Gathering of faithful will honor founder
BY JOHN CHADWICK, STAFF WRITER
When one of the founding fathers of the Bahai religion spoke in 1912 to followers in North Jersey, he declared that the event would be commemorated for years to come.
He was right.
On Saturday, Bahais from across the country will hold their annual unity feast at the Roy Wilhelm estate in Teaneck, marking the 96th anniversary of the visit by Abdul Baha to what was then West Englewood.
"This instills in us why we are Bahai," said Paul Huber, who lives on the estate and helps maintain the grounds. "It's a gathering of people from all over. People are breaking bread together. You look and you see this sea of faces of all races and all nationalities."
Baha was the son and chosen successor of the prophet Baha'u'llah, who founded the Bahai religion in 19th-century Persia. Baha's North Jersey visit was one stop on what Bahais regard as an epochal journey through the West to spread the faith.
Bahais, who number about 5 million worldwide, describe their faith as the youngest of the monotheistic religions. They believe that the major world religions build on one another to form a continuum through which God reveals himself to mankind. They regard Baha'u'llah as the most recent in a line of prophets that includes Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. And they believe that other prophets and writings will emerge to help mankind in the future.
"We are not like the Catholics or any other faith that says 'this is it, you have to follow this or you are out of our church,' '' Huber said. "It's nothing like that at all."
Abdul Baha became head of the Bahais after his father's death in 1892. His arrival in North America came after decades of imprisonment by the Ottoman Empire. He was nearly 70.
"It was epic by any standard," said Glen Fullmer, director of communications for the Bahai National Center in Evanston, Ill. "It was a foundational event for the American Bahai community in its nascent stages."
From April until December, Baha traveled through the country, delivering public addresses in churches, synagogues, private homes and other venues. Fullmer said Baha exemplified Bahai values by welcoming African-Americans and women as equals.
"He was really exemplifying a whole new spiritual civilization," he said.
The West Englewood visit was held at what was then the home of wealthy coffee importer Roy Wilhelm. Persian food was prepared in a Manhattan home and brought over by ferry.
Today, the estate serves as the local Bahai community headquarters and weekend school.
Baha, in his speech, proclaimed the dawning of a new era in which Bahais will come together in utter unity.
"You have come here with sincere intentions," he declared. "And the purpose of all present is the attainment of the virtues of God."
On Saturday, Baha's speech will be read in its entirety.
The annual feast is a time for Bahais to reconnect with each other as well as members of the faiths.
"You never really know who you're going to meet," said Pat Kinney, a Bahai from Leonia. "It's wide open."
Little known religion fact - Teaneck has a vibrant Bahai presence, only not quite as stylish as the Bahai Temple in Haifa, Israel.