By Heidi Lakshman
Presentation on the 25th Anniversary of the Gravenhurst Bahá’í Community, 25 March 2000
There are different milestones in the evolution of a Bahá’í community, and today we remember the arrival 25 years ago of the first Bahá’í pioneer, Francis Cowan, in Gravenhurst, and the development of the local Bahá’í community since then.
When our Assembly was in the middle of planning this event last summer, someone discovered in the back cover of the 1934-36 Bahá’í World Volume a map of the United States and Canada, showing localities where Bahá’ís resided as of May 1st, 1935. There were 229 localities in all, only 8 of which were situated in Canada, scattered right across the land: there was an Assembly in Montreal and one in Vancouver (with at least 9 Bahá’ís in each), and centers with only 1 isolated believer (meaning very lonely Bahá’í) living there, — one in Alberta, one in Saskatchewan, one in New Brunswick, one in Prince Edward Island, and two in Ontario: one in Toronto, and the other — lo and behold — in WEST GRAVENHURST! We got out a magnifying glass to make sure we were seeing right, and sure enough, there it was …
This meant that the history of the Gravenhurst Bahá’í community had obviously started much earlier than we realized, and that there was another milestone to be uncovered here. The search for this early believer began immediately, and what followed had all the characteristics of a true detective story.
Our first move was to put an ad in BAHA’I CANADA (September 1999 issue), inviting anyone with information about this believer to contact us, but — not surprisingly — no one did. Next, we contacted the Records Department and Archives Office at the National Bahá’í Center in Toronto, but they could not help us either since their records go back only to 1948, when the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly came into existence. All prior records were still being kept at the National Bahá’í Center of the United States in Wilmette, Illinois.
Next, we searched in Dr. van den Hoonard’s book, The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, for any clues about a believer in Gravenhurst, but found nothing there either.
In the meantime, we had started making inquiries with some of the senior citizens in town as to whether anyone remembered meeting a Bahá’í in the 1930’ies. But without knowing the name of the person we were looking for, nor even whether it was a man or a woman, this effort was going nowhere.
Eventually, we succeeded in obtaining the email address of Dr. van den Hoonard at the University of New Brunswick and asked for his assistance in identifying the believer who resided in West Gravenhurst as of May 1935. On the very next day (August 30) he responded as follows:
“…. you will be happy to know that the history of West Gravenhurst goes even further back! Between March 1916 and May 1940, Mrs. Caroline Lehmann lived in West Gravenhurst. She was taught the Faith by Isabelle Brittingham. Her previous religion was Lutheran and she was of German background. You can find a reference for her in Bahá’í World (vol. 8: 699 [actually 703] and the [American] Bahá’í News (July 1940: 10).”
This was the news we were hoping for, and now that we had a name, a gender, and a 24-year time frame, our search could begin in earnest.
There were a few Lehmanns listed in the local telephone book with which we could start. But then, on the same day as the above message arrived, one of my Red Cross Homemakers (Claudia) mentioned that her colleague’s (Sherry Rheaume’s) grandfather, who had passed away a few months earlier, was a Mr. Carl Lehman. As she was going to meet Sherry that night at the Leisure World Nursing Home, Claudia offered to ask her, whether Caroline Lehmann was any relation of hers.
Sherry had never heard of this name before, but was going to ask her grandmother (Carl Lehman’s widow) about it. A couple of days later, Sherry gave Claudia the amazing news that Mrs. Caroline Lehmann was her very own great-great-grandmother!!
It is interesting to note that Sherry was one of the Red Cross Homemakers assigned to me, when I first visited the Cowans in August 1997 in order to prepare my move to Gravenhurst. She lived just a block away from the Cowans and was known to Fran since her childhood. Sherry continued to provide homecare services to me for more than a year following my move to Lofty Pines Drive, and we had a good many conversations about her Bible studies as well as the Bahá’í Faith. She took some literature, as well as a Bahá’í colouring book and some balloons and prayer cards for her children. When her grandfather was ill, she borrowed the “Health and Healing” booklet, and when he passed away, she read the “Death — Messenger of Joy” booklet and found it very comforting, particularly as she had also lost her father not long before that. After her grandfather’s funeral, Sherry and I took a walk over to the Mickle Cemetery, just down the road from my place, and had some prayers at the Lehmann family grave. Little did we know then, that we were praying for the descendants (two sons and a grandson) of the first Bahá’í of Gravenhurst!
On 12 September 1999 I called Sherry’s grandmother, Mrs. Lila Lehman, and she confirmed that Caroline was her great-grandmother-in-law, and that she had lived “in a pink house on the first farm on the right going towards Bala”. She also said that Caroline and her husband had operated the General Store in Kilworthy (a suburb of Gravenhurst), and that they are both buried at the Kilworthy Lutheran Cemetery.
It was a beautiful Sunday, and Shapour Ostadi (a local Bahá’í friend) and I went looking for the pink farm house on the road to Bala. But nothing we saw there fitted that description. We then drove to Kilworthy, where we easily found the Kilworthy General Store. The present owners confirmed that it had indeed belonged to the Lehmanns, who had operated it until the late 1920s. Judging from its aged looks, it probably hasn’t changed much since the times the Lehmanns had been there.
For more (heartbreaking) pictures of this once lovely building
We received directions to the Lutheran Cemetery, which is located on top of a hill, in a bend near the end of Muskoka Road 19 (of all numbers!). It is a well-kept, peaceful place, surrounded by forest on three sides.
We found the Lehmann grave near a low lilac bush, almost in the center of the cemetery. We were extremely moved to read on the gravestone that Caroline Lehmann (nee Yaekel) was born in 1845 — just one year after the inception of the Bahá’í Faith — and that she was 95 years old in 1940, when she passed away.
Susan Gammage visiting her grave site
As such, her life spanned almost the entire first century of the Bahá’í Era and made her a contemporary of both the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, `Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi! She was 71 years of age in 1916, when she accepted the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, — only 4 years after `Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to Canada — and was among the very first resident Canadians to do so. (According to Dr. van den Hoonard’s book, there were only 31 Bahá’ís in the whole of Canada as of 1916, some of whom would no doubt have been pioneers from other countries.)
Through her acceptance of Bahá’u’lláh, the light of God’s new Revelation has dawned upon this small community of Gravenhurst only 72 years after the Faith began in Persia! This is all the more remarkable when one recalls how long it took all the other major world religions to reach Canadian shores.
Having come empty-handed, we gathered some wild flowers to put on her grave, and Shapour chanted some beautiful Persian prayers there, — likely the first one to ever do so at that site.
Having solved the mystery of who this early West Gravenhurst believer was, our focus no shifted to learning more about her life and finding someone — anyone — who might still have a living memory of Caroline. Regrettably, her last living son, Carl, had passed away just a few months before we even knew about her existence. According to Sherry Rheaume’s own research, no one among the members of her family has any personal memory of her, nor do they have any photographs or other documentation of her life and activities. They did mention, however, that she was not the only Bahá’í here, but that another Bahá’í lady who had taught her the Faith was with her for some time, and they believe it may have been her sister.
The only person who still vaguely remembered the old Lehmanns was a Mrs. Hazel Schell, longtime resident of Kilworthy, and grandmother of Joan Allen, another one of my Homecare workers. I talked to her by telephone in late Fall 1999, and she confirmed to have met the old Lehmanns in her youth, but better recalled their daughter, Emily Beatty, who took over the Kilworthy Store from her parents. Hazel Schell, herself in her ninetieth, passed away just a few weeks after we had this conversation.
Her grand-daughter, Joan Allan, had referred me to a book about Kilworthy, A Legacy almost lost, published by the Kilworthy Historical Committee, which contained several references to the Lehmanns. It also provided a fairly good picture of what life was like for the early pioneer settlers in the 19th century, when they were there.
For More Information
The book contains a census of the Townships in Muskoka of the year 1871, in which Gustav and Caroline Lehman, and 2 of their children, are listed as having come from Prussia (East-Germany), and that they were then 39 and 23 years of age. It also shows that the Lehmanns had a farm “on the north shore of Sparrow Lake”, and that Gustav Lehmann bought the Kilworthy Store in 1875 and started the first Post Office there in November 1876. Gustav Lehmann was Postmaster until 1914 and, in 1927, turned the Post Office and the Store over to his daughter, Emily Beatty.
Apparently, he and Caroline then moved to the farm in West Gravenhurst, where Gustav passed away in 1929 and Caroline in 1940.
The case lay dormant over the winter but, during the Fast earlier this month (March 2000), Shapour and I ventured out once again in search of the “pink house” in West Gravenhurst. We rang some doorbells in the general area and were directed to 270 North Street, which turned out to be Carl Lehman’s place. We took some pictures of their old house and also had an opportunity to briefly talk to his widow, Mrs. Lila Lehman, who said that Caroline visited that home on occasion and stayed there for one week, when her youngest son (Sherry’s father) was born. She then gave us direction to the Lehmann farm, which is located about 2 miles further toward Bala, beyond the small convenience store and just around the bend on the right hand side. There is an old barn and a (green) house standing close to the road, and the old building on the back of that property was the Lehmann homestead. We found it to be a larger building with several added sections, yellowish in colour, empty, and in dilapidated condition. Only on the back did we see reddish siding that some people might consider “pink”. No wonder we couldn’t find it before! We photographed the building from all sides and had prayers there as well. (The address is lot #1272 on Highway 169, and the current tenants’ name is Waggs).
We were determined to also find the first Lehmann farm on Sparrow Lake and, on the following day, called the Franklins who, according to the book about Kilworthy, had bought the farm from the Lehmanns.
We spoke to a Mrs. Harvey Franklin who said that the Lehmann farm had been purchased by her uncle and is the property where the Silver Pines Cottage Resort is now located, about 3 miles West from the Kilworthy store. Shapour and I went there and spoke with the proprietor, Andy Fisher, who confirmed that this was the old Lehmann farm, but that Lehmanns did not build the house on his property. He had acquired the place only 15 years ago and did not know where their homestead would have been.
We drove down to the lake and along the shoreline just to look around a bit, and there, about 2 lots away from the Silver Pines property, discovered a whole complex of very old abandoned farm-type buildings along a creek! The first one, though much smaller, looked strikingly similar in style, age, and colour to the Lehmann house we had seen in West Gravenhurst! We photographed it, of course, and went back to Andy Fisher to ask him about these buildings. He didn’t seem to be aware of them nor who the present owners were, but he confirmed that the original farm was much larger than his current lot and had gone all the way over to the Delmonte Resort. This meant that the old buildings we had found were located well within the boundaries of the old farm.
We went back to the Kilworthy Store to ask the owners about the farm, and they directed us to Mr. Bruce Schulz, whose grandfather had bought the Kilworthy Store from Emily Beatty, Lehmann’s daughter. Mr. Schulz is a member of the Kilworthy Historical Society who had published the book, and he was very interested in our research and in receiving a copy of our findings for the Kilworthy Archives. Although he had no information about the Lehmann farm on Sparrow Lake, he said that he would try to find out about it at their next meeting.
Last not least, a letter was received from the National Bahá’í Archives in the United States in response to my inquiry, forwarding copies of the references about Caroline in Bahá’í World Volume 8 and the July 1940 edition of the American Bahá’í News. The first is a Bahá’í Directory of 1938-40, and the second an “In Memoriam” notice of her passing in 1940. The Archives could not provide any additional information about her at this time, nor verify when and where Isabelle Brittingham and Caroline Lehmann have met, and whether she might, in fact, have been the “other Bahá’í lady”, who had stayed with Caroline, as remembered by her family.
Their letter (dated 16 March 2000) states that Caroline Lehmann
“does not appear on the 1916, 1920 and 1922 membership lists maintained by the Bahá’í Temple Unity [precursor of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada]. However, the lists were sent in by local communities, so not all isolated believers were listed, unless they were near an active community.” It also said that “the National Spiritual Assembly files are still not open so we cannot check if she corresponded with the National Spiritual Assembly.”
Consequently, it is possible that some information about Caroline Lehmann would eventually be found.
As for Caroline’s resting place, we asked Mr. Bruce Schulz about the future of the old pioneer cemetery where the Lehmanns are buried, and what would happen to it. He assured us that it is there to stay and is presently being looked after by some individuals including himself, and that it would eventually be turned over to the Municipality for maintenance. No doubt, the historical significance of this gravesite will be publicly recognized in due course. (It should be noted in this context that Mrs. Lehmann would have retained her church membership until the time of her death as was common among early Bahá’ís living in Christian communities.)
Had forwarded a shortened version of the above presentation to the Bahá’í Archives in Wilmette and, shortly thereafter, the following additional information was received:
Subject: RE: An early Gravenhurst believer
Date: Thu, 30 Mar 2000 16:17:36 -0600
Dear Ms. Lakshman,
Thank you for the information on Caroline Lehmann. I have come across some more information about Caroline Lehmann. She had filled out an historical record card in the mid-1930s. I am mailing a photocopy of the historical record card to you. In the card Mrs. Lehmann wrote that she became a Baha’i in March 1916 in New York City. She had been making visits to her daughter, Helen Lehmann, and had learned of the Baha’i Faith. Isabella Brittingham*, Mother Beecher** and Ali Kuli Khan*** had been her teachers. She also gives her birth date as November 17, 1846.
There is a Mrs. Helen Lehmann in the 1916 and 1920 New York City membership lists but not in the 1922 New York City membership list.
With warm greetings,
Roger M. Dahl, Archivist [The National Baha’i Archives of the United States]
* One of the first believers in the United States, called the “Bahá’í-Maker” by `Abdu’l-Bahá
** Grandmother of Hand of the Cause, Dorothy Baker
*** Secretary of `Abdu’l-Bahá, and Persian Consul to the United States
The copy of the handwritten historical record card was received and is the first personal document we have of this early believer. — In 2003, a b&w negative of Caroline Lehmann’s photograph, which she had attached to the history card, was also provided by the U.S. Bahá’í Archives. The negative was digitally cleaned-up and several prints were made.
Both photograph and copy of the historical record card were included with a shortened story and other documents and pictures in the Lehmann binders forwarded in 2003/2004 to the following institutions:
The National Bahá’í Archives of Canada;
The National Bahá’í Archives of the United States;
The Local Spiritual Assembly of Gravenhurst;
The Archives of the Town of Gravenhurst;
The Sparrow Lake Historical Society
and Kilworthy Historical Committee
In the ages to come, though the Cause of God may rise and grow hundredfold and the shade of the Sadratu’l-Muntahá (Tree of Life) shelter all mankind, yet this present (20th) century shall stand unrivalled, for it hath witnessed the breaking of that Morn and the rising of that Sun. This century is, verily, the source of His Light and the dayspring of His Revelation. Future ages and generations shall behold the diffusion of its radiance and the manifestations of its signs. (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 67)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá was most uncompromising on the issue of racial equality during his visit to America:
As part of the American South, Washington, D.C. was also a city in which racial segregation was a fact of life, and it was on the issue of racial equality that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was most uncompromising during his visit to America. (Agnes Parson’s Diary, ©1996, Kalimát Press, Footnote #15)
Holding racially integrated meetings wasn’t easy, as no hotels would allow such a meeting:
In such a milieu, the Bahá’ís found it challenging to comply with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instruction that they should hold racially integrated meetings. Even locating a public site for a community dinner honoring ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proved difficult, since no hotels in the city would allow an integrated meeting. (Agnes Parson’s Diary, ©1996, Kalimát Press, Footnote #15)
At one point, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was evicted from His hotel because his visitors were from such diverse backgrounds:
In late May 1912, in New York, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was evicted from His hotel because, as Mahmud noted, of the “coming and going of diverse people” and the “additional labors and troubles” for the staff and the “incessant inquiries” directed to the hotel management. “But,” Mahmud continued, “when the people of the hotel saw His great kindness and favor at the time of His departure, they were ashamed of their conduct and begged Him to stay longer, but He would not accept.”’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 111)
On another occasion He shocked some of the white socialites by insisting that Louis Gregory be seated next to him at a society luncheon:
Mrs. Parsons discreetly avoids mentioning here that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá broke with contemporary social conventions of racial separation by insisting the Louis Gregory, a prominent African-American Bahá’í, attend this luncheon in segregated Washington, D.C.—even though he had not been invited. Harlan Ober tells the story. . . .
“Just an hour before the luncheon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent word to Louis Gregory that he might come to Him for the promised conference. Louis arrived at the appointed time, and the conference went on and on; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seemed to want to prolong it. When luncheon was announced, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá led the way and all followed Him into the dining room, except Louis.
“All were seated when suddenly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood up, looked around, and then said to Mírza Khan, Where is Mr. Gregory? Bring Mr Gregory! There was nothing for Mírzá Khan to do but find Mr. Gregory, who fortunately had not yet left the house, but was quietly waiting for a chance to do so. Finally Mr. Gregory came into the room with Mírzá Khan.
“’Abdu’l-Bahá, Who was really the Host (as He was wherever He was), had by this time rearranged the place setting and made room for Mr. Gregory, giving him the seat of honor at His right. He stated He was very pleased to have Mr. Gregory there, and then, in the most natural way as if nothing unusual had happened, proceeded to give a talk on the oneness of mankind.” (Agnes Parson’s Diary, p 31,33)
Another writer tells the same story with a few more details:
The Master’s every act was meaningful. On one auspicious occasion in Washington, D.C. He demonstrated what justice and love can do. The chargé d’affaires of the Persian Legation in the city and his wife had arranged a luncheon in His honour. Their guest list included members of the social and political life in the capital, as well as a number of Baha’is. Louis Gregory, a cultivated gentleman and employee in the government – he later became the first black Hand of the Cause – had been invited to visit the Master. He was surprised at the time scheduled for a visit, as he knew of the luncheon plans, but naturally he arrived on time. Their conference seemed to go on and on – as if indeed the Master might be prolonging it deliberately. Eventually the butler announced that luncheon was being served. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá led the way, the invited guests following closely behind. Mr Gregory was perplexed: should he leave or wait for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to return? The guests were seated when suddenly the honoured Guest rose, looked around and then asked in English, ‘Where is My friend, Mr Gregory?’, adding ‘My friend, Mr Gregory, must lunch with Me!’ It just so happened that Louis Gregory had not been on the luncheon list, so naturally he had remained behind. Now the chargé d’affaires hastened after him. The Master rearranged the place setting at His right, the seat of honour, of course – ignoring utterly the delicate laws of protocol – and the luncheon started only after Mr Gregory had been seated. Then, in a most natural manner, as if nothing at all unusual had happened in the capital that day in 1912, with tact and humour, the Master ‘electrified the already startled guests’ by talking about the unity of mankind. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 111)
At another time, ‘Abdu’l-Baha hosted a unity Feast and insisted that both black and white sit side-by-side in a previously segregated hotel:
On a certain occasion in America ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ‘announced that He wished to give a Unity Feast for the friends. The Committee arranging for the affair had taken it to one of the city’s most exclusive hotels, famed for its color bar. The colored friends, troubled by the prospect of insults and discriminatory treatment, decided not to attend. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá learned of this, He insisted that all the friends should attend. The banquet was held with all the friends, white and colored, seated side by side, in great happiness and without one unpleasant incident.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 110)
With this one stroke, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá swept away both segregation by race and categorization by social rank:
Juliet Thompson wrote: “Gently yet unmistakably, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had assaulted the customs of a city that had been scandalized only a decade earlier by President Roosevelt’s dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington. Moreover as a friend who helped Madame Khan with the luncheon recalled, the place setting that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had rearranged so casually had been made according to the strict demands of Washington protocol. Thus, with one stroke ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had swept away both segregation by race and categorization by social rank. (Gayle Morrison, To Move The World, Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America, p 53, 5)
He found racial differences a thing of beauty:
Mr Robert Turner, the butler of philanthropist Mrs Phoebe Hearst, distinguished himself by being the first Western black man to become a Baha’i. May Maxwell recalled later that ‘on the morning of our arrival [on pilgrimage], after we had refreshed ourselves, the Master summoned us all to Him in a long room overlooking the Mediterranean. He sat in silence gazing out of the window, then looking up He asked if all were present. Seeing that one of the believers was absent, He said, “Where is Robert?” . . . In a moment Robert’s radiant face appeared in the doorway and the Master rose to greet him, bidding him be seated, and said, “Robert, your Lord loves you. God gave you a black skin, but a heart white as snow.”’ Such was the tenacity of his faith that even the subsequent estrangement of his beloved mistress from the Cause she had spontaneously embraced failed to becloud its radiance, or to lessen the intensity of the emotions which the loving-kindness showered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá upon him had excited in his breast.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 101)
The following delightful story about an incident during ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s stay in New York illustrates the fact that He was not ‘colour-blind’, but rather He found racial differences a thing of beauty. When the Master was on His way to speak to several hundred men at the Bowery Mission He was accompanied by a group of Persian and American friends. Not unnaturally a group of boys was intrigued by the sight of this group of Orientals with their flowing robes and turbans and started to follow them. They soon became noisy and obstreperous. A lady in the Master’s party was highly embarrassed at the rude behaviour of the boys. Dropping behind she stopped to talk with them and told them a little about who ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was. Not entirely expecting them to take her up on the invitation, she nevertheless gave them her home address and said that if they liked to come the following Sunday she would arrange for them to see Him. Thus, on Sunday, some twenty or thirty of them appeared on the doorstep, rather scruffy and noisy, but with signs that they had tidied up for the occasion nonetheless. Upstairs in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s room the Master was seen at the door greeting each boy with a handclasp or an arm around the shoulder, with warm smiles and boyish laughter. His happiest welcome seemed to be directed to the thirteen-year-old boy near the end of the line. He was quite dark-skinned and didn’t seem too sure he would be welcome. The Master’s face lighted up and in a loud voice that all could hear exclaimed with delight that ‘here was a black rose’. The boy’s face shone with happiness and love. Silence fell across the room as the boys looked at their companion with a new awareness. The Master did not stop at that, however. On their arrival He had asked that a big five-pound box of delicious chocolates be fetched. With this He walked around the room, ladling out chocolates by the handful to each boy. Finally, with only a few left in the box, He picked out one of the darkest chocolates, walked across the room and held it to the cheek of the black boy. The Master was radiant as He lovingly put His arm around the boy’s shoulders and looked with a humorously piercing glance around the group without making any further comment. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 100)
He was happiest at meetings where both white and colored people were present:
Joseph Hannen records: “On Tuesday, April 23rd, at noon, Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the student-body of more than 1,000, the faculty and a large number of distinguished guests, at Howard University. This was a most notable occasion, and here, as everywhere when both white and colored people were present, Abdu’l-Bahá seemed happiest. The address was received with breathless attention by the vast audience, and was followed by a positive ovation and a recall.” (Hannen, “Abdu’l-Bahá in Washington, D.C.” p. 7; Agnes Parson’s Diary, p. 29, Footnote 44)
He saw black people as His friends:
While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was living in a Paris hotel, among those who often came to see Him was a poor, black man. He was not a Baha’i, but he loved the Master very much. One day when he came to visit, someone told him that the management did not like to have him – a poor black man – come, because it was not consistent with the standards of the hotel. The poor man went away. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá learned of this, He sent for the man responsible. He told him that he must find His friend – He was not happy that he should have been turned away. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, ‘I did not come to see expensive hotels or furnishings, but to meet My friends. I did not come to Paris to conform to the customs of Paris, but to establish the standard of Baha’u’llah.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 110)
He gave addresses to audiences of black people:
Though most of Abdul-Bahá’s time was spent with the rich, famous and white people, He gave special attention to their black servants, treating them no differently than their employers. On 4 August Abdul-Bahá addressed a group of 28 black people, and spoke of the importance of unity and amity between black and white people. He told them of the upcoming marriage of Louisa Mathew, a white woman, and Louis Gregory, a black man. The white people in the audience were amazed at the influence the Cause of Baha’u’llah had on everyone, while the black people were very pleased to hear about such integration. Some Americans considered the creation of unity between blacks and whites to be nearly miraculous and as difficult to accomplish as “splitting the moon in half”, but here was Abdul-Bahá showing that it could happen. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 161)
At one meeting he called a young boy a “black rose”:
Howard Colby Ives tells . . . a story when about 30 of the boys arrived for their meeting: . . . Among the last to enter the room was a colored lad of about 13 years. He was quite dark and, being the only boy of his race among them, he evidently feared that he might Not be welcome. When Abdul-Bahá saw him, His face lighted up with the heavenly smile. He raised His hand and exclaimed in a loud voice, so that none could fail to hear; that here was a black rose. The room fell into instant silence. The black face became illumined with happiness and love hardly of this world. The other boys looked at him with new eyes. I venture to say that he had been called black – many things, but never before a black rose. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 88)
He appointed Agnes Parsons to promote the unity of the black and white races:
Agnes Parsons became a fine speaker about the Faith and always had an invitation for traveling teachers to give talks in her home. During her second pilgrimage in 1920, Abdul-Bahá told her that she should organize the convention for the unity of the colored and white races. For a woman of her social standing to promote the unity of the black and one in the white was tradition-breaking. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 91)
At that time, she still upheld the long-standing social conventions of racial segregation:
At that time, Washington was the most racially and socially mixed Baha’i community in America, but it had deep racial unity problems. The upper classes, including people like Mr. and Mrs. Parsons, still upheld the long-standing social conventions of racial segregation that were not easily overcome. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98)
Her husband’s attitude was that they should all go back to Africa:
Arthur Parsons once commented to Abdul-Bahá that he wished all the blacks would return to Africa, to which the Master wryly replied that such an exodus would have to begin with Wilbur, the trusted butler of the Parsons household. . . . It is remarkable, then, that Abdu’l Bahá subsequently chose Agnes Parsons to spearhead the Racial Amity campaign initiated by the Baha’i community and just as remarkable that she transcended her social milieu in order to carry out this mandate. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98-99)
It is remarkable that she was able to transcend her social milieu in order to carry out this mandate:
It is remarkable, then, that Abdu’l Bahá subsequently chose Agnes Parsons to spearhead the Racial Amity campaign initiated by the Baha’i community and just as remarkable that she transcended her social milieu in order to carry out this mandate. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98-99)
He encouraged the first inter-racial Bahá’í marriage of its kind, between Louis Gregory, (an African-American man) and Louisa Mathews, (a white British woman):
Louis Gregory was blessed with going on pilgrimage. Towards its end ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá summoned Louis Gregory and Louisa Mathew, a white English pilgrim. He questioned them, and, to their surprise, expressed the wish that they should join their lives together. In deference to His wishes they were married, and he sent them forth as a symbol of the spiritual unity, cooperation, dignity in relationships and service He desired for the races of mankind. That marriage presented many challenges. It brought all the obstacles to understanding and amity, and often cruel pressures. But it endured because the two souls it joined were ever guided and protected by a love beyond themselves and the pressures of the world. Theirs was a demonstration of the love which is prompted by the knowledge of God and reflected in the soul. They saw in each other the Beauty of God; and, clinging to this, they were sustained throughout the trials, the accidental conditions of life and the changes and chances of human experience.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 112)
For more about this Forbidden Marriage
Early believers had to first overcome their fear of black people:
Pauline and Joseph Hannen were the prime movers of racial integration in Washington in the early years of the Faith there. Initially, Pauline feared black people, but her study of Baha’u’llah’s writings forced her to change her attitude. Pauline taught the Faith to her black washerwoman, then she and Joseph began inviting blocks to meetings in their home – a rather daring thing to do at that time. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 91-92)
Many whites were afraid to host multiracial gatherings in their homes for fear of what others would say. Many blacks were also reluctant to attend meetings because of their fear of insults and discriminatory treatment. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98)
Some people were evicted for having black Bahá’ís in their homes:
One day, Dr. Zia Bagdadi invited Mr. Louis Gregory, a black Baha’i, to his home. When his landlord heard about this, he gave notice to Dr. Bagdadi. He was to vacate his residence because he had a black man in his home. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 108)
Others had to spend their wedding night on a park bench:
In the early 30s Mother, who was divorced from her first husband, Theodore Obrig, married the Reverend Reginald G. Barrow. The wedding ceremony was performed by her father Howard Colby Ives. It is family history that they spent their wedding night on a park bench, as they could not obtain a room in a hotel in Boston. Bishop Barrow, was a man of color, who was born in the West Indies. (Reginald Grant Barrow, Mother’s Stories: Stories of Abdu’l-Bahá and Early Believers told by Muriel Ives Barrow Newhall to her son, p. 5)
His efforts bore fruit, though. Look what happened in South Africa, under Apartheid:
Faced with the segregated social pattern and laws of Apartheid in South Africa, the integrated population of Bahá’ís had to decide how to be composed in their administrative structures – whether the National Spiritual Assembly would be all black or all white. The Bahá’í community decided that instead of dividing the South African Bahá’í community into two population groups, one black and one white, they instead limited membership in the Baha’i Administration to black adherents, and placed the entire Bahá’í community under the leadership of its black population. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (1998-10-29); Volume Four, paragraphs 6, 27, 75, 84, 102)
So with all of His love for the black people, why are they still so oppressed in America today? This might give us a clue:
Abdul-Bahá visited Charles Tinsley, a black employee of Phoebe Hearst who probably came into the Faith through Robert Turner, Mrs. Hearst’s longtime butler and the first African-American Baha’i. Charles was laid up at home with a broken leg when the Master arrived. When Abdul-Bahá asked how he was, Charles replied that he was fine except for the broken leg that kept him from working for the Cause. Abdul-Bahá told him:
“Cheer up! Praise be to God, you are dear to me. I will tell you a story:
A certain ruler wished to appoint one of his subjects to a high office; so, in order to train him, the ruler cast them into prison and caused him to suffer much. The man was surprised at this, for he expected great favors. The ruler had taken him from prison and beaten him with sticks. This greatly astonished the man, for he thought the ruler loved him. After this he was hanged on the gallows until he was nearly dead. After he recovered he asked the ruler, if you love me why did you do these things? The ruler replied: ‘I wish to make you Prime Minister. By having gone through these ordeals you are better fitted for that office. I wish you to know how it is yourself. When you are obliged to punish, you will know how it feels to endure these things. I love you so I wished you to become perfect.’
[To Mr. Tinsley] Even so with you. After this ordeal you will reach maturity. God sometimes causes us to suffer much and have many misfortunes that we may become strong in his Cause. You will soon recover and be spiritually stronger than ever before. You will work for God and carry the Message to many of your people.” (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 224)
In this frenzied world, I often wonder how ‘Abdu’l-Baha would have lived his life if He were alive now! It got me thinking about whether there might be some ideas based on how He lived a simple life back then.
Here is the standard He strove for – simplicity and love:
The husband of Amelia Collins, a devoted American Baha’i, was a very sociable man. He would take part in any discussion with perfect freedom and ease. But once, before entering the Master’s home, he was so excited that he arranged his tie just right, smoothed his clothes and repeatedly asked his wife what he should do when they arrived there. She told him, ‘Nothing! In the family of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá simplicity reigns, and nothing but love is ever accepted.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
I love this sweet story where Bahá’u’lláh teaches us how little we need:
Mary Bolles (Maxwell) took an early pilgrimage to the prison city. She heard that the food man eats is of no importance, as its effect endures but a short time. But the food of the spirit is life to the soul and its effects endure eternally. She heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tell the touching ‘story of the hermit’. Baha’u’llah ‘was traveling from one place to another with His followers’ and ‘He passed through a lonely country where, at some little distance from the highway, a hermit lived alone in a cave. He was a holy man, and having heard that Our Lord, Baha’u’llah, would pass that way, he watched eagerly for His approach. When the Manifestation arrived at that spot the hermit knelt down and kissed the dust before His feet and said to Him: “Oh, my Lord, I am a poor man living alone in a cave nearby; but henceforth I shall account myself the happiest of mortals if Thou wilt but come for a moment to my cave and bless it by Thy Presence.” Then Baha’u’llah told the man that He would come, not for a moment but for three days, and He bade His followers cast their tents, and await His return. The poor man was so overcome with joy and with gratitude that he was speechless, and led the way in humble silence to his lowly dwelling in a rock. There the Glorious One sat with him, talking to him and teaching him, and toward evening the man bethought himself that he had nothing to offer his great Guest but some dry meat and some dark bread, and water from a spring nearby. Not knowing what to do he threw himself at the feet of his Lord and confessed his dilemma. Baha’u’llah comforted him and by a word bade him fetch the meat and bread and water; then the Lord of the universe partook of this frugal repast with joy and fragrance as though it had been a banquet, and during the three days of His visit they ate only of this food which seemed to the poor hermit the most delicious he had ever eaten. Baha’u’llah declared that He had never been more nobly entertained nor received greater hospitality and love. “This,” explained the Master, when He had finished the story, shows us how little man requires when he is nourished by the sweetness of all foods – the love of God.”’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Even His wedding was simple:
Before His wedding day, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made the necessary arrangements for the few guests. His mother and sister made a delicate bridal dress of white batiste. A white head-dress adorned Munirih Khanum’s hair, worn, as usual, in two braids. At nine in the evening she went with the Greatest Holy Leaf into the presence of Baha’u’llah, Who gave her His blessing. She then went to the bridal room and awaited the coming of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The service was very simple. At about ten o’clock ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came, accompanied by the guests, and Munirih Khanum chanted a tablet revealed by Baha’u’llah. ‘Later, the wife of ‘Abbud recalled the sweetness of that chanting still ringing in her ears.’ There were no choir, decorations or cake – just cups of tea. Above all, a glory and a love there were more than sufficient to bless the happy event. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Here’s a story He told about the benefits of a simple life:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá told a story about a Persian believer’s journeys and how he could not sleep at night while in the wilderness for fear of someone stealing his new shirt, a new gift from a prominent person. After several sleepless nights he decided to get rid of the shirt so he could relax. (Rafati, Vahid, Sources of Persian Poetry in the Baha’i Writings, Vol. lll, p. 80)
He had His meals as follows:
7 A.M. Tea and bread
1:30 P.M. Dines with the family
4 P.M. Tea
7:30 P.M. Sits with the family at dinner but partakes of no food Himself
10: P.M. Simple meal (Agnes Parson’s Diary, ©1996, Kalimát Press, Footnote #6, p. 13)
He ate a very simple diet:
The Master . . . ate little food. He was known to begin His day with tea, goat’s milk cheese and wheat bread. And at the evening meal a cup of milk and a piece of bread might suffice. He considered the latter a healthy meal. Had not Baha’u’llah, while at Sulaymaniyyih, subsisted mostly on milk? (Sometimes Baha’u’llah ate rice and milk cooked together.) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sparse diet also included herbs and olives – it rarely included meat. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He does not permit his family to have luxuries. He himself eats but once a day, and then bread, olives, and cheese suffice him. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
He preferred to share His food with the poor:
On the occasion of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first dinner in the home of Lady Bloomfield in London His hostess had prepared course after course in her eagerness to please Him. Afterwards He gently commented: ‘The food was delicious and the fruit and flowers were lovely, but would that we could share some of the courses with those poor and hungry people who have not even one.’ Thereafter the dinners were greatly simplified. Flowers and fruit remained in abundance, for those were often brought to the Master as small love tokens. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Mary Lucas, a pilgrim to Akká in 1905, found that the Master usually ate but one simple meal a day. In eight days He was present at most meals, often coming just to add joy to the occasion, though He was not hungry. If He knew of someone who had had no meal during a day, the family supper was gladly packed up and sent to the needy. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He served His guests:
Julia Gundy, an early pilgrim, described a beautiful supper at which many friends were welcomed by the Master Himself in Akká. He passed out napkins, embraced and found plates for each. All were individually anointed with attar of rose. He served pilau, a Persian rice dish, to each guest. There were also oranges and rice pudding. ‘Throughout the supper, which was very simple in its character and appointment, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the Servant of the believers. This was indeed a spiritual feast where Love reigned. The whole atmosphere was Love, Joy, and Peace. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
His schedule looked like this:
Tudor-Pole described a typical day for Abdul-Bahá: he rises about 5 AM, and works for some hours at his correspondence. Interviews commence soon after 9 AM and last until midday. After lunch he takes a short rest and then usually rides out into the parks or to visit various people who were deeply interested in his work. Gatherings of the friends take place nearly every evening and he has given some wonderful discourses at such times… He is quite vigorous and looks both well and cheerful. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 30)
The Master kept little clothing – one coat at a time was ample. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s family was taught to dress in such a way that they would be ‘an example to the rich and an encouragement to the poor.’ Available money was stretched to cover far more than the Master’s family needs. One of His daughters wore no bridal gown when she married – a clean dress sufficed. The Master was queried why He had not provided bridal clothes. With candour He replied simply, ‘My daughter is warmly clad and has all that she needs for her comfort. The poor have not. What my daughter does not need I will give to the poor rather than to her.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
A friend had sent some fur so that the Master could have a good warm coat; He had it cut up and made into twenty caps for the elderly men of the town. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of “Abdu’l-Bahá)
As someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and needs a LOT of light, I take great comfort in this story:
As we drove up Broadway, glittering with its electric signs, He spoke of them smiling, apparently much amused. Then He told us that Bahá’u’lláh had loved light. “He could never get enough light. He taught us,” the Master said, “to economize in everything else but to use light freely.” (Juliet Thompson’s Diary, April 19, 1912)
Even when ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in great need, he didn’t accept financial help from the friends:
For his own personal use Bahá’u’lláh never ordered anything extravagant. The life of luxury to which He was accustomed in His youth had been denied Him since His imprisonment in the Siyah-Chal of Tihran when all His possessions had been confiscated. But He lived a life of austerity in a majesty such that in the words of Edward (Granville Browne of Cambridge University, He was ‘the object of a devotion that kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain’. His personal needs were simple and inexpensive . . . He Himself and the members of His family, however, lived an austere life. There were many occasions when He was in great need, but did not accept financial help from the friends. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 4, p. 248)
Here’s an example:
The gates of the Akká prison were finally opened for Baha’u’llah, His family and companions after a confinement of two years, two months and five days. Many of His companions were consigned to the caravanserai, an unfit dwelling-place. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá occupied one room himself. The rooms were damp and filthy. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sold a certain gift which had been given to Him in Baghdad and with the proceeds began to repair the rooms for the companions of Baha’u’llah. He left the repair of His own room to the last. The money ran out and as a result His room remained unrepaired and in very bad condition. Not only were its walls damp but the roof leaked and the floor was covered with dust. He sat and slept on a mat in that room. His bed cover was a sheepskin. The room was infested with fleas and when He slept under the sheepskin, fleas gathered and began biting. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá worked out a tactic of defeating the fleas by turning over His sheepskin at intervals. He would sleep for a while before the fleas found their way again to the inner side. He would then turn the sheepskin over again. Every night He had to resort to this tactic eight to ten times. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He didn’t allow his family to have any luxuries either:
He does not permit his family to have luxuries. He himself eats but once a day, and then bread, olives, and cheese suffice him. His room is small and bare, with only a matting on the stone floor. His habit is to sleep upon this floor. Not long ago a friend, thinking that this must be hard for a man of advancing years, presented him with a bed fitted with springs and mattress. So these stand in his room also, but are rarely used. “For how,” he says, “can I bear to sleep in luxury when so many of the poor have not even shelter?” So he lies upon the floor and covers himself only with his cloak. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
Has this given you any ideas on how you might live a more simple life? Post your comments below!
In this last of a series of articles on ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s love for the poor, we look at how he welcomed them and cheered their hearts.
He made people feel completely at ease:
In London it was noted that inquirers often hated to leave. If any were still present when luncheon or dinner was to be served, they were inevitably invited to dine also. To smother embarrassment, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would extend His hand to the humblest and lead him personally into the dining-room, seating him at His right and talking with such warmth that soon the surprised guest felt completely at ease. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 57)
He spoke words of comfort, strength and healing:
One day, in London, while several people were talking to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a man’s voice was heard at the door. It was the son of a country clergyman, but now he looked more like an ordinary tramp and his only home was along the banks of the river Thames. He had walked thirty miles to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The man was taken to the dining room, he was given food, and after he had rested for a while, he said, ‘Last evening I had decided to put an end to my futile, hateful life, useless to God and man! In a little country town yesterday, whilst taking what I had intended should be my last walk, I saw a face in the window of a newspaper shop. I stood looking at the face as if rooted to the spot. He seemed to speak to me, and call me to Him!…I read that He is here, in this house. I said to myself, “If there is on earth that personage, I shall take up again the burden of my life.”…Tell me, is He here? Will He see me? Even me? The lady replied, ‘Of course He will see you…’ Just then ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself opened the door, extending His hands as though to a dear friend whom He was expecting. ‘”Welcome! Most welcome! I am very much pleased that thou hast come. Be seated.” Trembling the poor man sank into a chair by the Master. “Be happy! Be happy!…Do not be filled with grief…” encouraged the Master. “Though thou be poor, thou mayest be rich in the Kingdom of God.”‘ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke these and other words of comfort, strength and healing. The man’s cloud of misery seemed to melt away in the warmth of the Master’s loving presence. Before the man left, he said that he was going to work in the fields, and that after he had saved a little money, he was going to buy some land to grow violets for the market. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 89)
When anyone was overlooked, it made Him unspeakably sad:
He had left orders that none were to be turned away, but one who had twice vainly sought his presence, and was, through some oversight, prevented from seeing him, wrote a heartbreaking letter showing that he thought himself rebuffed. It was translated by the Persian interpreter. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at once put on his coat, and, turning towards the door, said, with an expression of unspeakable sadness, “A friend of mine has been martyred, and I am very grieved. I go out alone.” and he swept down the steps. One could then see how well the title of “Master” became him. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 109)
Whenever he felt a heart had been hurt, He would hasten to bring them to Him:
The demands on Abdul-Bahá’s time were constant. The English Baha’is tried to organize the flow of those seeking interviews and instituted a system of official appointments. One day, a woman appeared at the door and asked if she could see Abdul-Bahá. When asked if she had an appointment, she admitted that she had not and was promptly told, “I am sorry but He is occupied now with most important people, and cannot be disturbed.” Sadly, the woman slowly turned away, but before she could reach the bottom of the steps, a messenger from Abdul-Bahá rushed out and breathlessly said, “He wishes to see you, come back!” From the house came the powerful voice of the Master: “A heart has been hurt, hasten, hasten, bring her to Me.” (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p.36)
He waited for people who were coming to see Him, even if it inconvenienced others:
When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was in San Francisco, His hostess arranged an interview with the Mayor of Berkeley. Many dignitaries and university people were to gather at a reception. ‘As the appointed hour for departure approached the hostess went upstairs to warn ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that the time was near. He smiled and waved her away, saying, “Very soon! Very soon!” ‘She left him with some impatience, for there was no evidence of preparation for the trip. After some time she went up again, for the automobile was honking at the door, and it looked as if the Mayor of Berkeley would be kept waiting. But she met only a smile, and “Very soon! Very soon!” from the important guest. At last her patience was quite exhausted for she knew that they could not possibly arrive at the reception in time. Suddenly there was a ring at the door bell. Immediately ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s step was on the stair, and when the door opened he was beside the maid, pulling over the threshold a dusty and disheveled man whom no one had ever heard of, but whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá embraced like a long lost friend.’ He had read of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the newspapers and felt he must see Him, but as he did not have enough money for the car fare, he walked the fifteen miles into San Francisco. Had ‘Abdu’l-Bahá left on time, they would have missed each other — but the Master had ‘felt his approach’ and would not leave until His guest was seated at the table with tea and sandwiches. Only then could the Master say, ‘Now I must go, but when you have finished, wait for Me in My room upstairs, until I return, and then we will have a great talk.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 56)
He made people feel happy even if it made others unhappy:
Two ladies from Scotland, delighted that their request to have an evening with the Master while He was in London had been granted, were warmly received by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. How they relished having this intimate evening! Half an hour passed in His warm presence, when suddenly they were filled with consternation — an aggressive reporter strode into their midst and seated himself — he wanted information about the Master. His talkative, impolite manner left the ladies speechless — such an intrusion could spoil that precious evening. Then, to their surprise, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood up and, beckoning the reporter to follow Him, led the way into His room. The ladies had indeed got rid of the intruder, but they had also lost ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. What were they to do? Before long the hostess went into the Master’s secretary and asked that He be informed ‘that the ladies with whom the appointment had been made are awaiting His pleasure.’ Very soon kind words of farewell were heard. Then the Master returned, pausing by the door. Gravely, He looked at each and said, ‘You were making that poor man uncomfortable, so strongly desiring his absence; I took him away to make him feel happy.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 54)
He gave them hope for the future:
The other meeting was held at the Bowery Mission Hall to help and assist the poor and destitute. First `Abdu’l-Bahá spoke on the subject of the station of poverty and gave the men hope for the future. (Mahmud’s Diary, April 18, 1912)
He made them smile and laugh:
Very early one morning when the main street of Dublin was almost devoid of people, one of the guests at the hotel glanced out her window and saw Abdul-Bahá walking and dictating to His secretary. As they walked, an old man dressed in ragged and very dirty clothes passed by. Abdul-Bahá sent his secretary to fetch the poor fellow. Abdul-Bahá appeared to try to cheer up the man and was finally able to coax a wan smile. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 164)
He saw the face of God in everyone He met, and everyone came away happy:
Once ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was asked, ‘Why do all the guests who visit you come away with shining countenances?’ ‘He said with his beautiful smile: “I cannot tell you, but in all those upon whom I look, I see only my Father’s Face.” (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 96)
When He was in America, he spoke to the poor in language they could understand. He reminded them that God blessed the poor, not the rich:
You must be thankful to God that you are poor, for Jesus Christ has said, “Blessed are the poor.” He never said, “Blessed are the rich.” He said, too, that the Kingdom is for the poor and that it is easier for a camel to enter a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter God’s Kingdom. Therefore, you must be thankful to God that although in this world you are indigent, yet the treasures of God are within your reach; and although in the material realm you are poor, yet in the Kingdom of God you are precious. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 32-33)
He reminded them that Jesus preferred to be poor:
Jesus Himself was poor. He did not belong to the rich. He passed His time in the desert, traveling among the poor, and lived upon the herbs of the field. He had no place to lay His head, no home. He was exposed in the open to heat, cold and frost — to inclement weather of all kinds — yet He chose this rather than riches. If riches were considered a glory, the Prophet Moses would have chosen them; Jesus would have been a rich man. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
He reminded them that it was the poor who first accepted Jesus, therefore the poor are His disciples:
When Jesus Christ appeared, it was the poor who first accepted Him, not the rich. Therefore, you are the disciples of Jesus Christ; you are His comrades, for He outwardly was poor, not rich. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
He reminded them that the rich can’t take their possessions with them when they die; and many of them have regrets and their hope in the mercy of God is less than those who are poor:
Even this earth’s happiness does not depend upon wealth. You will find many of the wealthy exposed to dangers and troubled by difficulties, and in their last moments upon the bed of death there remains the regret that they must be separated from that to which their hearts are so attached. They come into this world naked, and they must go from it naked. All they possess they must leave behind and pass away solitary, alone. Often at the time of death their souls are filled with remorse; and worst of all, their hope in the mercy of God is less than ours. Praise be to God! Our hope is in the mercy of God, and there is no doubt that the divine compassion is bestowed upon the poor. Jesus Christ said so; Bahá’u’lláh said so. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
He told them that Baha’ullah lived among the poor for 2 years. One of the titles He’s most proud of was “The Poor One”:
While Bahá’u’lláh was in Baghdad, still in possession of great wealth, He left all He had and went alone from the city, living two years among the poor. They were His comrades. He ate with them, slept with them and gloried in being one of them. He chose for one of His names the title of The Poor One and often in His Writings refers to Himself as Darvish, which in Persian means poor; and of this title He was very proud. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
He reminded them that they are closer to God, because they are dependent on God and not themselves:
The rich are mostly negligent, inattentive, steeped in worldliness, depending upon their means, whereas the poor are dependent upon God, and their reliance is upon Him, not upon themselves. Therefore, the poor are nearer the threshold of God and His throne. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
He reminded them of all they had, which made them the richest men on earth:
Jesus was a poor man. One night when He was out in the fields, the rain began to fall. He had no place to go for shelter so He lifted His eyes toward heaven, saying, “O Father! For the birds of the air Thou hast created nests, for the sheep a fold, for the animals dens, for the fish places of refuge, but for Me Thou hast provided no shelter. There is no place where I may lay My head. My bed consists of the cold ground; My lamps at night are the stars, and My food is the grass of the field. Yet who upon earth is richer than I? For the greatest blessing Thou hast not given to the rich and mighty but unto Me, for Thou hast given Me the poor. To me Thou hast granted this blessing. They are Mine. Therefore am I the richest man on earth. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33-34)
He reminded them that they resemble Jesus more than the rich do:
So, my comrades, you are following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Your lives are similar to His life; your attitude is like unto His; you resemble Him more than the rich do. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 34)
‘Abdu’l-Baha would visit people in their homes every day, or send a trusty messenger in His place:
He is each day at their bedside, or sends a trusty messenger. (HM Balyuzi, ‘Abdul-Bahá: the Centre of the Covenant, p. 100)
He would encourage others to visit:
In the morning friends and seekers surrounded ‘Abdu’l-Bahá like moths. He spoke to them in these words: You must have deep love for one another. Go to see each other and be consoling friends to all. If a friend lives a little distance from the town, go to see him. Do not content yourselves with words only but act according to the commandments of God. Hold weekly meetings and give feasts. Put forth your efforts to acquire spiritual perfections and to spread the knowledge of God. These are the attributes of the Bahá’ís. Otherwise, what use is there in being a Bahá’í in word alone. (Mahmud’s Diary, Sept. 20, 1912)
On feast days He would visit the poor in their homes, staying long enough to do whatever He could to make them happy:
On feast days he visits the poor at their homes. He chats with them, inquires into their health and comfort, mentions by name those who are absent, and leaves gifts for all. (HM Balyuzi, ‘Abdul-Bahá: the Centre of the Covenant, p. 100)
He would offer practical help:
If he finds a leaking roof or a broken window menacing health, he summons a workman, and waits himself to see the breach repaired. (HM Balyuzi, ‘Abdul-Bahá: the Centre of the Covenant, p. 100)
If anyone is in trouble, — if a son or a brother is thrown into prison, or he is threatened at law, or falls into any difficulty too heavy for him, — it is to the Master that he straightway makes appeal for counsel or for aid. (HM Balyuzi, ‘Abdul-Bahá: the Centre of the Covenant, p. 100)
One day, a man came running; “Oh Master!” he said, “Poor Na’um has the measles, and everybody is keeping away from her. What can be done?” Abdu’l-Baha immediately sent a woman to take care of her; He rented a room, put His own bedding in it, called the doctor, sent food and everything she needed. He went to see that she had every attention. And when she died in peace and comfort, He arranged a simple funeral and paid all the expenses Himself.” (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
And made sure necessary home repairs were completed:
On the other hand, if the Master knew of a broken window or a leaky roof, which were health hazards, He would make sure the necessary repairs were completed. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 68)
When we read biographies of the early heroes and heroines of the Faith, we often read about people who were able to find time and money to serve the Faith, but we seldom read about how ‘Abdu’l-Baha regarded the sacrifices made by those with extremely limited means.
He respected even the most humble contributions:
The following touching incident took place one day when we were seated at table with the Master. A Persian friend arrived who had passed through `Ishqabad,. He presented a cotton handkerchief to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who untied it, and saw therein a piece of dry black bread, and a shrivelled apple. The friend exclaimed: “A poor Baha’i workman came to me: `I hear thou goest into the presence of our Beloved. Nothing have I to send, but this my dinner. I pray thee offer it to Him with my loving devotion.'” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spread the poor handkerchief before Him, leaving His own luncheon untasted. He ate of the workman’s dinner, broke pieces off the bread, and handed them to the assembled guests, saying: “Eat with me of this gift of humble love.” (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
Once, when I lived in Baghdad,” He [‘Abdul-Bahá] went on, “I was invited to the house of a poor thorn-picker. In Baghdad the heat is greater even than in Syria; and it was a very hot day. But I walked twelve miles to the thorn-picker’s hut. Then his wife made a little cake out of some meal for Me and burnt it in cooking it, so that it was a black, hard lump. Still that was the best reception I ever attended.” (The Diary of Juliet Thompson)
Even the contribution of one small coin was important to ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
All the Bahá’ís in Iran loved and respected Haji Amin, and many wonderful stories are told about his sincerity and devotion. Once, when he was about to set off for the Holy Land, a very poor woman gave him a small coin to take with him. Haji Amin thanked her and put it in his pocket. As soon as he arrived at the home of ‘Abdul-Bahá, he presented to Him the donations he had collected, as he always did. The Master would usually thank him and praise him for his untiring labours. Haji Amin’s integrity was not to be questioned, and he had never made a mistake in his calculations. Indeed, it was not difficult for him to keep his accounts as he never had any money of his own. This time, however, to his utter astonishment, when ‘Abdul-Bahá was presented with the money, He looked at Haji Amin kindly and said something was missing from the amount. Haji Amin left the Master’s presences with much sadness, unable to understand what could have happened. He went to his room in tears and prostrated himself in prayer. As he did so, he felt a hard piece of metal under his knee. It was the small coin the poor woman had given him to take to the Holy Land as he was leaving. The coin had slipped through a hole in his pocket into the lining of his long coat. Haji Amin immediately took the coin and went to ‘Abdul-Bahá. The Master showered His praises on him . He kissed the coin and said this was worth more than all the other donations because it had been given with the greatest sacrifice. (Gloria Faizi, Stories about Bahá’í Funds, p. 47-48)
He knew people’s circumstances, appreciated their sacrifices and wished they would have kept the money for themselves:
One day ‘Abdu’l-Bahá learned that a lady had cut her lovely hair in order to contribute to the building of the House of Worship in Wilmette. He wrote to her with loving appreciation: ‘On the one hand, I was deeply touched, for thou hadst sheared off those fair tresses of thine with the shears of detachment from this world and of self-sacrifice in the path of the Kingdom of God. And on the other, I was greatly pleased, for that dearly-beloved daughter hath evinced so great a spirit of self-sacrifice as to offer up so precious a part of her body in the pathway of the Cause of God. Hadst thou sought my opinion, I would in no wise have consented that thou shouldst shear off even a single thread of thy comely and wavy locks; nay, I myself would have contributed in thy name for the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. This deed of thine is, however, an eloquent testimony to thy noble spirit of self-sacrifice.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 113)
In the afternoon He called me. He kept me in the room a long, long time, seeing many others while I sat there. When He had dismissed them all, He came close to me and took my hand. “There is a matter,” He said, “about which I want to speak to you. The photographs of the portrait you painted of Me, you have offered them for the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. I know your circumstances, Juliet. You have not complained to Me, you have said nothing, but I know them. I know your affairs are in confusion, that you have debts, that you have that house, that you have to take care of your mother. Now I want you to keep the money” (for the photographs) “for yourself. No, no; do not feel unhappy,” (as I began to cry) “this is best. You must do exactly as I say. I will speak about this Myself to the believers. I will tell them,” He laughed, “that is it My command.” I thanked Him brokenly. (The Diary of Juliet Thompson)
He loved when the poor prayed for Him:
One day the Master, with one of His daughters, approached a native woman, dirty and almost savage-looking. Hers had been a hard life as the daughter of a desert chief. Though she was not a Baha’i, she quite naturally loved the Master, who was so genuinely kind. Lingering a moment, she bowed and greeted the Master. Kindly He made reply and, somehow knowing her need, ‘pressed a coin into her hand’ as He passed by. Obviously, she was filled with appreciation. One of the Master’s daughters told an observer that this woman had, in that brief encounter, said to the Master that ‘she would pray for Him’, and graciously He had thanked her. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 91)
When ‘Abdu’l-Baha was knighted by the British, He chose to drive by horse and carriage, with His faithful servant, instead of in the chauffeured car that was sent for Him:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá consented to accept the knighthood – but He was not impressed with worldly honour or ceremony. Even a formality must be simplified. An elegant car was sent to bring Him to the Governor’s residence, but the chauffeur did not find the Master at His home. People scurried in every direction to find Him. Suddenly He appeared ‘… alone, walking His kingly walk, with that simplicity of greatness which always enfolded Him.’ Isfandiyar, His long-time faithful servant, stood near at hand. Many were the times when he had accompanied the Master on His labours of love. Now, suddenly, with this elegant car ready to convey his Master to the Governor, he felt sad and unneeded. Intuitively, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá must have sensed this – He gave him a sign. Isfandiyar dashed off – the horse was harnessed, the carriage brought to the lower gate and the Master was driven to a side entrance of the garden of the Governor. Isfandiyar was joyous – he was needed even yet. Quietly, without pomp, ‘Abbas Effendi arrived at the right time at the right place and did honour to those who would honour Him when He was made Sir ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Abbas, K.B.E. – a title which He almost never used. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Here’s a story that always moves me to tears! It’s the story of Nettie Tobin, a poor woman whose husband had died the day before, choosing a rock which ‘Abdu’l-Baha used as the corner-stone for the temple in Wilmette:
The story of the dedication stone is interesting in its own right. When the Temple had been first proposed in 1903, a Persian Baha’i, had sent a letter to the American Baha’is saying that “the glory and honor of the first stone is equivalent to all the stones and implements which will later be used there.” This excited Nettie (Esther) Tobin, a loving, humble woman who earned a meager living as a seamstress. Praying that God would send her something she could offer as a gift, she went to a nearby construction site, told the foreman about the Temple, and asked if she could have an inexpensive building stone. The foreman liked her story and showed her a pile of broken limestone blocks that were no good for building and said she could take one. With the help of a neighbor, she wrapped her stone in a piece of carpet, tied on a clothesline and dragged it home. To get the stone to the Temple site, it was carried by hand on two different streetcars, dragged on the ground, and carried in a wheelbarrow. One of the streetcar conductors was not thrilled to have a rock on board, but finally allowed them to put it on the back platform. The last six blocks from the closest streetcar station were the most difficult. At first, Nettie, her brother Leo Leadroot, and Mirza Mazlum, an elderly Persian Baha’i neighbor, tried to carry the stone, but after three blocks, they were exhausted. Corrine True and Cecelia Harrison had been waiting at the Temple site for them and finally went to look for them. Mirza Mazlum had three women put the stone on his and he managed to stagger another half block before coming to the end of his endurance. The stone was left there overnight. Nettie came back the next morning with a homemade cart. Trying to load the stone into the cart by herself, she managed to break the handle of the cart and injured her wrist. A helpful fellow repaired her cart and helped her load the stone into it. With two blocks to go, Nettie managed to persuade the newsboy to help her get the cart to the western corner of the Temple land and onto the site, where the cart promptly collapsed into pieces. There, the stone stayed. People in other parts of the world, including Abdul-Bahá, sent stones for the Temple, but none ever arrived. So, on the day He broke the ground, only Nettie Tobin’s contribution of the “stone which the builders refused” would be available to serve as the marker dedicated by Abdul-Bahá. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 114-115)
I also love the book Stories About Baha’i Funds, by Gloria Faizi, which contains many poignant, inspirational, and even humorous stories of the sacrifices made by poor people to the Fund.