Interview with Artis Williams, Nemojae and Nicole T. Johnson
- In the early spring of 1971, I met someone who told me about the principles of the Bahá'í Faith, and it seemed so beautiful I couldn't believe it.
- The words caught my heart-they built a flame of love in my heart.
- Don't look at the people, because along the way you're going to find people who are not living up to the Faith. But the teachings, the readings, the Writings, that's what one must really adhere to.
- There is no clergy in the Bahá'í Faith.
- Being Bahá'ís, we are in a state of being, and trying, and striving.
- As Bahá'ís we believe there is a oneness, a unity. There is only one God, who is the God of all people.
- Families are told that if they only have the money to educate one child and they have a male and a female, they should educate the female child, because the female is the mother of future generations.
- The Writings tell the black people they should be forgiving and the white people they should not be condescending. Even in the Writings, everyone knows how to act to bring about the oneness of mankind.
- It's a spiritual practice just to live the life, to attempt to bring the teachings into everyday life. Not just to your religious life when you come to the center on Sunday, but to bring it into your life every single day, in all matters.
- Bahá'u'llah talks about two kinds of illnesses, spiritual and physical. Spiritual sickness needs a spiritual cure. For a physical sickness, we need to have doctors, physicians.
Ann: This will be the first time I have three generations together. Artis, in what tradition were you raised?
Artis: I was raised in the Christian tradition, specifically Baptist, in Georgia . I was baptized at about the age of twelve.
Ann: So when you moved up from the South you were a Baptist? What moved you to become a Bahá'í (http://www.bahai.org/) then?
Artis: Well, I was an adult when I became a Bahá'í. I came to New York City in 1937, and I grew up in the Metropolitan Baptist Church on Seventh Avenue , which is now Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard . I taught Sunday school there as a teenager.
I'm in my seventies now. I became a Bahá'í in 1971, on November twelfth. I didn't hear about the Bahá'í Faith until I was about forty. Although I was practicing the Christian religion, I sometimes felt that there was something missing, but I didn't want to leave the church because I didn't know anything better to go to. But in the early spring of 1971, I met someone who told me about the principles of the Bahá'í Faith, and it sounded so beautiful I couldn't believe it. I was invited to attend an informal meeting, which they call " Firesides," at someone's home. I continued to do that every week. Each time they would give me some-thing to read about the Faith. The first book I read was called Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, by Balusi. It was absolutely wonderful. The principles were good, and after going to many meetings I liked the personality of the people. They appeared to act out the teachings of the Faith. They were not prejudiced toward me, and I felt warmly toward them. Also, the words caught my heart-they built a flame of love in my heart. I went from April to November, and I decided this was too good to be true, but if it was true, I wanted to be a part of it. That's when I declared myself a Bahá'í, on November 12, 1971.
At that particular time I didn't know the station of Bahá'u'lláh, but I thought, "If it is not what it appears to be, I'm getting right out again." So I'm still in it. This is my twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth year. I was told, "Don't look at the people, because along the way you're going to find people who are not living up to the Faith. But the teachings, the readings, the Writings, that's what one must really adhere to."
One of the things I really liked is that I wasn't hounded for money. They wouldn't accept my money. A person who's not a Bahá'í is not allowed to contribute to the Faith. If someone who is not a member of the Faith gives money anonymously, that money is given to charity, it's not used by Bahá'ís for their own purposes. We are asked to give sacrificially, and who knows what is a sacrifice to a person? To one person an amount might be a sacrifice, and to another it's nothing. I budget what I am going to contribute to the Faith. I don't know what my daughter or my granddaughter gives, I just give myself.
Ann: And you're not paying for ministers and things like that?
Nemojae: There is no clergy in the Bahá'í Faith. The Administrative Order is elected by the Bahá'ís from the body of the Bahá'ís, so any Bahá'í who is age twenty-one and is a member of the community can be elected and can vote. The election for the spiritual assembly takes place annually. It's an election that is done without electioneering and without politicking. It's an amazing thing to be a part of, because it's done in a prayerful atmosphere. The Bahá'ís come together, we say prayers, we read from the Writings, and then in silence each member of the community writes down the nine names (nine because the assembly is made of nine individuals) of those people that they feel have the qualities that have been told to us in the Writings. The qualities are things like unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind-things that are somewhat spiritual qualities. You know who has these qualities through your associations in the community and through serving together. We have committees to do different things-to visit the members of the community who are sick or homebound or in the hospital. We have committees for teaching the children.
Bahá'ís participate without pay. All of our service is just that, because in the Faith we believe that service is worship. If work is done in the spirit of service, then it's raised to the level of worship. That is one of the very specific teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. It's a very invigorating thing for us to serve the Faith. When a person is elected to the spiritual assembly they give of their time. They meet with the other nine members. Individual members don't have any power alone, only as an institution. When they consult together and come to one decision, that decision is the decision of the assembly, and it is binding on the community.
Ann: Were you born into the Faith then?
Nemojae: I was raised a Baptist, and I was baptized when I was eight years old. I went to Sunday school and Baptist Training Union. When I became a teenager-I was about thirteen years old-I began to judge the religion by the people. I saw people doing things that weren't very nice all the time, which people will do, so I became disenchanted with being a Baptist. So I just didn't go to church. I always tried to be a good person though; I just didn't participate in any religious activities.
When my mother heard about the Bahá'í Faith, I was sixteen. We were traveling together when we met this Bahá'í, so I actually heard about it at the same time as my mother. When my mother began to attend Firesides she took me along. I liked everything I heard. I was an avid reader, so I would read the Bahá'í books and they really touched me. Except I didn't want to be a hypocrite, and at the time I had no intentions of living up to what I thought, in my adolescent understanding, was a very high Bahá'í standard for a teenager. So I did not declare my faith in Bahá'u'lláh. I didn't recognize the station for many, many years. I went into my adulthood and into college. I graduated college and began my career, and even had my daughter.
I didn't become a Bahá'í until ten years ago. I had been piloting my ship of life and ended up on the rocks, and I began to realize that human beings are not supposed to live alone, without a spiritual connection. I was watching my daughter being raised a Bahá'í, and I approved of that.
Ann: You just bypassed your generation and went on to hers?
Nemojae: Yes, I had always loved the Bahá'í Faith. I was watching my daughter being raised a Bahá'í, but I didn't want to make that commitment myself. I thought I had to be a better person to be a Bahá'í. Over time I realized that you don't have to be perfect to be a Bahá'í, you just have to believe in the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and attempt to make those teachings a reality in your life. It's a striving-it's not the end point, it's taking a certain path.
Ten years ago, I decided to become a Bahá'í. My daughter was six years old at that time, she's sixteen now. Over the ten years that I have been a Bahá'í, it has really changed my life and the way I view and respond to the world. Now I can't imagine not having this in my life. In everything that I think and do and say, the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh are there. They guide me.
Ann: You really have to study deeply?
Nemojae: Bahá'u'lláh asks us to read the Writings every day, to immerse ourselves in the ocean of His words and to ponder them. Many times you read the Writings and there are things that challenge you. There was a particular Writing that said you should forgive a person instantly. I thought, "Instantly? That's like, before they've even finished doing whatever they've done to you!" And it said that you should treat your enemy with kindness and not be hypocritical about it-treat them with sincere kindness. I thought, "How do you do that?" That was my work through prayer and through meditation-trying to get to that level.
Artis: It's a journey that we take all through our lives. Being Bahá'ís, we are in a state of being, and trying, and striving. There's one place, in the book called The World Order Bahá'u'lláh, where the great-grandson of Bahá'u'lláh writes, "All we can reasonably venture to attempt is to strive to obtain a glimpse of the first streaks of the promised dawn that must, in the fullness of time, chase away the gloom that has encircled humanity."
Nemojae: As Bahá'ís, we believe there is a oneness, a unity. There is only one God, who is the God of all people. Some may call Him by different names, or envision Him to be different, but there is only one spiritual essence, and all spiritual truths emanate from that. The levels of spirituality are related to people's capacity to understand. It's like going through school. A child in kindergarten has a certain capacity to learn at that age. As they advance through middle school, high school and college, they learn much more and build on what they've learned before. That's how we see religious truth-all the religions are progressive in nature.
Not having to deny other religions was very helpful to me. I remember when I was about nine years old I had a little friend who was Catholic. I didn't understand that Catholic and Baptist were both Christian. In the Baptist faith we were taught that if you don't abide by Baptist rules, then you go to hell. This little girl and I were good friends, and it was an interracial relationship, she was a white girl and I was black. We did everything together, and I didn't understand how my friend could be going to hell when I wasn't. So when I learned about the Bahá'í Faith, it was perfect for me, because I knew that my friend didn't have to go to hell and neither did I.
Artis: Bahá'u'lláh tells us to consort with people of all religions, even when you have children. Not only do you teach your children about the Faith, you allow them to see other manifestations of God. And they don't have to make a choice about being Bahá'í until they are fifteen years old. By that time the parents should have allowed their children to go to churches or synagogues or wherever to learn about other people's religions. It's a child's choice to be a Bahá'í. Children are not Bahá'ís just because their parents are.
Ann: Now is this true for you, Nicole? You're sixteen, have you chosen to be a Bahá'í?
Nicole: I was raised a Bahá'í from when I was a baby. I've been taken to Bahá'í Sunday school. I've learned the history of the Faith and the main principles. I agree with the Faith and I think it's a good thing for me. When I registered as a Bahá'í, they asked if I was sure about it. I was, and I got my Bahá'í membership card and the welcome packet.
Ann: How did that feel, that next step? Did it move you to receive that packet?
Nicole: Yes. Choosing to be Bahá'í was a good thing for me. The Bahá'í Faith has always been there for me, and I know that it will always be there for me.
Ann: It's wonderful to see a religion passed down from generation to generation. Often kids will leave a religion because they see hypocrisy; people are saying one thing but doing something totally different. The fact that you wanted to join the Faith must be a real confirmation for your grandmother and your mother that something special is happening. And you're still allowed to question, so it's not as if you have to take the teachings as doctrine, or they're going to be force-fed to you.
Have either of you, Artis or Nemojae, lost faith with the Bahá'í? Have you gone through some questioning times and thought you had made an error?
Artis: No, I never questioned. I grow more into it as the years go by.
Nemojae: I've never lost faith in Bahá'u'lláh and the Bahá'í Faith. Sometimes I've lost faith in myself, but not in the Faith. Sometimes when you are emotionally or physically drained, you might find it difficult to say your prayers with the same level of focus. But it's not the Faith. The Faith has always been steadfast, certain. As a matter of fact, I find that when those times occur in my life, and I feel that I'm drifting, there's always something that brings me back. Fellowship is always great because it renews and invigorates you.
Ann: The equality between men and women in the Bahá'í Faith is very different from other religions. In other systems, they're trying to move toward equality because of the Women's movement, but from the very beginning the Bahá'í teachings have said that men and women are equal. Do you feel that teaching is really acted out?
Nemojae: The Bahá'ís attempt to the best of their ability to uphold that principle. Recognizing the fact that the Faith is only 156 years old, and we are products of the society in which we live, we all have our baggage. In this Faith, we can acknowledge it and we can address it. We can try to resolve some of the effect that it has on individuals, male or female. We work on that, just like we work on the issue of race relations. We live in a society that has race prejudice. We can't flick a switch and eliminate it. So those two issues are very close to the Bahá'ís, and the Bahá'ís are working very hard on them.
We believe in the principle of the education of the female child. Families are told that if they only have the money to educate one child and they have a male and a female, they should educate the female child, because the female is the mother of future generations. This principle is being put into operation all over the world. Here in America , the oppression of women is subtle, I believe. There are countries in the world where it is very overt, and in those countries, the Bahá'í communities are really doing very concrete things. They're opening schools for girls and educating them so that there's equality, so that people recognize the value of a woman working in the fields and being the breadwinner and also mothering. Real work is being done around the principle of equality of men and women. We consult about it, we address it, we talk about how the issue of equality differs in each culture. I'm an African-American person, so my issues in terms of equality between men and women are different. Black men are more oppressed than white men, so the dichotomy is different. So we address all of this, and we try to come up with real solutions that people can bring into their everyday lives.
Ann: Are you married?
Nemojae: I am. My husband is not a Bahá'í; he's a Christian, but not practicing-he doesn't go to any church, but he's a Christian by belief and by background. He accepts that our daughter is being raised as a Bahá'í. He sort of gives me the spiritual responsibility of the family. He's very open toward the Bahá'ís: He allows me to participate in Bahá'í activities and he's not controversial, he doesn't create any problems. He's very friendly toward them.
Ann: Are you still married, Artis?
Artis: I'm a widow.
Ann: Was your husband a Bahá'í?
Artis: No, he wasn't. He was also a non-practicing Christian.
Ann: So you both have studied Christianity. Have you studied any other religions?
Artis: Since becoming Bahá'í, I've learned a little about Islam. I acknowledge the Koran as a holy book, and I acknowledge other holy books. I know that there are holy books other than what we call the Bible, meaning the Old and New Testaments. Before I became Bahá'í, I acknowledged no holy book other than the Bible.
Ann: Is there a name for the holy teachings in the Bahá'í religion?
Artis: The Kitáb-i-Aqdas. That means, "the most holy book." It contains the holy Writings, the spiritual Writings, the laws we are to live by.
Nemojae: It's not all of Bahá'u'lláh's Writings; the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is a specific book. It's called the Most Holy Book, and it's also known as the Book of Laws.
Ann: For your own lives, have there been spiritual heroes or heroines who have opened your heart and your mind to spirit? Some teacher, living or dead, who was a person who moved you?
Artis: One person I really admire is Louis G. Gregory. He was a black man born in Charleston , South Carolina , and he was a lawyer early in the century, before black people were able to become professionals. He met the son of Bahá'u'lláh- 'Abdu'l-Bahá-and his story is a beautiful story of how he learned his Faith and went throughout the country trying to bring other people into the Faith. In fact, he gave up his profession to teach this Faith. I think he was one of the first black people to serve on the National Administrative Body of the National Spiritual Assembly. There is a book written about Gregory called To Move the World. I have many spiritual heroes. In fact, there was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance who was a Bahá'í-also a black man-Alain Locke. He was a Rhodes scholar.
Nemojae: I think my main spiritual hero is my Mom. I knew her before she was a Bahá'í and I know her now, after twenty-seven years of being a Bahá'í. Not only am I able to reflect on how my own life is changing, I've been able to see the changes in my mother's life.
Then my daughter is another spiritual hero of mine. I think watching her develop from the age of zero to six, when I became a Bahá'í, had an impact on me. Just watching the person she was growing to be in the fertile soil of the Bahá'í community was important. I was born and raised in the Bronx . My experience in early years was of living in integrated neighborhoods and being around a diverse group of people. Then in my later years, it changed. The neighborhoods changed, and I found myself being with only African-American people. Even though in my work I was with diverse people, in the neighborhoods where I was most of the time, it wasn't that diverse. My daughter was being raised a Bahá'í, and she was with Persian children, Asian children, African-American children like herself-different children from different backgrounds. Seeing her interact with other people and watching her spiritual growth had a really big impact on me.
One other person has been a spiritual example for me-Mr. Arnstein, a nurse administrator where I worked. He's a Conservative Jewish person, and he's a man of faith who tries to live his faith in very tough situations. He tried to be just, he tried to be fair. He helped me to see how one could blend faith into everyday life, especially in the type of work that we did.
Ann: Have you had any experiences in which you had a sense of God or Bahá'u'lláh that supported you in a time of sickness or death? In the Christian church there's the idea of the Holy Spirit or Jesus coming to you in times of need. Have you experienced a time in which you felt protected or directed?
Nemojae: I haven't had a lot of experiences like that, but the experience I often have is of knowing what's right and what's wrong. It seems to come most often for me in my dreams, in my sleep. There are times when I have difficult decisions to make, and I don't really know what to do. When I pray and meditate about them and then go to sleep, often when I wake up I know what to do. It happens often enough for me to associate it with a spiritual experience.
Ann: How about you, Artis?
Artis: There was a time, prior to becoming a Bahá'í, when I had surgery, and I felt that I was passing away into the next world. My children were teenagers and I prayed and begged and beseeched God, "Please let me live to raise my children." I don't know if I spoke this prayer or whether it was in my thoughts. I said, "There must be something I can do, and I promise I will do it." And I was spared. I felt I was out of my body, that I was really leaving this world. But I beseeched God to let me stay to raise my children, and I feel that He answered my prayer. I was able to raise my children to adulthood, and He granted me this gift of the Bahá'í Faith.
Ann: When I look at the three of you, I can see the genetic similarity, and I can also see that you have a very special spiritual light that pours out of each of you. You passed some very special lineage on to each other and you're very blessed.
Artis: Do you have one of our prayer books?
Ann: I was given a small one by Gerald Watson.
Artis: He's one of our heroes too. We really love him, this family does. He's a precious, precious soul.
Ann: What makes him special? What is unique about him?
Artis: You know, Bahá'ís go to various meetings, and most times the blacks go to the area where the whites are. It seems to me they hold the meetings in the white areas, up in Westchester County-it's some way away. The blacks make an effort to leave their area to go where the whites are, and then we are together. At one particular meeting, I became angry because they were talking about race unity-"we are one," and all that stuff. And I had an outburst. I said, "Dear friends, whenever there's a meeting I'm here. I'm here, but whenever I invite you to come to my home or my neighborhood, the first thing you ask me is, 'Is it safe?' That's very insulting to me because that's where I live. Safe or not, that's where I have to go back to from this meeting." I really laid it on. And at the end of the meeting, this tall white man came over and he said, "Where do you live?" I told him where I live and he started coming and brought his family, his children. Our families became friends, because it touched him. I just opened up and gave my true feelings.
Ann: And he really heard them, that's what's important.
Nemojae: He heard them and he responded to them. Over the years we've really become one family. Mr. Watson has three children and my mother has three grandchildren. We've watched the development of all the children, through high school and college, and through their experiences. We learned to relate to each other.
It's very different to get to know people this way. We have to be sincere about erasing prejudice, lifting that burden from a struggling and dying world. We can't do that unless we change our behaviors, unless we really change what we do. It's not easy.
Ann: No. I was definitely raised with prejudices. The terrible part is that I didn't even know I was a racist. People don't even understand that the things they say are hurtful. It's important sometimes to be friendly and open enough so you can say to someone, "Do you realize what you just said or did?"
Artis: The Writings of the Bahá'í Faith tell people how they should act: The Writings tell the black people they should be forgiving and the white people they should not be condescending. Even in the Writings, everyone knows how to act to bring about the oneness of mankind.
Nemojae: We are told to be patient with each other, because this is a struggle that we have to go through together. Now is the time for oppression to be eradicated, and it will take a long time. You know, each generation is a little bit better. My daughter's not going to raise her children the way I raised mine. She was raised a Bahá'í, so she was raised with a more open mind. My mother was raised in the South, in the cotton fields of Georgia , and she was raised with certain ideas about race. I was raised in integrated neighborhoods in the Bronx, so my thinking is different from my mom's. My daughter's thinking is totally different from my mother's or mine.
You know, as Bahá'ís, we see that there is a dual process occurring: There's a disintegration of things that are negative, bad and old. That process is what we see most in the news-that disintegration, the hate, the anger, the violence. But that has to disintegrate in order for something new to be built. And that new thing is being built-we see that in the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. We see that in Tiennenman Square . We see that in the building of race relations.
So the two processes are occurring simultaneously, and we have to have clear vision to be able to see them, and we have to be hopeful. Bahá'ís are very hopeful, and we know that it will come to pass. We are certain of it. It may not be in my lifetime, but we have to be patient.
Artis: And we all have to do our part. We are not just bystanders, waiting till it happens. We have to try to be a part of the change.
Ann: There's a poem about the half-light, is that the term? "Children of the half-light," that's a powerful idea; at least you are the beginning of the light. You may not get to the full light. I have to hold that in my mind, because sometimes I get discouraged.
Nemojae: We all get discouraged sometimes, because there is so much negative energy around us, but we-just have to hold on. We have to refresh ourselves by whatever spiritual means we have. When we do that, then we see the light again. It's not that it was gone, it's just that sometimes it gets a little dim because of the clouds.
Ann: Do you have a certain amount of time that you must say prayers every day or meditate? Is meditation part of the Faith?
Nemojae: Yes, but the Faith doesn't define a particular type of meditation. The kind of meditation one practices is one's choice, but we have the prayers. There are certain things we are asked to do as Bahá'ís, including reading the Writings day and night. We're not told how much, we can read a single hidden word or we can read a paragraph or we can read a book. That's our individual choice, but we are asked to bring our-selves to the Writings-to the major figures of the Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, or 'Abdu'l-Bahá-at least morning and evening. And we're asked to pray daily. We have three obligatory prayers-a short one, a medium one and a long one-and we can choose any of the three. We're asked to say the prayers according to instructions-for instance, we are asked to say the short one between noon and sunset.
Ann: Can you recite the short one for me? Is it short enough?
Artis: It's called the Noonday Prayer, and it goes, "I bear witness, oh my God. Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify at this moment to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is no other God but Thee, the help in peril, the self-subsisting." That's from Bahá'u'lláh, and you must say that once a day, between noon and sunset.
Nemojae: Now the long obligatory prayer takes almost ten minutes to say. That one you just have to say once within twenty-four hours, and there are certain motions that go with that-bowing, raising your hands, and so forth.
Artis: You can choose which prayer you use. No prayer is more important than the others. If you choose to say the medium length obligatory prayer, you say that three times a day. Each person makes his or her own choice. Nobody is watching to say, "You didn't say your prayers today." It's dependent on self-discipline.
Nemojae: If you want to, and if you have the time, you can say all three. So in terms of spiritual practices, there are the prayers and the reading of the Writings. Giving to the Bahá'í fund is also considered a spiritual practice. The principles that guide giving to the Bahá'í fund are giving regularly and giving sacrificially. "Sacrificially" is self-defined.
Ann: So it's not as if you must tithe 10 percent.
Nemojae: No. You may give whatever your heart is moved to do; the only person who knows what you give is the treasurer. But nobody's checking you. Appeals for money have to be community-wide. You can't just say, "Artis can you give an extra fifteen dollars?"
Artis: The whole community is told what is necessary. Like last night, they were telling us that one of our temples needs repair. We wanted to add more property in Haifa . Those are things that they anticipate doing nationally and internationally. If we feel like increasing our contribution so that the Administrative Body can do those things, that's up to us. If we don't, if we can't, nobody knows.
Nemojae: Teaching the Faith is another spiritual practice. Since we have no clergy, the only way for the Faith to spread is for members to teach it. We use different methods, but each individual has a responsibility to teach the Faith, to share it with others. You can't proselytize. You can't force the Faith on anyone, but it's important to share it with people, to speak of it and to speak of Bahá'u'lláh and who He is. If the person is interested and wants to know more, you tell them. If not, you stop talking to them about the Faith.
Artis: You don't doom them to hell if they don't believe as you do. We don't tell people that unless you believe in Bahá'u'lláh you're going to hell. That's proselytizing.
Nemojae: Finally, it's a spiritual practice just to live the life, to attempt to bring the teachings into everyday life. Not just to your religious life when you come to the center on Sunday, but to bring it into your life every single day, in all matters.
Artis: God has always had a covenant with man. That's the Bahá'í covenant.
Ann: Has anybody ever said to you, "Now, I see you live differently-tell me why."
Nemojae: Yes, we are supposed to live in such a way that people will ask us, "What is different about you?" That gives us an opportunity to speak about our faith, if someone notices our difference.
Ann: I noticed immediately that people here at the center are different. I do energy work in which I send and receive energy. I can feel an energetic here that's very full of life, very, very special. I look at both of you, and I can understand people approaching you to ask what you're doing.
Artis: One thing that is forbidden in the Bahá'í Faith is backbiting. Backbiting causes a lot of problems, division and disunity. If we are with people who are backbiting, we encourage it if we listen to it.
Ann: That's right, you encourage it if you don't stop it. And sometimes it can even be enticing.
Nemojae: A little tidbit. you think, "I'll just listen for a minute."
Ann: I have heard in my teaching that if you listen to dark things about other people, you help them stay in that position. Even if they're trying to move forward, you are surrounding them with dark energy and dark judgment. As a spiritual teacher, you must stop that immediately.
What does Bahá'u'lláh say about really harsh things happening to very good people? If you have somebody in your community who follows the Faith and tries to live to the highest order, and they get cancer or someone in their family is harmed. Are there any special teachings about darkness or light in a person's life?
Artis: Bahá'u'lláh talks about two kinds of illnesses, spiritual and physical. Spiritual sickness needs a spiritual cure. For a physical sickness, we need to have doctors, physicians. We realize that there are physical illnesses-even children die. There is a commentary about it, but I can't recall it at the moment. I'm saying this for myself, I can't recall the exact quote, but I think that those who die have been spared some of the tortures of life.
Nemojae: More generally speaking, we believe that there is a purpose to life. In this life, the physical realm from birth to death, part of the work is to acquire spiritual qualities, which will be used in our existence after death. We compare that to a child in utero who is developing eyes but not using them, developing ears but not necessarily hearing in utero, and developing feet but not walking in
utero. Those physical qualities are to be used in the death to the womb, which is birth to this life. Difficulties are educational, they help us to grow spiritually. They may be very challenging for us physically, but they encourage spiritual development. When a person is dying, they have to come to some understanding, if they can, of what the purpose of their life has been. Sometimes they have to learn how to be patient in suffering. Patience is a spiritual quality. Love, understanding-these are spiritual qualities. You can't get your hands on them, but these are qualities that, as we develop them, will serve great purposes in the next life. Naturally, I can't tell what those purposes are because I'm not there yet.
Ann: Is there a heaven and hell in the Bahá'í Faith?
Nemojae: Not as physical places. Nicole, do you want to explain about heaven and hell?
Nicole: I was taught that heaven and hell are not two places, one up in the sky and one below ground. They're how you live your life on earth. If you find the good in things and in people, you're living in heaven, because you're happy, and you're living with a smile on your face. You could be rich and famous and have everything you've ever wanted and still live in hell spiritually or mentally.
Nemojae: We see heaven and hell as a state of being. If you're in anguish, then you're in hell. If you're at peace, you're in heaven, despite whatever your physical reality is. We believe the soul is eternal and that it is on a pathway, always returning to God. It has come from God, and it is on a pathway through the many worlds of God, which are unknown to us. This is just one of the worlds of God, this existence as we know it, and after we are separated from our souls in death, there are many more worlds of God through which our souls will travel.
Ann: Were there worlds before this? Is there a hierarchy even before you come to this world?
Nemojae: I don't think the Faith talks about that. I think it says that our souls are coupled with our bodies at conception. I know definitely that Bahá'ís don't believe in reincarnation.
Ann: That we don't come back to this world?
Nemojae: No, we always go forward. Life after death is a huge subject. As you look at religion, from the more ancient religions through Christianity, Islam and now the Bahá'í Faith, these subjects are handled in more vast ways. The Christian doctrine is basically heaven and hell: If you're good now, you go to heaven; if you're bad now, you go to hell. Since studying the Bahá'í Writings, my understanding has changed. Now I understand the many worlds of God, and I believe we are preparing for that forward journey. I imagine that as we go into the next level of our existence we also have some work to do there.
Ann: The Christian concepts of good and evil, good people and bad people, good acts and bad acts-what may look in one generation like a bad act might really be the highest, most spiritual act. Like Bahá'u'lláh; He was imprisoned, and you might say, "Well this is a really bad person," when He's really the light of the next generation. When He was in prison, how was it possible for Him to write things and get them out?
Nemojae: That's the miracle. We don't teach miracles, but that is a miracle in itself.
Ann: That He stayed alive and that He could produce work and get it out of the prison.
Nemojae: He wrote hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of volumes. The volumes, the original Writings, are in Haifa , Israel , in the archives. And there are many that have still not been translated.
Ann: So He was receiving a spiritual anointing of this information? It wasn't an intellectual experience.
Nemojae: The information was revealed to Him. He describes it in some of His books-how revelation would come over Him in waves. When He was receiving revelation, things would come from His mouth. He would have people trying to write it all down as He Himself would be writing.
Wherever Bahá'u'lláh went His goodness influenced people. They wanted to help Him. That's one of the reasons the Ottoman Empire kept banishing Him, because every time they banished Him, in a very short period of time everyone loved Him, and people of great capacity were helping Him. So they would send Him somewhere else, trying always to minimize His impact and His influence.
The messenger himself is proof of the message, as is his word and whether his word comes to pass. Look at the extent of the Bahá'í revelation in a mere 156 years. Another Bahá'í belief is that when a manifestation of God declares Himself, it recreates all energy. There's an energy that's released through a divine declaration, and that energy affects everything. The Báb declared Himself on May 23, 1844. At the same time, Alexander Graham Bell was saying, "Look what God has wrought." He sent that message on the same day, on what was going to be the telephone. These things happened simultaneously.
Ann: So the light got very bright that day; people received energy. A manifestation of God influences the development of humanity and all the things that we see. If you look at the advancement of humanity on a timeline, and you put it next to a timeline of the manifestations of God, you'll see that the great surges in human development correspond with the appearance of the messengers of God.