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I Know I’ve Been Changed

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In 1987, a black man named William “Billy” Roberts was concerned about the state of black men in America. Headlines at the time raised the question of whether black men were an “endangered species.” Dr. Roberts also noticed that the black men in his faith community, the Baha’i Faith, were not immune to the poisonous effects of multi-generational racial trauma afflicting black men as a whole. He convened a group of twelve black Baha’i men in Greensboro, North Carolina, to consult about these challenges and how to apply the teachings of Baha’u’llah, (1817-1892) Founder of the Baha’i Faith to overcome them.

This past week I celebrated, along with one-hundred and seven Baha’i men of African descent, the twenty-fifth anniversary of what has become known throughout the world as the Baha’i Black Men’s Gathering. The Gathering took place at the historic Green Acre Baha’i School and Conference Center. The Universal House of Justice, the international governing body and Head of the Baha’i Faith described the Gathering (also known as the BMG) this way:

“the Gathering…addresses itself to a special situation faced by a minority that has suffered severe social and spiritual afflictions imposed upon it by the majority. The program of the Black Men’s Gatherings is unique and exemplary as an avenue for transcending the legacy of anguish, frustration, and social pathology that is peculiar to black men in the United states; it urges them towards a fullness of life within the spirit and principles of the Bahá’í Revelation.”

Participants in this year’s Gathering spent a week together in prayer, study, and consultation. They sought to better understand how they could contribute to the material and spiritual advancement of people of African descent and the building of a divine civilization embracing the entire human race.

Prayer is the beating heart of the Gathering. At the Gathering, prayer, which Baha’u’llah described as a conversation with God, begins with the thunderous voice of African drumming. Participants then raise their voices in fervent supplication and glorification of God for hours at a time. It is prayer that breaks and mends the heart, that resurrects and recreates the soul, that frees and focuses the mind. The men sing, chant, shout, and move together and become as the Baha’i Writings describe “one soul in many bodies.”

Spiritually energized by prayer, participants then center their thoughts on studying guidance from the Universal House of Justice. This guidance is provided through letters that are addressed to the Baha’i community around the world throughout the year. In large and small groups, men of the Gathering study these letters word by word, assisting each other to grasp their implications. This year’s study included letters describing the current stage in the advancement of Baha’i efforts to better the material and spiritual condition of humanity through community building at the grass roots. An additional series of letters focused specifically on issues of race and racism. Participants emerged from this process with renewed clarity and commitment to building communities that nurture the minds and hearts of children, channel the energies of junior youth, strengthen the devotional life, provide everyone opportunities to advance as equals on a common path of service and engage in social action and the prominent discourses of society.

In addition to prayer and study, there is ample opportunity for loving fellowship. Unconditional love is the distinguishing characteristic of Gathering. Black men from every walk of life spend a week together in an atmosphere free of masculine posturing, egotism, competition, or prejudices of class, nationality, or age. It may very well be that Dr. Roberts has created the safest place on earth to be a black male. Fellowship this year included stories of the last twenty-five years of the Gathering including several journeys throughout Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean to advance the community-building process.

The week ended with hundreds of people from the wider community joining at Green Acre for a multiracial devotional meeting and procession to the resting place of one of the most distinguished African American men in Baha’i history, Louis G. Gregory and his wife Louisa.

As I prepared to return home after a remarkable and historic week with my brothers, my heart continued to vibrate with a song that we sang again and again:

I know I’ve been changed;
I know I’ve been changed;
I know I’ve been changed;
Baha’u’llah has changed
my name.

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About Phillipe Copeland

  • This is a very moving article. I was not aware that so many African Americans are of the Bahai faith. I am glad that a safe space has been created for Black men.

    Yours, Rigia

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Warigia. It was moving to be a part of this experience.

  • Aidan Kitson

    facinating article.could you clarify something please.Baha’i faith teaches unity,breaking down barriers.Don’t black men feel safe in wide Baha’i community?

  • Aidan, this is a good question and one that can only fairly be answered by individuals themselves. I would say that safety can be understood as a continuum. The Baha’i community, like all communities is in a process of learning how to undo the effects of racism and is not immune to such effects. The Gathering represents one contribution to that learning which includes allowing spiritual and cultural spaces for nurturance, and encouragement of many different kinds of people who have traditionally been marginalized in the society as a whole. The Gathering is very much a part of the Baha’i community and is not a separate or competing activity as the Universal House of Justice describes. I hope that I answered your question.

  • Dorothy Schatz

    Dear M. Copeland, I am an 85 year old white woman who has heard and read with joyful heart. I frankly am at a loss for words. You may wonder why this old white woman is so excited? I don’t have space to explain adequately, but perhaps the fact that I am a Baha’i will explain a little.
    God bless you all for making this move ahead. We have needed you.

  • Aidan, I appreciated your question and found myself wishing that a white Baha’i would respond to you. Since two days have passed and no one else has picked up on my wish, I’m going to offer my perspective. For 14 years, my husband (who’s also white) and I have been traveling the country, researching racial attitudes both within and outside the Baha’i community. We’ve found that it’s quite difficult for some white Baha’is to be open and honest about their racial conditioning. Because the Baha’i teachings are so clear on the elimination of racial prejudice – giving us specific instructions on how to heal the relationships between blacks and whites – people want to believe that their faith should be enough to grant them immunity to society’s brainwashing. They think that if they admitted to any racial anxiety or stereotypes, it would be the same as admitting that their belief in Baha’u’llah was weak. So instead they can retreat into denial and avoid talking about race. I know from listening to our black friends that this creates an atmosphere that feels unsafe. I don’t want to give the impression that this dynamic exists in every Baha’i community, because we have visited locations where the members are actively engaged in rooting out all traces of racism from their midst. But I also know that there is still much to be done. Where a community stands on that continuum of safety depends on the willingness of the Baha’is to be vulnerable, trusting, and fearless in their commitment to racial healing. As Phillipe said, we are in a learning mode. The black men who attend the Gathering bring the gift of healing back to their home communities; those of us who are white have an urgent responsibility to heal ourselves from every vestige of racial conditioning, so that we can bring our own contributions to the process of building unity. In order to cleanse ourselves thoroughly, we need to step out of denial and be willing to engage in honest self-assessment, which will allow us to tap our collective spiritual power and to create a space where everyone feels safe. I hope this gives you a little insight into what we’re striving for. I would love to see this conversation continue, and I’m especially interested in hearing people’s thoughts on the difference between physical and emotional safety, as these are often confused in discussions about race.