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Religion

Dogma takes a holiday

Baha'is celebrate equality and unity and believe in many messengers of God. They are slowly gravitating toward a Pasco center.

By EBONY WINDOM
Published May 28, 2005


HOLIDAY - Jane Vahman's gold pendant has become a conversation piece.

When folks ask about the squiggly Arabic symbol dangling from her neck, Vahman proudly says: "I'm a member of the Baha'i faith."

Her round pendant is a symbol of that. In English, it means the Greatest Name and represents the Baha'i founder and principles.

Vahman is a part of a small but growing group of Baha'is in Pasco County. Years ago, a handful of them met in homes. Then, about two years ago, the Pasco Baha'i Center was started, at 1136 U.S. 19.

But members insist that the center is not exactly a place of worship.

"You worship in your heart," said Vahman's husband, Jamshid. "(You worship) at work, at home, in the grocery store. Worship happens when you act the virtues that God willeth for you to exercise as a spiritual being."

It's all about "deeds, not words," Jane Vahman added.

The Pasco Baha'i Center is a cozy spot where members can study and pray. Inside resembles a comfy living room. A sofa and chairs are neatly arranged in a square, with a coffee table in the center.

Unlike Christianity and Judaism, which started thousands of years ago, Baha'i is fairly new. It was started in the 19th century by a Middle Eastern prophet known as Bahaullah.

"Baha'i faith is very new," said Jamshid Vahman, a member of the Pasco Baha'i Center, but "the numbers are growing very fast."

There are about 5-million Baha'is worldwide, according to the Baha'i Web site, www.bahai.org In Baha'i, unity and equality are the common threads. Everyone is welcome, regardless of race or religious background.

At the Pasco Baha'i Center, a poster on the wall reads: Color Me Human. The group is made up of all kinds of faces, black, Portuguese, Iranian, Mexican and Canadian.

That diversity attracted Martin Douglas to the Baha'i faith a year ago.

Years ago "I went to a church that was racist," said Douglas, 35, a new member of the Pasco group. "And I got sick of it. At other churches you go to, they're all white. Baha'is are multicultural."

Douglas, who was raised Baptist, wasn't pressured to convert. Baha'is don't push conversion, Jamshid Vahman said. Instead, they embrace all faiths, believing that every religion is connected.

"As a Baha'i," Vahman said, "you have to believe in all the religions of the past and show reverence to and believe in their teachings. Baha'is don't believe that Christ is better than Moses, or Moses is better than Buddha, or Bahaullah is better than them all."

But they do believe that Bahaullah was a messenger of God, just like Moses, Christ, Buddha and Mohammed.

At the Pasco Baha'i Center, there's a framed photo of a dark-skinned, white-bearded man called Abdul-Baha, the founder's son. But members are quick to point out they don't worship the person. It's all about the message.

In fact, there are no clergy or religious leaders in the Baha'i faith. Each member is equal. No one takes center stage at the Pasco center.

"There's no preacher sitting up on a podium telling you you're sinful," Douglas said. "We all have input. Everybody's a teacher."

Even during weekly devotionals. Members simply take turns praying. One woman brings her guitar. Others sing. Folks read and discuss passages from the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the holy book.

Sometimes people derive different meanings from the book. That's okay, members say.

"We believe in independent investigation of the truth, so people can get their own understanding," Jamshid Vahman said.

Many of the Pasco Baha'i members are fairly new to the faith. Jane Vahman was raised in an Anglican Church in Canada. She researched the Baha'is for two years before joining seven years ago. Then, when the Vahmans moved to New Port Richey six months ago, they found the Pasco Baha'i Center.

A year ago, Douglas had never heard of Baha'i until a co-worker enlightened him. Now, he shows up each week for devotionals in sandals, shorts and a baseball cap. Baha'is accept you as you are.

A couple of Pasco members were actually born Baha'i. Janice Gadelha, of New Port Richey, is one of them. Baha'i traditions stretch back five generations in her family. That's uncommon for an American family, she says.

"We have people we run into who are Iranian, and they're not even fifth generation," said Gadelha, 42.

Jamshid Vahman was born Baha'i, too. He grew up in Iran, where Muslims are the majority. All others faiths, including Baha'i, were forbidden from open expression.

Vahman's faith has helped keep him on the straight and narrow. He steers clear of drugs and alcohol, which are said to "cut off the connection to God." Baha'is also refrain from sex outside marriage, gambling and gossiping.

Every now and then, a few curious people drop in at the Pasco Baha'i Center. They see the big red sign from U.S. 19 and wonder what Baha'i are all about. Vacationers stop by, too.

And every now and then, when strangers ask about Jane Vahman's pendant, she invites them along, too.

[Last modified May 28, 2005, 00:09:12]


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