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Happy Ayyám-i-Há: Days of Gifts, Gatherings and Service

For four days this week, Baha’is around the world will celebrate with festivities, gifts, parties, service projects and charitable humanitarian work.

Why? Well, we’re celebrating the Baha’i holidays called Ayyam-i-Ha. These festive days are Intercalary Days or Days of Joy or Days Out of Time consisting of the days in the annual Baha’i calendar that don’t fall into any given month. Baha’is set aside those days for joyous celebrations, serving others and preparing for the 19-day Baha’i fast, which always follows Ayyam-i-Ha.

Confused?  Let’s start by explaining that the Baha’is of the world, just like many other major global Faiths, have a unique calendar.

RELATED: The Main Message of the Baha’i Intercalary Days: Joy!

The Major Religious Calendars and How They Work

Most of the world’s calendars base their months, either roughly or exactly, on the phases of the moon or the Earth’s 365¼ day rotation around the sun. Actually, one trip around the sun takes our planet 365 days, 5 hours and 50+ minutes, which makes solar calendars tough to calibrate and make regular.

Lunar calendars depend on the moon’s 28-day cycle around the Earth to mark the passage of time.  Some calendars, notably the Islamic one, have twelve lunar months, strictly calibrated to the moon’s phases. Even the universally-accepted symbol for Islam—the new or crescent moon—comes from the Muslim calendar.

Much of the Christian world uses the solar Gregorian calendar, which also has twelve months, but which extends those months to fill out a full solar year—which explains why the length of the Gregorian months varies, from 28 to 31 days. The Gregorian calendar, adopted by Catholic Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, was initially designed to keep the Easter celebration closest to its original date on the Vernal Equinox.  

Some Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, most notably in Russia and nearby countries, still use the Gregorian’s predecessor, the Julian calendar. Both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars use “leap” or intercalary days to account for the extra time of the Earth’s solar orbit, adding an extra day to the calendar every third or fourth year.

The Hebrew calendar used by much of the Jewish community combines solar and lunar observations to produce a lunisolar schedule, which operates on a cycle of 19 years.

The Hindu calendar, called the Vikrami lunar calendar, has lunar months of 29 or 30 days–which means twelve lunar months adds up to about 360 days. This requires that the Hindus insert an additional 13th month every few years.

Here’s the problem with all of these calendars, whether they’re based on astronomy or arithmetic: Every calendar that uses astronomy to mark its months has to base its dates on consistent observation of the Earth’s sky and its moon and stars. Astronomical calendars like the Islamic calendar and the old Hebrew calendar work that way, and they’re very accurate—except when you try to figure out when a particular date will occur.

On the other hand, every calendar based on a strict set of mathematical rules, like the Gregorian calendar or the current Jewish calendar, makes it simple to calculate when a particular date will occur–but arithmetically-calculated calendars sacrifice accuracy. Their accuracy diminishes slowly over time, because the Earth’s rotation varies, and because of that extra five hours and fifty-some minutes every year, which leap years try to make up for in some calendars.

New Faiths often bring new calendars, and the Baha’i calendar has a new and different approach that accounts for and corrects both of these inherent problems. Brought initially by the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s herald and predecessor, it uses a unique system of nineteen months, each made up of nineteen days. That means 361 days every year have very specific, arithmetically predictable dates. In a Baha’i year, when the end of the 18th month occurs, the calendar inserts four or five intercalary (or “inter-calendar”) days, which flexibly correct the span of the calendar every year to synchronize it exactly with the Earth’s rotation around the sun.

Since the Baha’i teachings call for world unity, this new Baha’i calendar gives humanity a clear, consistent and complete way to make the calendar work for everyone, no matter what religion they practice:

Among different peoples and at different times many different methods have been adopted for the measurement of time and fixing of dates, and several different calendars are still in daily use, e.g., the Gregorian in Western Europe, the Julian in many countries of Eastern Europe, the Hebrew among the Jews and the Muhammadan in Muslim countries.

The Bab signalized the importance of the dispensation which He came to herald by inaugurating a new calendar. In this, as in the Gregorian Calendar, the lunar month is abandoned and the solar year is adopted.

The Baha’i year consists of 19 months of 19 days each (i.e., 361 days), with the addition of certain ‘intercalary days’ (four in ordinary and five in leap years) between the eighteenth and nineteenth months in order to adjust the calendar to the solar year. The Bab named the months after the attributes of God. The Baha’i New Year, like the ancient Persian New Year, is astronomically fixed, commencing at the March equinox (21 March), and the Baha’i era commences with the year of the Bab’s declaration (i.e., 1844 AD. …).

In the not far distant future it will be necessary that all peoples in the world agree on a common calendar.

It seems, therefore, fitting that the new age of unity should have a new calendar free from the objections and associations which make each of the older calendars unacceptable to large sections of the world’s population, and it is difficult to see how any other arrangement could exceed in simplicity and convenience that proposed by the Bab. – J.E. Esselmont, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, pp. 166-167.

RELATED: Ayyam-i-Ha: A Time for Charitable Giving

The Baha’i calendar has more new features, as well. For Baha’is, each day begins and ends at sunset. New Year’s day happens on March 21st, the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere; and instead of being named for pagan Roman holidays like the Gregorian months, the Baha’i calendar’s months all are named for aspirational spiritual qualities and attributes:

…Splendor, Glory, Beauty, Grandeur, Light, Mercy, Words, Perfection, Names, Might, Will, Knowledge, Power, Speech, Questions, Honor, Sovereignty, Dominion, and Loftiness. Meditating upon these sublime attributes, man is enabled to gaze beyond the curve of time, wherein the swing and change of planetary movements exists, to the eternal qualities that stabilize the soul. As the seasons return with their quaternary beauty, as the seed sacrifices to the mystery of the harvest, we see reflected in the mirror of the physical world the spiritual spring-time when the Word of God is planted in the heart of man by the coming of God’s Messengers. – Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Baha’i Administration, pp. 53-54.

You’re Invited

So, would you like to go to a fun event in your local Baha’i community? This week, during the Baha’i Intercalary Days, you’ll find celebrations everywhere, all over the world. The Baha’i Intercalary Days—specially set aside for hospitality, the giving of gifts, feasting, rejoicing and charity—happen this year between February 26-29. Combining fun and philanthropy, these unique holy days give everyone an opportunity to celebrate while helping others. Join us!


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Do We Have Spiritual Ancestors? Meet Pocahontas Pope

We all have physical ancestors—but do you think we have spiritual ancestors?

Meet Pocahontas Pope, the first African American Baha’i of Washington, D.C., and a woman I think of as my spiritual ancestor.

A salt-of-the-earth, Black, former Baptist seamstress, Pocahontas Pope (c. 1865–1938) received a beautiful letter from Abdu’l-Baha, who drew upon Baha’u’llah’s “pupil of the eye” metaphor in a racially uplifting way.  

RELATED: Invisible No Longer: Robert Turner as a Doorway to the Kingdom

Pocahontas’ family history (and ancestry) is difficult to reconstruct. Relying largely on the meticulous research of Paula Bidwell along with my own independent investigation, we can tentatively reconstruct Pocahontas’ background:

Pocahontas’ mother was Mary Cha, born Mary Sanling, and her father was John Kay. They married on January 11, 1861, and later had Pocahontas. Then, on November 11, 1876, Mary (Cha) Kay married Lundy Grizzard, who then became stepfather to Pocahontas. Lundy and Mary Grizzard went on to raise several children (Pocahontas’ step-siblings). Mary died in May, 1909.

On Dec. 26, 1883, John W. Pope (1857–1919)—born and raised in Rich Square, NC—and “Pocahontas Grizzard” married in Northampton (or Halifax) County, NC. John was 26. Pocahontas (née Grizzard) was 18. As to “Race,” each is listed as “White.” (Recall that the first African American Rhodes Scholar, Alain Locke, who became a Baha’i in 1918, was also listed as “White” on his birth certificate on September 13, 1885.)

Pocahontas’ husband, “J.W. Pope,” was one of three “Managers” of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rich Square, NC, in 1896–1897. As an institution, the venerable AME Church is the oldest living African American organization. In summer 1898, John and Pocahontas moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the U.S. Census Office. But, in early 1902, he was fired by Director Merriam, along with other “Negro clerks.” John Pope landed a job in the U.S. Government Printing Office.

In June 1902, John W. Pope was elected first vice-president of the “Second Baptist Lyceum,” and Pocahontas Pope as assistant recording secretary. Established in 1848, the Second Baptist Church is one of the oldest African American congregations in Washington, D.C. Pocahontas Pope was described as “intensely religious”: “Even among our own race the woman with a past is intensely religious.” (The Colored American, 21 March 1903, p. 16.)

The Rev. John W. Pope died on March 30, 1918. Fast forward to 1920: according to the United States Census, 1920 “Pocahontas Pope” is listed as “Widowed.” As to “Race,” she is listed as “Mulatto.” According to the United States Census, 1930 “Pocahontas Pope” is classified as “Negro.” Pocahontas Pope died on November 11, 1938, in Hyattsville, Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is buried in National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery.

In 1906, Pocahontas Pope became a Baha’i. This is how it happened:

Pauline Hannen was a white Southerner who grew up in Wilmington, NC. In 1902, she became a Baha’i in Washington, D.C. There, her sister, Miss Alma Knobloch, employed Pocahontas Pope as a seamstress. Then, as fate would have it, Pauline chanced upon this this passage from Baha’u’llah:

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 20.

This passage struck Pauline in a lightning flash of sudden insight. After realizing the profound implications of Baha’u’llah’s words regarding the oneness and equality of the human race—in the singular—this is what happened next:

One snowy day, during the Thanksgiving season, Pauline came across a black woman trudging through the snow. Pauline noticed that the woman’s shoelaces were untied. Arms full from the bundles she was carrying, the woman was unable to do anything about it. Inspired by this passage from The Hidden Words, Pauline knelt down in the snow to tie this woman’s shoes for her. “She was astonished,” Pauline recalled, “and those who saw it appeared to think I was crazy.” That event marked a turning point for Pauline: she resolved to bring the Baha’i message of unity to black people. — Christopher Buck, Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy (2005), pp. 37–38.

RELATED: The Black Pupil of the Eye: The Source of Light

By July 1908, fifteen African Americans had embraced the faith in Washington, D.C. In a letter dated May 1909, Pauline Hannen wrote:

Pauline and Joseph HannenPauline and Joseph Hannen
Pauline and Joseph Hannen

The work among the colored people was really started by my sainted Mother and Sister Alma [Knobloch,] though I was the one who first gave the Message to Mrs. [Pocahontas] Pope and Mrs. Turner. My Mother and Sister went to their home in this way, meeting others, giving the Message to quite a number and started Meetings. Then my sister left for Germany where she now teaches, I then took up the work. During the Winter of 1907 it became my great pleasure with the help of Rhoda Turner colored who opened her home for me… to arrange a number of very large and beautiful Meetings. Mrs. Lua Getsinger spoke to them here several times at Mrs. Pope’s as Mirza Ali Kuli Khan, Mr. [Howard] McNutt and Mr. Hooper Harris spoke in Mrs. Turner’s home. Mr. [Hooper] Harris spoke at Mrs. Pope’s [at] 12 N St. N.W. for my sister before his leaving on his trip to Acca and India. Mr. Hannen also spoke several times. My working to being to run around and arrange the meeting. At these Meetings we had from twenty to fourty [sic] colored people of the intellectual class. – Qtd. in Buck, Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy, p. 38.

The next article will describe, in detail, the “Tablet”—or special letter—from Abdu’l-Baha to Pocahontas Pope.

Special thanks to Steven Kolins for his research assistance.

Gravestone of Pocahontas PopeGravestone of Pocahontas Pope
Courtesy of The InShaw Blog

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Coralie Franklin Cook: A Famous Suffragist, Speaker, and Baha’i

An African American woman, who was born into enslavement, later became a famous public speaker, inspiring suffragist, and devoted Baha’i. Learn about the life of Coralie Franklin Cook.

Coralie Cook’s Background, Family, and Career

Coralie Cook was born in 1861 in Lexington, Virginia to enslaved parents, Albert and Mary Elizabeth Edmondson Franklin. 

Coralie Franklin Cook

She was a great-granddaughter of Brown Colbert — the grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, the matriarch of the enslaved Hemings family at President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Elizabeth Hemings was the mother of Sally Hemings — the famous enslaved woman who was impregnated at least six times by her enslaver, Thomas Jefferson, who was 30 years older than her.

In 1880, Coralie became the first known descendant of people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson to earn a college degree when she graduated from Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. She taught English and elocution at Storer College and purchased her own home from the college in 1884 when she was just 23 years old.

Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia in 1865Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia in 1865
Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia in 1865

She later moved to Washington D.C. and became a faculty member at Howard University. She was the Chair of Oratory at Howard and taught elocution there. That’s where she met her husband, George Cook.

Like Coralie, her husband, George, was born into slavery in Winchester, Virginia, in 1855. He managed to escape from slavery, attend school, and graduate from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in 1886 and a law degree in 1898. He was the Professor of Commercial and International Law and the Dean of the School of Commerce and Finance. Coralie and George got married on August 31, 1898, and had one son, George William Cook Junior.

In addition to teaching at Howard University, Coralie was the second woman of color to be appointed by the judges of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to the Board of Education. She held this position for 12 years — the longest term held by any board member. She was also the director of the Home for Colored Children and Aged Women and a member of the Red Cross, the Juvenile Protective Society, and the NAACP.

Coralie Cook’s Work As A Famous Writer, Speaker, and Suffragist

Coralie was an ardent activist, dedicated to obtaining equal rights for women, especially the right to vote.

RELATED: In Pursuit of Equality: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage

As Abdu’l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, said at a talk at a women’s suffrage meeting in New York in 1912:

The most momentous question of this day is international peace and arbitration, and universal peace is impossible without universal suffrage.

In a talk in Paris, he addressed how:

the female sex is treated as though inferior, and is not allowed equal rights and privileges. …Neither sex is superior to the other in the sight of God. Why then should one sex assert the inferiority of the other, withholding just rights and privileges as though God had given His authority for such a course of action?

He also spoke about the unique and vital role that mothers have in society:

In the necessity of life, woman is more instinct with power than man, for to her he owes his very existence.

If the mother is educated then her children will be well taught. When the mother is wise, then will the children be led into the path of wisdom. If the mother be religious she will show her children how they should love God. If the mother is moral she guides her little ones into the ways of uprightness.

It is clear therefore that the future generation depends on the mothers of today.

In her editorial, “Votes for Mothers,” published by the NAACP magazine, “The Crisis,” Coralie wrote:

Mothers are different, or ought to be different, from other folk.  The woman who smilingly goes out, willing to meet the Death Angel, that a child may be born, comes back from that journey, not only the mother of her own adored babe, but a near-mother to all other children.  As she serves that little one, there grows within her a passion to serve humanity; not race, not class, not sex, but God’s creatures as he has sent them to earth.

It is not strange that enlightened womanhood has so far broken its chains as to be able to know that to perform such service, woman should help both to make and to administer the laws under which she lives, should feel responsible for the conduct of educational systems, charitable and correctional institutions, public sanitation and municipal ordinances in general.  Who should be more competent to control the presence of bar rooms and ‘red-light districts’ than mothers whose sons they are meant to lure to degradation and death?  Who knows better than the girl’s mother at what age the girl may legally barter her own body?  Surely not the men who have put upon our statute books, 16, 14, 12, aye be it to their eternal shame, even 10 and 8 years, as ‘the age of consent!’

If men could choose their own mothers, would they choose free women or bondwomen?  …I transmit to the child who is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh and thought of my thought; somewhat of my own power or weakness.  Is not the voice which is crying out for ‘Votes for Mothers’ the Spirit of the Age crying out for the Rights of Children?

votes for womenvotes for women
Suffragette Banner

Coralie was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and a member of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Coralie, who was recognized nationally as an excellent public speaker, was the only African American woman who was invited to speak at Susan B. Anthony’s 80th birthday party in 1900. 

However, she had spent so much of her life advocating for the rights of women and women of color and had grown disappointed by white women’s reluctance to work with Black women within the suffrage movement. Disheartened that the movement had, in her words, “turned its back on the woman of color” and did not view the rights of African American women as a priority, Coralie expressed her grievances in her speech.

…no woman and no class of women can be degraded and all womankind not suffer thereby.

Coralie said, “…And so Miss Anthony, in behalf of the hundreds of colored women who wait and hope with you for the day when the ballot shall be in the hands of every intelligent woman; and also in behalf of the thousands who sit in darkness and whose condition we shall expect those ballots to better, whether they be in the hands of white women or Black, I offer you my warmest gratitude and congratulations.”

She would later refuse to participate in white-dominated suffragist organizations and activities and became very active in the fight against Jim Crow laws.

As author and college professor Paula Giddings wrote, “Throughout their history, Black women also understood the relationship between the progress of the race and their own feminism. Women’s rights were an empty promise if Afro-Americans were crushed under the heel of a racist power structure. In times of racial militancy, Black women threw their considerable energies into that struggle—even at the expense of their feminist yearnings.” 

Coralie Cook’s Life As a Baha’i and Racial Justice Activist

Coralie and George learned about the Baha’i Faith in 1910 and became Baha’is in 1913. In the Baha’i Faith, racism is regarded as “the most vital and challenging issue” confronting the United States. 

RELATED: 5 Inspirational Baha’i Women in American History

Howard University in 1868

Coralie and George organized Baha’i events at Howard University, including one talk by Abdu’l-Baha, and they even won awards for their social welfare work in the African American community. 

In a letter she wrote to Abdu’l-Baha in 1914, she described how egregious racism was in the U.S.:

Knowledge of the progress of the colored people during their fifty years of freedom has astounded the world and incited the envy and hatred of those who prophesied their extinction and argued their inability to work for themselves. 

In the midst of unfriendly surroundings they have accumulated $7,000,000,000 worth of property raising a million and a half of dollars in the past year alone for educational work, coming out of slavery with 95 percent of their whole number unable to read or write to say that number is reduced to only 30 percent an advance surpassing that of the whites during the same period. 

Instead of this marvelous achievement appealing to all that is best and noblest in the whites, it has seemed to have a contrary effect. Laws are being passed in many sections compelling colored people to live in segregated districts, where they have had handsome houses among white residences these houses have been attacked, lives endangered, valuable property ruthlessly destroyed, anonymous orders to vacate, if ignored, have even resulted in the use of dynamite and total destruction of a house and its contents, the Law Courts offer no redress for the word of a black man is not taken against that of a white man where Judge and Jury are all of the dominant class.

She believed that the Baha’i teachings are “not only the last hope of the colored people, but must appeal strongly to all persons regardless of race or color…” So, she encouraged Baha’is to “stand by the teachings though it requires superhuman courage…” 

She worked for racial justice and taught the oneness of humanity until she passed away in 1942. What a remarkable woman in our history to look up to.


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How Artist Oletha DeVane Honors Our African Ancestors

“My life’s goal as an artist is to unlock the secrets to the oldest stories and create new ones,” wrote Oletha DeVane, a Baha’i multidisciplinary artist.

RELATED: How One Playwright Is Honoring Black Girlhood Stories

Oletha DeVane, the former director of Tuttle Art Gallery, was one of the first African American artists invited to the United Arab Emirates as an Artist-in-Residence. Her work has been featured in numerous museums and galleries and collected by the Hilton Hotel in Baltimore, Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Johns Hopkins University museums, the James E. Lewis Museum of Art, and The Harbor Bank of Maryland. 

RELATED: Artist Masud Olufani Honors the First African American Baha’i

As a big fan of Oletha’s art, I was excited to learn more about the spiritual and historical inspiration behind Oletha’s artwork that honors our enslaved, African, and female ancestors.

Photo of Oletha DeVane by Grace Roselli, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane

Radiance Talley: Hi, Oletha! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Can you share how the Baha’i writings inspire you as an artist? 

Oletha DeVane: The writings revealed the highest level of social consciousness for me when [I was] growing up in the ‘60s. I had learned about the [Baha’i] Faith from our neighbors, Albert and Ruth James. I wanted to become a Baha’i at 13 years old, the year the four Black girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The country was steeped in hatred, and the meetings in the James’s home were a revelation about oneness and equality that was spiritually and conceptually important for me at the time. I felt safe in a community of people that embraced me as a child. The first two [quotes by Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, in The] Hidden Words are my favorite:

O SON OF SPIRIT!
My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting. 

O SON OF SPIRIT!
The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

All [The Hidden Words] pointed to what was needed to make social change. The writings are so metaphorically and symbolically poetic with references to light, water, nature, and the micro/macro connection to humanity’s life and the spirit.

Radiance: Can you tell us about your journey as a multidisciplinary artist and how it led you to your current focus on unlocking the secrets of old stories while creating new ones?

Oletha: The journey doesn’t stop. I have many questions and curiosities about other cultures, our society, [our] people, our future, and our practices. The story of humankind is an ancient one, with much of it forgotten or hidden. How can we understand or define what we cannot know except through our five senses and, ultimately, [through] conscious effort to know ourselves [and] gain knowledge? Imagine how we might define what’s unknown. It’s the stories we tell ourselves. 

Abdu’l-Baha [one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith] wrote:

EXISTENCE is of two kinds: one is the existence of God which is beyond the comprehension of man. He, the invisible, the lofty and the incomprehensible, is preceded by no cause but rather is the Originator of the cause of causes. He, the Ancient, hath had no beginning and is the all-independent. The second kind of existence is the human existence. It is a common existence, comprehensible to the human mind, is not ancient, is dependent and hath a cause to it. The mortal substance does not become eternal and vice versa; the human kind does not become a Creator and vice versa. The transformation of the innate substance is impossible.

In the world of existence—that which is comprehensible—there are stages of mortality: the first stage is the mineral world, next is the vegetable world. In the latter world the mineral doth exist but with a distinctive feature which is the vegetable characteristic. Likewise in the animal world, the mineral and vegetable characteristics are present and in addition the characteristics of the animal world are to be found, which are the faculties of hearing and of sight. In the human world the characteristics of the mineral, vegetable and animal worlds are found and in addition that of the human kind, namely the intellectual characteristic, which discovereth the realities of things and comprehendeth universal principles.”

I believe our responsibility is to encompass and understand our human stories that awaken us to material and spiritual progress. It’s the ancient stories of falls and rises, of war and peace, to grace and love.

Radiance: Can you explain how your art explores diverse social identities and cultural interpretations? How do you integrate these themes into your artistic practice?

Oletha: As a woman of African descent, I look back to my ancestors, the promises of all religions, and the origin of the 19th-century term “race.” Baha’u’llah’s ultimate promise [was] confirmed in His own words

The Ancient Beauty hath consented to be bound with chains that mankind may be released from its bondage, and hath accepted to be made a prisoner within this most mighty Stronghold that the whole world may attain unto true liberty.

As a visual artist, I use multiple media (painting, collage, video, public art), which allow me to examine my place in the world by trying to make sense of how we got here at this moment in history. Our collective ignorance is what stagnates societies, and I’m trying to do work that integrates intergenerational stories and histories that shape us. For those ancestors who survived the Middle Passage and enslavement, [those] stories are as relevant as the Holocaust survivors and those who have faced genocides. 

Radiance: Absolutely! My favorite piece of yours is the “Memorial to Those Enslaved and Freed” that you designed for the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland. Can you share the inspiration behind the memorial?

Oletha: The memorial has always been about recognizing and honoring those Black men, women, and children who, through their forced labor, made John McDonogh a wealthy man. It is about the aspiration and the resilience of a people who served in a capacity that made them invisible. Freedom was always the aspiration; they sought their freedom through any means necessary — you worked yourself to death to get free through manumission, or you ran away. From my lens, I am looking at how people were treated, what allowed them to survive, [and] what was the dignity in their lives? 

Radiance: What are your favorite pieces that you’ve created to honor our ancestors? 

Oletha: That’s a difficult question. However, to name a few: the print series of Harriet Tubman, the “Spirit Sculptures,” which are meant to harness blessings, and most recently, the “Universal N’kisi Woman.”

RELATED: 3 Lessons We Can Learn From My Relative Harriet Tubman

Radiance: We’d love to learn more about them! Can you walk us through your creative process for these pieces and describe the symbolism that you used?

Oletha: Harriet Tubman is symbolized in my work as the oracle: intelligent, courageous, and a fearless fighter for freedom. Tubman is featured in a series of solar etchings from (2017-19), and I adapted a previously unknown photograph of her (ca.1822-1913) and used it as the basis for the narrative prints. Some of them include the seedpods of the sweet gum tree, which littered the forest floor when she escaped with [her] family from Maryland’s Eastern Shore plantation. The seedpods represent the obstacle to freedom that those enslaved had to walk across barefoot.

Photo of Oletha DeVane's "Harriet Tubman and the Raven" by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVanePhoto of Oletha DeVane's "Harriet Tubman and the Raven" by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane
Photo of Oletha DeVane’s “Harriet Tubman and the Raven” by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane

There are many “Spirit Sculptures,” but the one acquired by the Baltimore Museum of Art has the most significance to me — “Saint for My City” (2010). It is an avatar disguised as an astral-Black holy figure. The pedestal is embellished with the names of African diasporic deities (Isis, Ogun, Horus, Dumballa, etc). It is a memorial to people killed at the time, represented by bullet casing. The Black saint with outstretched arms channels the spirit of solace to Baltimore and the many Black people undergoing oppression through gun violence. 

Photo of Oletha DeVane's "Saint for My City” by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVanePhoto of Oletha DeVane's "Saint for My City” by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane
Photo of Oletha DeVane’s “Saint for My City” by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane

“Universal N’kisi Woman” (2021-22) is informed by an evolving worldview of Africa’s influence in the arts. It represents the retention of African belief systems, which are indigenous to the Congo. The N’kisi is a sacred form used in communities to settle disputes [and] provide counseling and advice. The nkisi, or minkisi, is a figure whose relationship to the community is to guide, protect, and dispense healing or justice. I chose to make a female N’kisi for the community to interact with by hammering a bead while engaged in silent prayers, concerns, or healing messages. 

Photo of Oletha DeVane’s “Universal N’kisi Woman” by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane

Radiance: What inspired these particular works, and what significance do they hold for you personally or artistically?

Oletha: Religious practices of freed [enslaved people] at the turn of the 19th century attempted to maintain their cultural origin, which today has informed Pan-African identity. Colonization destroyed the agency of African beliefs in the Americas, and the spiritual practices of syncretism retained the cultural Indigenous spirit. It’s what keeps me interested in origin stories, specifically as a Black artist and a Baha’i. 

Radiance: Since March is Women’s History Month, can you explain how your art commemorates and celebrates the vital role of women in our national and global history?

Oletha: Most of my work reflects issues women face from explicit treatment of inequality, sexual exploitation, imprisonment, and endurance. [For example], the biblical story of Hagar metaphorically speaks of the struggle and strength of generations of women who endured injustice. It’s a story that resonated with generations of Black women who suffered injustice, and it’s a story that was told in Black churches across the country about the African woman in the household of [the] prophet Abraham. It prompted me to create the piece entitled “Hagar’s Dress in Her Exile,” made from chains and burlap (2013).

Radiance: In what ways do you see art as a tool for social change and community engagement, particularly concerning the honoring and preservation of diverse ancestries and histories?

Oletha: The Baha’i writings elevate the arts to do just that. Historically, if we look through the ages, art has been a considerable means of communication with the earliest of drawings and sounds. As sentient beings on a spectrum, we want others to experience what we see, feel, and think. Our inherent expressive ability is specifically geared to how we perceive our world and the changes we can make. Think about the art movements over the last 300 years, from the Renaissance to the Bauhaus to African Art to Abstract Expressionists, and so on. These movements all had a major impact on the cultures. Ideas and actions creatively materialize in a society based on its overarching philosophy, and some thoughts are better than others to manifest social change. 

One aspect of the arts is visual, but there is also the written and spoken word, sound, and movement (music and dance), all of which can take on multiple forms and combinations. When we raise the question, can art be a tool for social change? My answer is, yes, it can, but what new ways will we use to connect communities and vigorously educate [people] to understand the historical importance of art to society?

Photo of Oletha DeVane at work in her studio by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVanePhoto of Oletha DeVane at work in her studio by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane
Photo of Oletha DeVane at work in her studio by Mitro Hood, Courtesy of Oletha DeVane

Radiance: Thank you, Oletha, for describing your beautiful artwork and sharing the historical and spiritual inspiration behind your pieces that honor our ancestors. Baha’u’llah wrote that “when it [the Sun of Truth] manifesteth itself in the mirrors of the hearts of craftsmen, it unfoldeth new and unique arts, and when reflected in the hearts of those that apprehend the truth it revealeth wondrous tokens of true knowledge and discloseth the verities of God’s utterance.” I can certainly see this light and spirit reflected in your craft.

You can view Oletha DeVane’s catalog, “Oletha DeVane: Spectrum of Light and Spirit,” at https://cadvc.umbc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/247/2024/01/Oletha-DeVane-Spectrum-of-light-and-spirit-catalog.pdf. To order, click here: https://www.artbook.com/9780960088546.html.


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The Universal House of Justice: Leading With Humility and Love

Comprehending the unique Baha’i administration means understanding the men and women who take part in it — not just to establish historical facts and system paradigms, but to examine human motivation.

This kind of knowledge is not knowledge of logical truths, nor the knowledge of how to do things, nor even the knowledge nurtured by belief. It is more like the knowledge we claim of a friend, of his or her character, of his or her ways of thought and action, the intuitive sense of personality and feeling. 

RELATED: What Is the Universal House of Justice?

It is individuals, men and women, youth and children, that have made the Baha’i world — its unprecedented unity, its widespread global presence, its embryonic institutions, its pioneering community service — all building a unique administrative order out of the external, corporeal world of human effort. This unparalleled, democratically-elected Baha’i administrative system, without clergy or ecclesiastical orders, without political parties or partisanship of any kind, is characterized in this way in the Baha’i writings:

The Most Holy Book is the Book to which all peoples shall refer, and in it the Laws of God have been revealed. Laws not mentioned in the Book should be referred to the decision of the Universal House of Justice. …

Should there be differences of opinion, the Supreme House of Justice would immediately resolve the problems. Whatever will be its decision, by majority vote, shall be the real truth, inasmuch as that House is under the protection, unerring guidance, and care of the one true Lord. … The Supreme House of Justice should be elected according to the system followed in the election of the parliaments of Europe.

And when the countries would be guided the Houses of Justice of the various countries would elect the Supreme House of Justice. At whatever time all the beloved of God in each country appoint their delegates, and these in turn elect their representatives, and these representatives elect a body, that body shall be regarded as the Supreme House of Justice.

Philosophers and theologians have dreamed about a democratically-run religion for centuries, and now the world has one in the Baha’i Faith. 

To better understand this subject means understanding the members of the Universal House of Justice; after all, the plausibility of Baha’i administration rests upon the possibility of having exemplary members, and much of the esteem of institutions springs from the way they are enacted. Moreover, loyalty and talent are important in organizing Baha’i administrative bodies and in explaining institutional coherence. Focusing on members’ lives, therefore, is entirely relevant — although the Baha’i community knows that there are no Baha’i leaders in the sense of individual authority. The leader principle cedes to the collegial principle as the bedrock of Baha’i administration.

Upon meeting these members of the House of Justice, the most striking impression, the one that remains, is how human imperfection is preserved and displayed on the public stage. No attempt is ever made to boast moral attributes or to imitate virtue. Affectations of sanctity or pretense to mystical knowledge may be the favorite means of advertisement in the sham spirituality of the medieval cloister or of modern creeds, but in this unique membership, human virtue is compressed, not in the flourishing company of ‘wit or worth’ but in another pair of attributes, of the vulnerable and forgotten kind — humility and unconditional love, a love given freely and forgivingly. It is flaws, not hypocrisy, that triumph.

Rather than cast a shade on the Faith they profess, such shortcomings are the particular terms of endearment of these members of the Universal House of Justice. 

After they are elected once every five years, there is no pomp or special robe to enhance ceremonial rank, no headdress to announce protocol, no artificial redolence to flatter personal connection, no kissing of hands, no booming sermon behind the pulpit, no ornamental embroidery to drape ecclesiastical superintendence, no braying of canticles by rote. In the presence of the Universal House of Justice members, any air of mutual satisfaction is non-existent, without false estimates of character to betray ambition and free of vestiges of supremacy. The legitimacy of these members does not depend on their title but on a position that rests on the permanent assurance of Baha’u’llah that “God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth …”

This unique office emancipates the Universal House of Justice members from holding any opinion of their own rectitude or from trading personifications of perfection or pitching penitence. Instead, the repercussions of their solemn obligation exercises them in the habits of humility, meekness, and patience. 

RELATED: Hope for the World: The Universal House of Justice

Members of the first Universal House of Justice, elected in 1963

Such are my perceptions, but infinitely more worthwhile and valuable it is to hear directly from one who had the inestimable honor of serving the Universal House of Justice the longest, the now-deceased Baha’i Ian Semple. He writes in his diary: 

Hushmand [Fatheazam] returned from a visit to England on 29th January 1967, bringing to nine the number of [Universal House of Justice] members present in the Holy Land. I note a comment in my diary at that time which I think is important. I wonder if this first Universal House of Justice is especially blessed, or if this love and harmony among the members will always continue? In a sense it has been a little like a love affair. The first incomparable days and months when we were all overwhelmed and were bound together in an ecstatic affection, ignorant though most of us were of one another’s natures, helplessly relying on the guidance of God for what the future would reveal. Now, after nearly four years [1967] we all know one another so much better, both our virtues and capacities and our faults and shortcomings. The early rapture only recurs from time to time, but its place has been taken by a profound respect and love for one another — each one knowing the others and knowing that others know him — yet for all our human frailties, for all our bygone strongly held disagreements in consultations — no barrier has been raised between any two of us. I can see, as I observe my fellow- members, how they are growing in spiritual stature, understanding and breadth of vision; and I know how I myself have grown and how I am even now aware of so many faults of which I must rid myself.

Time and again we stumble, but each time we pick ourselves up and strive once more to be worthy of the high calling which our fellow believers have thrust upon us. Now, thirty years since I wrote those words, I can testify that the same spirit still exists, and has persisted through all the vicissitudes and changes of membership which those years have seen.

 It is the genius of Baha’u’llah’s world order that the genuine humility of its serving administrators in this legalistic landscape of rule and order, rank and hierarchy, ensures that no one seeks favor or celebrates fame. That timeless eschatological promise — the coming of the Promised One — now enshrines an ethos of loving service amongst its followers.

This article is adapted from the book “The Last Refuge: Fifty Years of the Ministry of the Universal House of Justice” by Shahbaz Fatheazam.


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‘Crossing the Desert’: The Autobiography of Payam Zamani

Do you understand what it’s like to lack the legal freedom to express your faith, religion, and spiritual beliefs — enduring harassment, attacks, and the denial of human rights, such as access to higher education, solely because you are a religious minority? Payam Zamani does, and he is now sharing his story with the world.

In his new book, “Crossing the Desert: The Power of Embracing Life’s Difficult Journeys,” Payam Zamani, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, investor, and co-founder of BahaiTeachings.org, offers an inside look into the religious persecution of the Baha’is in Iran — Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.

A Photo of Payam Zamani, Courtesy of Payam Zamani

The Baha’i Faith is a world religion that centers around oneness — one God, one human race, and one unfolding revelation. Baha’u’llah is the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith. His title in English means “The Glory of God,” and Baha’is believe that His coming was prophesied in many world religions. The Baha’i writings say:

To Israel He was neither more nor less than the incarnation of the ‘Everlasting Father’, the ‘Lord of Hosts’ come down ‘with ten thousands of saints’; to Christendom Christ returned ‘in the glory of the Father’; to Shí’ah Islám the return of the Imám Ḥusayn; to Sunní Islám the descent of the ‘Spirit of God’ (Jesus Christ); to the Zoroastrians the promised Sháh-Bahrám; to the Hindus the reincarnation of Krishna; to the Buddhists the fifth Buddha.

“Of course, speaking of Baha’u’llah and his forerunner, the Bab, as ‘prophets’ strikes some followers of other religions as objectionable, if not blasphemous,” wrote Payam in his book. “This is what makes being [a] Baha’i so dangerous in certain parts of the world—especially in the Middle East, where extremists believe that Muhammad was God’s final prophet and that believing otherwise was an insult worthy of death.”

These Muslim extremists drowned Payam’s maternal grandfather in a river and ran down Payam’s sister with a car, leaving her in a coma until she recovered. They tried to kill Payam when he was in sixth grade. Over the school loudspeakers, one of the teachers announced, “Today, we’re going to get rid of the Baha’is!” As soon as Payam and his Baha’i friend stepped through the gates, a mob of their classmates started spitting and throwing rocks at them.

Payam wrote, “We guarded our heads and tried to walk as fast as we could as some came closer and beat us with sticks, and kicked us, spitting directly in our faces and all over our bodies. One of them picked up a half-broken brick to throw, but he missed and hit one of their own instead.”

Thankfully, both Payam and his friend made it to their homes. When Payam’s parents heard what happened, they asked one of the teachers how they could let that happen to kids. His response was, “Well, we tried to kill them today. On another day, we will. So I encourage you to leave town. Now.”

Payam and his family moved from town to town in Iran. Payam wrote, “The belief that my parents held was that by going to these particular areas and living in a way that showed they were part of a peaceful and progressive religion, one focused on uniting people through love and service, some of the violence and harassment might stop—not only for the Baha’is, but for everyone.”

The Baha’i writings say:

To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.

Payam continued, “By comparison, during the early days of the Baha’i Faith, in the mid-1800s, nearly twenty thousand Baha’is were killed in Iran—just for believing as they believed. …No religion has come about without sacrifice.”

It would take years before each member of Payam’s immediate family decided to escape Iran and make the difficult and dangerous journey across the desert in pursuit of a better life. Although this autobiography details his early traumatic experiences, his goal is “to show how every one of us can learn from the challenges we face, and then act—as individuals, as communities, as companies, as countries, as part of humanity itself—in order to help make life better for us all.”

Read “Crossing the Desert: The Power of Embracing Life’s Difficult Journeys” to learn about Payam’s upbringing in Iran, his journey to the United States, his entrepreneurial success that led him to be one of the “Top 30 Under 30” wealthiest people in the country in 1999, and his efforts to infuse spirituality into business.

Payam wrote, “The entirety of my life’s journey led me to where I am today: to a belief that capitalism needs to change. Together, we can learn from the triumphs and woes of our past and present in order to create a system that will allow our economic life to be an inseparable part of our service life.”

Click here to preorder his book now.


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A Legendary Scientist Asks: Do We Survive Death?

How do the world’s most renowned scientists and theorists regard the spiritual realm? Can science and spirituality, so long at odds, find common ground? Can a scientist believe in the afterlife?

Kurt Gödel, the renowned logician and mathematician who had an immense effect on logic, on philosophy, and on the emerging field of theoretical computer science certainly did — he said “If the world is rationally constructed and has meaning, then there must be such a thing [as an afterlife].”

RELATED: Where Do We Go When We Die?

Young Kurt Gödel as a student in 1925

Among the remarkable constellations of geniuses that populated the early and mid-twentieth-century landscape, Gödel was a close friend to individuals like Einstein and Von Neumann. Gödel developed theorems that put hard limits on the “truths” we can access using formal logical systems. 

I recently read this fascinating Aeon article —  “We’ll meet again” by Alexander Englert — which details some of Gödel’s private thoughts about the afterlife, revealed in four letters he wrote to his mother in 1961.

In Englert’s article, I learned for the first time about Kurt Gödel’s fourteen-point outline of his deepest philosophical thoughts. As a scientist and as a person of faith, this really intrigued me, since it resonated strongly with many of the ideas that I’ve found in my studies of the Baha’i Faith. Here are Gödel’s fourteen points:

  1. The world is rational.
  2. Human reason can, in principle, be developed more highly (through certain techniques).
  3. There are systematic methods for the solution of all problems (also art, etc.).
  4. There are other worlds and rational beings of a different and higher kind.
  5. The world in which we live is not the only one in which we shall live or have lived.
  6. There is incomparably more knowable a priori than is currently known.
  7. The development of human thought since the Renaissance is thoroughly intelligible.
  8. Reason in mankind will be developed in every direction.
  9. Formal rights comprise a real science.
  10. Materialism is false.
  11. The higher beings are connected to the others by analogy, not by composition.
  12. Concepts have an objective existence.
  13. There is a scientific (exact) philosophy and theology, which deals with concepts of the highest abstractness; and this is also most highly fruitful for science.
  14. Religions are, for the most part, bad — but religion is not.

Englert’s Aeon essay provides some background to a few of these points via Gödel’s letters. For example on the first point, “The world is rational,” Gödel explained in a letter to his mother dated 23 July 1961:

Does one have a reason to assume that the world is rationally organized? I think so. For it is absolutely not chaotic and arbitrary, rather — as natural science demonstrates — there reigns in everything the greatest regularity and order. Order is, indeed, a form of rationality.

In another passage, Gödel went on to explain why the world’s rationality motivates his belief in an afterlife:

If the world is rationally organized and has meaning, then it must be the case. For what sort of a meaning would it have to bring about a being (the human being) with such a wide field of possibilities for personal development and relationships to others, only then to let him achieve not even 1/1,000th of it?

This also relates to Gödel’s fifth point: “The world in which we live is not the only one in which we shall live or have lived.”  

Remarkably, these ideas were first formulated by Abdu’l Baha, who originally stated them more than half a century earlier in his 1906 book “Some Answered Questions”:

… nature is subject to a sound organization, to inviolable laws, to a perfect order, and to a consummate design, from which it never departs. To such an extent is this true that were you to gaze with the eye of insight and discernment, you would observe that all things—from the smallest invisible atom to the largest globes in the world of existence, such as the sun or the other great stars and luminous bodies—are most perfectly organized, be it with regard to their order, their composition, their outward form, or their motion, and that all are subject to one universal law from which they never depart.

Abdu’l-Baha reinforced that point in another passage from “Some Answered Questions”:

… if a human life, with its spiritual being, were limited to this earthly span, then what would be the harvest of creation? Indeed, what would be the effects and the outcomes of Divinity Itself? Were such a notion true, then all created things, all contingent realities, and this whole world of being—all would be meaningless. God forbid that one should hold to such a fiction and gross error.

RELATED: Can We Die Joyously?

Compare, as well, Gödel’s fourth point “There are other worlds and rational beings of a different and higher kind,” with the views shared in the even earlier 19th-century writings of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith: “Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute” and Know thou of a truth that the worlds of God are countless in their number, and infinite in their range. None can reckon or comprehend them except God, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.

Did the Baha’i teachings anticipate and foresee the insights of renowned scientists and thinkers like Gödel? In the next essay in this short series, we’ll look at the evidence in one specific area: reincarnation.


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