Seated in the wooden pews of their Hixson building, dozens of Chattanooga's faithful in the Baha'i community joined with millions of believers around the world celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Birth of the Báb this week.
The Tuesday evening service recognizing one of the faith's central figures included music, time for reflection and performances by members of the community telling the stories of some of the faith's first followers.
Born in Shiraz, Iran in 1819 as Siyyid `Alí Muhammad Shírází, the Báb, whose name means "The Gate," would go on to usher in the Baha'i Faith through his divinely inspired writings. In 1844, the Báb announced another divine messenger would arrive soon named Bahá'u'lláh would arrive soon. Both the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh are seen as major prophets in the faith. The Báb was executed for their religious teachings.
Celebrating the Báb's birth does not come with a scripted ceremony. Instead, Baha'is celebrate in their own way with community gatherings, musical performances and in their homes. Mary Radpour designed the Chattanooga celebration and chose the three vignettes, which highlighted how the first believers came to the faith.
Many in the Baha'i community, even the children, know stories that feature these figures but few people know the full history of the first followers, Radpour said.
"We wanted them to have a more personal look of how their life led them to that movement," she said.
The Baha'i faith believes in the unity of all people over time through the world's various religions. In the faith, God reveals understanding to people at various times through prophets from other religions, such as the Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus.
Benjamin Wiley, who performed the role of Quddus during the service, said the various historical figures represented different paths to faith. Quddus, for example, believed in the Báb's teachings after seeing the way he carried himself. It was a pure faith, Wiley said, as opposed to another historical figure detailed during the service who came to the faith by questioning the Báb's teachings.
Wiley said he came to the faith much more along the path of wanting answers for his big existential questions.
"Most of us reach religious faith through both," he said. "You have faith, and we want our questions answered."
Quddus, along with many of the first Baha'is, was killed for his beliefs. While it is important to recognize the sacrifices they made, Radpour said she did not want the service to dwell solely on the injustice. Baha'is remain persecuted in Iran, where they are regularly imprisoned for their beliefs and barred from participating in society. The history of injustice is long, even for a faith whose history spans two centuries, she said.
However, an event such as a bicentenary requires the faithful to reflect on the broader impact of a religion that has survived persecution and has millions of followers, Radpour said.
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