Pilgrimage to DC

The first time I had any intellectual curiosity about religion was when I came across an old book my grandfather had. Literally translated as  “Biblical Events”, I believe it must have been “The Bible as History” by Werner Keller. This was during the days of “mature socialism” in Bulgaria when religion was viewed, thanks to Karl Marx, as opium for the masses, and very few self-respecting and educated young people would consider it beyond the traditional egg painting for Easter or the private Christmas Eve dinner with the family. Thus as intrigued as I was by the idea of a book describing archeological discoveries proving the validity of Biblical events, I was just not brave enough to do more than browsing the maps of the book and reading few paragraphs here and there. This book, however, planted in my mind the idea that Jesus was indeed a real person, who must have been special enough to have people talk about Him some 2000 years later.

One of the most memorable experiences from my 2007 pilgrimage to the Holy Day was from the first day, when our guide pointed to a grove of cyprus trees which indicated the exact place Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, was standing while instructing His son and appointed Center of His Covenant, Abdu’l-Baha,  on where to build the Shrine of the Bab, His Predecessor. The historical significance hit me so powerfully that right there and then I started sobbing uncontrollably.

persian-legation-1912Yesterday, I had the honor of participating in a trip which was in a way a pilgrimage. A group of almost 50 people toured in a bus, guided by a very knowledgeable and dedicated individual, Lex Musta, who is writing a book called “DC Talks”, dedicated to the three visits Washington, DC, Abdu’l-Baha had in 1912. The highlight of the tour was visiting the house which used to be the Persian Legation at 1832 16th Street NW. The current owners of the house called themselves its stewards, and were so generous with us, the guests, that treated us all with luncheon and let us stroll around the house while we all reflected on its historical significance — the profound lesson that Abdu’l-Baha gave on April 23, 1912 at that same house.

Abdu’l-Baha had been invited to a Persian dinner, along with 18 other attendees very prominent in the social and political life of Washington, among which were Admiral Robert Peary, who claimed to be the first person (of European decent) to reach the North Pole, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Enlightened as the Baha’is at the time might have been, they were not above the social norms of the day. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, on the way back from His talk at Howard University had come along with Mr. Louis Gregory, an African American lawyer and fervant believer of the Baha’i Faith who years later would be posthumously appointed as Hand of the Cause of God, a title of spiritual significance in this Faith which has no clergy. As ‘Abdu’l-Baha entered the house, the hosts turned the black man away. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, clearly displeased upon finding out about this, sent for Mr. Gregory to be invited back immediately and having Himself rearranged the chairs, put this noble soul who happened to be in a dark-skinned body at his right side, at the seat of honor, practically demonstrating that:

A man’s heart may be pure and white though his outer skin be black; or his heart be dark and sinful though his racial color is white. The character and purity of the heart is of all importance. The heart illumined by the light of God is nearest and dearest to God, and inasmuch as God has endowed man with such favor that he is called the image of God, this is truly a supreme perfection of attainment, a divine station which is not to be sacrificed by the mere accident of color.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 70)

Stories like this are precious reminders of how close to history we are. After visiting this house we went to Howard University to commemorate the 97th anniversary of Abdu’l-Baha’s talk there. I was pleasantly surprised by how truly integrated the program was. For some reason, my memories of past years were that Howard University was a kind host to allow the Baha’i community to have such an event at Rankin Chappel but my impression was of a program dominated by the Baha’is themselves. Last night was different. It was called “Colors of Worship” and the program was a very inspiring mix of participation from Baha’i artists and students from the Howard University Divinity School. The MC, the young but talented Reverent Joseph Smith, rocked the house with his beautiful voice making us all sing a rousing song called “God is my friend”.  New Creation performed two songs, “Let All Associate” and “Conversation” reminiscing a talk between Lua Getsinger and Abdu’l-Baha. The most touching moment for me was a poem by Farinaz Firouzi, written few hours before the occasion which captured the historical moment and the promise of the future brilliantly:

The American continent gives signs and evidences of very great advancement; its future is even more promising, for its influence and illumination are far-reaching, and it will lead all nations spiritually.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 104)

And here goes Farinaz’s poem:

I saw a man here once
On this hilltop
His white hair trailed on his shoulders
His gait was straight
His eyes were sharp
Yet endearing
He looked at you and you knew there was no fearing anything for you were home
And this man,
This man pointed up to the sky that day
To the bright white clouds and to the deep black soil
And said: “Come together”
With a gentle, clear voice
No mistaking
In Whose presence we were in
A voice that drew all in
All textures and colors
All fragrances like roses we were many colors in this garden
That voice, those eyes, that face drew all in
As though to an embrace as wide as heaven

And the oceans of knowledge- till then full of the tears angels had shed for his imprisonment-
Broke the dams of ignorance and prejudice
And guided by those loving hands
Decades bound by prison chains
Unbolted doors that racism had shut on American hearts
And this man,
This Persian with flowing robes
From the East
Who spoke of the need for unity for peace
Who praised the black as the all-penetrating pupil of humanity’s eye
in an atmosphere dead set against mixing black with white I
would have been dumbfounded
But in a land this dry
He… He
Made it rain
Made those soft white clouds and that deep black soil
Collide in a monsoon

And now, almost a century later, those seeds of patience and trust
bloom
In flowers of color
As we work together under one banner
Surrounded by unbelieving eyes
Who can only see the outer skin
We know that if one man
A prisoner weak from age and suffering
Who crossed over a tear-filled ocean
Could stand in this spot
And make the rain of truth to flow
Into closed hearts
We know
that our success was planted here
As sure as those potent seeds by His own hands
We know that we will come together
Before the eyes that see our true colors
The content of our characters
The beauty of our loving hearts
And the power of change and growth that our diversity brings
To overcome division and heal centuries of pain
We know because this man had made it rain.

4 Responses to “Pilgrimage to DC

  • Farinaz
    8 years ago

    Mitko, I am so impressed by your blog. Thank you for sharing your experiences and these stories which teach important lessons as well as inspire. I didn’t realize this story about ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Louis Gregory happened so nearby, nor did I remember it in such detail or the potent words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. This site is a very beautiful gift. Thank you.

  • Mark Townsend
    7 years ago

    I just drove to Washington DC to see my sons family. It is nine hours one way from Indiana. I am glad to see this page about DC. We attended the neighborhood Feast of Grandeur, and I love to pray the prayer of Abdu’l-Baha for Washington DC that is in the Tablets:
    O God!
    Grant Washington happiness and peace! Illuminate that land
    with the light of the faces of the friends, make it a paradise of Glory, let it become an envy of the green gardens of the earth!
    Help the friends, increase their number,
    make their hearts sources of inspiration and their souls dawnings of light.
    Thus may that city become a beautiful paradise
    and fragrant with the fragrance of musk.

    (Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá v2, p. 464)

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