Baha'i community on Gulf Coast is small but active with historic roots in area
By Roy Hoffman, Press-Register
FAIRHOPE, Alabama -- In Sonya Bennett’s home, a short walk from Mobile Bay, a plaque with Arabic writing hangs over the door.
The script, says Bennett, means, “O Glory of the all Glorious,” and
is displayed in the home of every follower of the Baha’i faith
throughout the world.
As one of several dozen Baha’i along the Gulf Coast — there are
165,000 in the U.S. and 5 million worldwide, she estimates — Bennett is
part of a small but active community.
The closest Baha’i center is in Birmingham.
Locally, though, followers meet in each other’s homes, praying together and dining in fellowship.
The gatherings, called feasts, follow a religious calendar with a year divided into 19 months of 19 days each.
According to the book, “The Baha’i Calendar,” by Manuchihr Ansari,
the months are given names expressive of “the attributes of God.”
Early April, for example, is Glory. Late April is Beauty. In May and June come Grandeur, Light, and Mercy.
“The purpose of the feast,” says Bennett, “is to create bonds of love
and unity among the friends and to worship together at least once every
Though their numbers are few on the coast, local Baha’i roots run deep.
As Bennett tells it, one of the early settlers of Fairhope was a
Baha’i — Paul Kingston Dealy, who arrived on the bluff above Mobile Bay
Dealy’s descendants still live in Fairhope, though are not Baha’i.
They loaned his letters and journals to Bennett, who says they will be
handed on to the Baha’i archives in Chicago.
Among the material are reflections sent to Dealy by Abdul-Baha, the son of the founder of the faith, Baha’u’llah.
Those letters — tablets, Bennett calls them — stir her deeply.
One of the reasons that Bennett moved to Fairhope, she says, was the appeal of Dealy’s legacy.
She was also invited by members of the local Baha’i. The faith has no clergy; members teach and share with each other.
She has certainly been part of larger communities.
A writer and grandmother, Bennett served as director of the Baha’i Unity Center in Atlanta, a city with 4000 Baha’i.
And she was a volunteer at the Baha’i world Centre in Haifa, Israel,
along with Pensacola businessman Julian McQueen and his family.
On May 5th, the public is invited to a Baha’i conference on art and spirituality at the Hilton Pensacola Beach, Bennett says.
The Baha’i faith originated in the Middle East.
Founded in the 1840s in Persia, now Iran, where its adherents faced
brutal condemnation, the Baha’i look to the teachings of Baha’u’llah,
considered a “messenger of God.”
These messengers, according to their teachings, have come to earth throughout the ages.
A publication of the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Ill., one of seven Baha’i temples in the world, explains:
“Baha’is believe that throughout history God has revealed hmself and
his teachings to humanity through a series of divine messengers that
stretches back beyond recorded time and includes Abraham, Moses,
Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad.”
That spirit of “oneness,” says Bennett, who grew up Methodist in Birmingham, is what drew her to the faith.
“When we embrace all of the religions,” she says, “and acknowledge
that we are all one human family, it is relatively uncomplicated. This
idea is the ideal and ultimate pattern for world peace.”
Says Lynn Sledge, a former Catholic who was drawn to the Baha’i faith
while a student at University of South Alabama: each world religion is
“an indispensable chapter in the one, unfolding religion of the one God
for his one people, the human race.”
This concept, Sledge says, is known as “progressive revelation.”
Over the eons, Sledge says, “God’s will for his people has been
progressively revealed to promote an ever-advancing civilization, with
each revelation’s teaching being tailored to the needs and capacities of
the people of the times.”
Baha’i prayers, written by Baha’u’llah, address the majesty and power of the divine.
One prayer, recited daily at noon, begins: “I bear witness, O my God,
that Thou has created me to know Thee and to worship Thee.”
Another, said in sickness and distress: “Thy name is healing, Oh my God, and remembrance of Thee is my mercy.”
To Mozelle Jafree, who lives in Mobile and turned to Baha’i while a
student at Alabama A&M College in Huntsville, the faith “filled that
space in me where all my questions resided.”
Jaffree says she is moved to “love God by loving his creation. This
translates into my trying to be the best person that I can be and to see
God in the faces of friend and foe, neighbor and alien. To live a life