The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.
Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.
These sentiments may suggest a contemporary, progressive and global perspective of an increasingly interconnected world, but they’re actually extracts from the 19th-century writings of Bahá’u’lláh, formerly Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí, a Persian who founded the Bahá’í faith. In less than two centuries Bahá’í has become the second most widespread religion on the planet after Christianity, with followers in nearly every country.
Jay Banta, a former United Methodist minister, and his wife Linda, who was also a practicing United Methodist, came to the Bahá’í faith six years ago. Looking back on the transition, the couple say they found many of the principles of Bahá’í to be appealing and in alignment with their own values: peace, justice, elimination of prejudice, equality of men and women, a right to education for all children, harmony of science and religion…not to mention character traits followers aspire to like kindness, generosity, integrity, honesty, humility and service to others.
The teachings of the monotheistic faith include a belief in the oneness of God and religion, the unity of humanity and the essential harmony of religion. Its estimated six to seven million followers worldwide, called Bahá’ís, believe that humankind needs to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life.
Linda Banta uses a Bahá’í analogy that as life inside the womb prepares a person for life on Earth, life on Earth is meant to prepare a person for the afterlife. “The body develops in the womb, the soul develops throughout life,” she says.
“And there is a very strong emphasis on unity: one God, one religion, one humanity,” Jay Banta adds. “When you look at a picture of Earth, you don’t see any lines. All those things have been created by man. And all of those lines are the causes of most of the problems we have.”
The Bantas say they found Bahá’ís to be warm and welcoming, even when they were still outsiders in the exploration phase.
“My initial feeling when we started in the Bahá’í faith was, ‘Why are people not clamoring to be a part of this?’” Jay Banta says.
He discovered early on that Bahá’ís aren’t encouraged to proselytize or evangelize, but they’re certainly open to questions and sharing information. He initially became interested in learning more about the faith after conversations with a former high-school classmate who had become a Bahá’í decades before. She invited the Bantas to a Bahá’í-sponsored music workshop at the Chautauqua Institute in New York, which was within a day’s drive from their then-home in Vermont.
“The first thing that we noticed was how inclusive the people were who were there,” Jay Banta says. “The second thing that became very apparent to us was just the diversity of the group.”
“I had been curious, so I had been asking questions. [The Bahá’í friend] gave us some information to look at, and on the way home, I was looking through it,” Linda Banta says. “And everything I read, it was like this was something I had always believed. It just kept ringing true.”
Although Bahá’í communities have sprung up all over the world, the faith is not recognized everywhere. Its followers are even persecuted in some place including, ironically, its originating country of Iran, Jay Banta says. Bahá’ís there have been imprisoned and some have even been executed. “They’re seen as heretics, as seditionists.”
In the United States, Bahá’ís are able practice freely, although their growing numbers are still relatively small and their faith is not familiar to or understood by many of their neighbors.
“No, it’s not a sect. It’s not a cult,” Linda Banta says. “And sometimes people even hear ‘Bahá’í’ and get it confused with B’nai B’rith [a Jewish organization].”
The Bahá’í center in Omaha, located at 5114 N. 60th Street in a converted single-family residence, has a modest current membership of about 100.
“It was pretty small in Vermont, too,” Linda Banta says. “As a matter of fact, in the little town we lived in there was only one other person who was Bahá’í. With three of us, we didn’t have enough for a spiritual assembly, but we were registered as local community of three.”
Jay Banta estimates that around half of the membership of the Omaha group is comprised of followers like himself and his wife, who voluntarily came to the faith in adulthood. Others were raised as Bahá’í. Bahá’í communities are democratically-led and structured without clergy so everyone has the opportunity to serve in leadership roles. Anyone can join the faith who has reached the age of 15.
“You simply sign a declaration card. You just state on the card that you believe in the tenets and vow to uphold them,” Linda Banta explains. “I think you can even do it online. They’ve kept abreast of the times.”
Although the Bantas easily assimilated the tenets of their new faith, they admit to one adjustment being a challenge.
“We learned a whole new way of approaching the calendar. The Bahá’í year is made up of 19 months of 19 days. At the end of each one of those periods of 19, we have a feast,” Linda Banta says.
In American culture, “feast” evokes a bounty of food, but although a Bahá’í feast usually involves something to eat, its focus is really more about devotions, prayers and even administrative activities for the community. Naw-Rúz is the first day of the Bahá’í calendar year and occurs on the vernal equinox, on or near March 21.
“19 times 19 equals 361. So when you get to the end of the year, there are four or five days, depending on whether it’s a leap year or not, that are intercalary days,” Jay Banta says. “These are kind of looked like as days outside of time. This is when we celebrate.”
Bahá’í supports critical thinking, Linda Banta says, which naturally follows the Bantas’ journey of moving from one belief system to another.
“You’re encouraged to search out the truth yourself — it’s called ‘individual investigation of the truth’—not to take someone’s word that’s been handed down through the centuries,” she explains. “You’re encouraged to think for yourself and come to your own terms with it.”
“One thing I’ve noticed is that most of the Bahá’ís we’ve known are very smart, educated people,” Jay Banta says, adding that with the original texts of Bahá’u’lláh still intact and the writings themselves not even two centuries old, Bahá’í teachings have remained remarkably consistent. However, Bahá’ís differentiate between what material is pulled directly from the official writings and what is personal revelation. “The Bahá’ís are very careful about that, that a person isn’t putting in his or her own spin…They always preface with ‘this is my belief, this is how I understand.’”
The Bantas are serious about their Bahá’í practices and ongoing studies, but coming from a Christian upbringing they say they appreciate the fact that their new faith respects their former. Bahá’ís believe in the validity of the founders and prophets of the major world religions, and believe in a principle that every major faith is a link in a cohesive spiritual system progressively revealed to humanity. Thus, the Bantas did not have to disavow everything they had held dear as part of their previous religious beliefs.
“We still attend occasional services at a Methodist church,” Jay Banta says. “Over time, God has made himself known by different messengers like Moses, Abraham, Jesus. The belief is that the Baha’u’llah is the latest of these messengers; the messengers come when there is a need among the people.”
“We still believe in Christ, you know, because he was one of the messengers,” his wife adds.
“But it’s not an exclusive thing.”