you can find Baha'is all over the world today."

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