By Karen Bacquet
It has taken me a long time to decide whether or not to publicly tell the story of how I became a Bahá’í and why I left the Bahá’í community. However, I’ve decided that I am probably not important enough for anyone to persecute. Also, I find that there isn’t much written about the experience of Bahá’ís in small communities, even though most Bahá’í communities in the U.S. have less than 30 members. This is not mean to be an examination of philosophical differences with the Bahá’í Faith, but a simple recounting of my experience.
For the sake of continuity, I have decided not to digress in order to explain Bahá’í terms and history. Such information is abundantly available in other Bahá’í websites and publications, for non-Bahá’ís who are interested.
I first heard of the Bahá’í Faith through a friend of mine, who was an inactive Bahá’í. I almost certainly would never become a Bahá’í had I been exposed to the typical teaching project. However, I became intrigued because of the teachings on the unity of religion, which is something I already believed in. At first, I was completely unaware that a Bahá’í group was just forming in my town, but I simply investigated on my own for about three months, before even meeting the local Bahá’ís.
The Writings of Baha’u’llah were what made me a Bahá’í. I decided that if these writings were not a revelation from God, then such revelation does not exist. That is still true for me. Take Baha’u’llah away, and the whole Western prophetic tradition falls like so many dominoes. So if the reader wonders “Why did she stay so long when she was so unhappy?”, that is the main explanation. That, and the fact I made a commitment and felt I had an obligation to make it work.
After enrolling in the Bahá’í community, I endured a series of three shocks that I never quite got over, although I tried for many years:
The first, and actually the least important was the discovery that in spite of the Bahá’í principle of equality between men and women, women cannot be elected to the Universal House of Justice, which is the supreme elected body in the Bahá’í world. The reason for this is that ‘Abdul-Baha said that this must be the case, and that the reasons for it would be revealed in the future. Like most Bahá’ís, I was not willing to abandon the Faith on that account, saying “Well, I don’t like it, but I guess I have to live with it.” The composition of the House of Justice is a rather distant matter and does not intrude on the local life of the community, where women are very much a part of the authority structure.
Some scholars have questioned whether the prohibition of women was meant to be a permanent and fundamental principle of administration. This is an interesting debate, but I would not expect it to change anything in the near future.
The second shock was, although I had been told that Bahá’ís do not proslytize, there was intense pressure to “teach the Faith.” In fact, community life is supposed to be organized around this mission.
I don’t believe that this is a deliberate attempt at deception. The idea that “prosyletizing” and “teaching” are different come from Shoghi Effendi, who was Oxford-educated and had a real feeling for fine distinctions between words. For him, “teaching” was explaining the principles of the Faith to an interested listener, while proselytizing was a more aggressive attempt at conversion. However, the average American doesn’t see much difference between “proselytizing”, “converting”, “teaching” or “sharing”. It all amounts to the same thing, and most people find it pretty obnoxious. Another thing that happens is that frustration at the slow growth rate of the American Bahá’í community leads some believers to cross the line.
There actually is a good deal of pressure to do so. A lot of this pressure is internal: the Writings are clear that teaching the Faith is one of the obligations of a Bahá’í. However, there always seems to be other people around to remind you should you forget. Occasionally, some hot-shot makes it his business to give the community a good dressing down for not meeting their responsibility to the Faith. I know of at least two people who left the Faith after such a scolding.
This pressure also consumes the community’s time with futile projects. I never knew anybody to come into the Faith through a teaching project; it was always by personal contact. This endless drive towards teaching deprives the community of its spiritual center: namely, the Writings of Baha’u’llah. There is this sense that Bahá’ís must always be rushing about doing some activity or another and there is never any time for study, contemplation, or even fellowship.
Another problem where teaching is concerned is that very few new converts are active even six months after signing their card. I don’t know how many times I was introduced to a new believer, then never saw them again. Until we are able to create a fulfilling community life, there really isn’t much point in teaching anybody. People will stay where they are nurtured, and they won’t stay where they aren’t nurtured. It really is that simple.
The final shock, and the worst of all, is the utter all-pervasiveness of administration. I became Secretary of an LSA within months of becoming a Bahá’í. Many times during those early days I felt as if the Bahá’í Faith had found me a seeker of truth, but for some inexplicable reason, wanted to turn me into a bureaucrat. In fact, I went searching through the Writings, and of course, the letters of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, looking for a way I could be a Bahá’í and not have all this endless administrative stuff hanging over my head. I had just undergone the profound religious experience of recognizing Baha’u’llah, and I was hurt and disappointed to find His community consumed with things that seemed rather trivial.
My research only pulled me deeper into the administrative web. According to traditional Bahá’í thinking, there really is no escape from administration. It was mostly laid down by Shoghi Effendi, the infallible interpreter of the Writings of Baha’u’llah, who was appointed by Abdu’l-Baha, who was appointed by the Manifestation Himself as an infallible interpreter. When I came to understand the doctrine of the Covenant, I was basically trapped.(I should note as an aside that to new believers who don’t research these matters find administration completely meaningless, and this is one reason why they drift away.) Administration was inescapable. Not only did I have frequent LSA meetings, but administration takes up one-third of Feast, and elections must be attended to during Ridvan, the most joyous holiday of the Bahá’í year. (No matter how “spiritual” you claim an election is, it still is basically business, not a celebration.)
The basic problem is, that in a small community, the Assembly and the community amount to the same thing; that is, virtually all active members are on the LSA. Inevitably, the assembly activities take precedence over community-focused ones. Most disappointing of all, in this situation, no one has the time for actual study of the Writings: all the other obligations take precedence. Just try to organize a deepening in a community of between 8-12 people, and see how far you get!
Worst of all, is that this administrative activity, for which so much is sacrificed, never seems to result in much. I’m very familiar with the old saw that we cannot judge the results of our teaching activity, since it may have an influence that we don’t get to see. However, when year after year goes by with very few new believers, and those hard-won souls drop out of sight within months, then it is only sensible to question the validity of what you are doing.
Another inexplicable roadblock put in the way of small communities is the separation of the urban area from the surrounding countryside. It is, in a word, insane. One long-time believer told me that years ago, they begged the NSA to allow the “city” community and the “JD” community to merge, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. “We lose people out in the country”, this believer sighed, and he’s right! We’ve got to be the only religion on the planet that asked new converts whether or not they live within the city limits. I personally have had the experience of driving into town from the JD, through the city, past the very place where the city was having their Feast, to the other side of town where our Feast was. I know this policy contributed to my isolation in later years.
After living with, and considering this problem for many years, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the National Spiritual Assembly doesn’t give a rodent’s hindquarters about the quality of community life at the local level, but is only concerned about how good the statistics look. Why have only one LSA, when you can have two? They both might be completely defunct; they may only exist on paper, but when we tally up the statistics for the public, it sure looks good. At one point, there were over 20 Bahá’ís living in my county, but they were divided up into two communities, and two “isolated believers”. Instead of a strong, continuous community, we had two assemblies that were always jeopardized, bumped down to group status, or barely rescued by Ridvan.
Worst of all, it reduced all of us to just cogs in a big machine. Perhaps typical of this attitude was a strange phone call I got quite recently: A Bahá’í lady from the “city” community called, after hearing a rumor that I had come back to the Faith. She did not call to see how I was, or to invite me to an event, or even just to chat. She called me to see if I would help with the Unit Convention which they are hosting in October! Why worry about the state of someone’s soul, when they have a pair of hands?
Activity in our community went in “pulses”, as one of the long-time locals described it. Activity would gear up, usually sparked by someone new moving in. Things would chug along pretty good for a while, then key people would move out and things would fall apart, until the cycle started all over again. I served on LSAs, when we had them, for nine years, in spite of my distaste for this kind of work. It’s hard to just bow out and say “You guys can do all the work”. Besides, I was a Bahá’í. How could I not want to help the Cause? But I resented it terribly, and felt guilty about my resentment, and so those years were ones of intense conflict for me.
This contributed to my decision to move to another town in the county, with a population of 400, which by historical accident happens to be incorporated. (That wasn’t the only reason we moved there. Finding an affordable, adequate house was the main thing.) I thought, with a twinge of guilt, that I could enjoy the best of both worlds, able to attend the events of two communities while escaping the administrative net. However, it didn’t turn out that way. The JD community basically consisted of two busy families who could never find a mutually agreeable time to meet. The city, for some reason couldn’t stick to a calendar , even when it bothered to print one. Many times I found myself on a front porch for an advertised event only to be informed that it had been cancelled, or that I should have called first, or there was simply nobody there. When I was informed of events, it was often scant hours beforehand. Basically, if you weren’t in the inner circle of four or so that constituted the most active people, it was impossible to get accurate information about what was going on. To this day, I’m not sure whether or not my exclusion was deliberate or simply the lack of organization. Often, city community members would refer to me as a “home front pioneer” and made it clear they expected me to raise up my own community by converting people in my little town.
Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t bother about Bahá’í activities, except for children’s classes, which were very important to me. They always seemed to start off with a bang in the Spring, meander on haphazardly through summer, then be completely defunct by October. The final straw, as far as putting up with the local community was concerned, came in the fall of 1998. I called, as usual, to check if children’s classes would really be there, and was told that they were having a big intercommunity event over Labor Day Weekend. I would be called back when children’s classes began again. About a month later, I saw Bahá’í children’s classes advertised in the local paper. I was very hurt that no one had bothered to call me, but I took my children into town anyway. And, for the last time, I stood on a front porch where nobody answered the door and something snapped. I finally didn’t care anymore whether anybody called me or not.
I was furious. While at this point, I had no plans to leave the Faith, I did have one recurring thought: if the administrative order were ordained by God, surely it would work better.
In spring of 1999, I went back to school in pursuit of my teaching credential, and for the first time had access to the Internet. And I found that article entitled A Modest Proposal, which, if you aren’t familiar with it, was an article slated for publication in Dialogue magazine containing proposals for reform in the Bahá’í community.
As it happens, I attended the now-infamous 1988 National Convention with a friend of mine who had been elected delegate. I was a subscriber to Dialogue magazine, and was a bit distressed to hear Firuz Kazemzadeh denounce it on the floor of the Convention. I had sometimes found articles in the magazine disturbing, but I mostly found it a refreshing change from the “official” stuff that seemed to bear so little relevance the real struggles we were going through.
I don’t recall exactly what Dr. Kazemzadeh said. I most clearly remember a Persian believer say that these people were worse than Covenant-breakers, which I thought was a bit of an overstatement. However, the impression I got was that the “Bahá’í dissidents” behind the magazine were snotty and disrespectful, and that I should withhold my support.
And there I was, eleven years later looking at “A Modest Proposal”, and I knew I’d been lied to. All the “dissidents” had done was make proposals that could improve the situation in the American Bahá’í community. All they had done was express opinions. I think what the NSA feared most was that these proposals might sound reasonable to more than a few Bahá’ís, and might actually result in change.
I withdrew from the Bahá’í Faith on Naw-Ruz, after nearly fourteen years as a Bahá’í.
The more I’ve investigated, the more I am confirmed in my belief that leaving the Bahá’í organization was the right thing to do. I am appalled at how legitimate scholars have been treated. As far as I’m concerned, the National Spiritual Assembly have betrayed the Message of Baha’u’llah.
You can’t investigate truth without asking questions. You can’t claim that science and religion agree, then persecute the scientists. If the Covenant must be defended by dishonesty and injustice, then maybe its not worth defending.
I still am, and always will be, a believer in Baha’u’llah, though that faith was severely shaken for a while. I’ve had time now to work through the anger, which would have been impossible if I’d remained in the Bahá’í community. I am hoping, instead, that someday there will be a real Bahá’í community, one in which people care about each other and the good of mankind. A community that serves God, not a bureaucracy that cares little for the people that support it. I’m keeping my eyes open, and I’m waiting.