On May 12 and May 13, over two thousand Baha’is and their friends will participate in centennial celebrations of the visit of a central figure of their Faith to Washington, D.C. From April to December 1912, Abdul-Baha, the eldest son of the founder of the Faith, travelled through the United States from coast to coast, stopping in Washington, D.C. three times. His trip was covered extensively by numerous newspapers at the time, including The Washington Post. The events on May 12 to 13 will include a conference for all the participants at the Omni Shoreham hotel as well as a walking tour of over 40 historical sites in Washington, D.C., that Abdul-Baha visited in 1912.
The main purpose of Abdul-Baha’s trip can be summarized in the answer he gave to reporters who asked about his journey upon arrival on American shores: “Our object is the universal peace and the unity of humankind. I have traveled to Paris and London and now I have come to America to meet with those who seek universal peace and I hope that the peace societies of America will take the lead in promoting this end.” These words echo those spoken by his father, Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, in an interview with the Cambridge scholar Edward Browne: “We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations … that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened … what harm is there in this? … These fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass, and the Most Great Peace shall come.”
Abdul-Baha used the power of both deeds and words to achieve his purpose. In Washington D.C., for example, he quietly revolutionized the prejudiced foundations of the segregated society of 1912 by insisting that a black man, Louis Gregory, be invited and given a seat of honor at a formal dinner reception held at a high society D.C. banquet. While in D.C, Abdul-Baha also gave powerful talks on the subject of racial unity, and said that the elimination of racial prejudice in America had implications not only for this country but for the whole world: “the accomplishment of the unity between the colored and the white will be an assurance of the world’s peace.”
Also while in Washington, D.C., Abdul-Baha spoke on several occasions with members of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. In these interviews, he encouraged the eventual application of the principle of federalism, which America had itself used in uniting its own separate states, to the relationships between all the countries and governments of the world. The subsequent leading role of the United States in the establishment of both the League of Nations and the United Nations are an indicator of the influence and initiative it can exert toward the establishment of world peace.
In the midst of these joyous celebrations, the participants will also remember another, sad anniversary. On May 14, 2008, the members of the Baha’i leadership group in Iran were arrested and subsequently sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in a sham trial. They continue to serve this unjust sentence in the country that ironically gave birth to their religion, but which continues relentlessly to persecute it. Abdul-Baha himself was only able to travel to the United States near the end of his life after serving four decades as a religious prisoner, and the American Baha’is celebrating the centennial of his visit will be praying that their Iranian coreligionists will soon be able to practice their faith in freedom.
Anyone wishing to find out more about these events or the Baha’i community in Washington D.C. is encouraged to visit http://www.dcbahai.org.
Shastri Purushotma serves on the governing council of the Baha’is of Washington, D.C.