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    As always, faith compels them to help

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 13, 2001


    At a time when many Americans feel helpless as they face a protracted conflict and possibilities of further terrorism in their back yards, some citizens quietly continue their efforts to transform the world for good.

    Sepideh Eskandari, Evelyn Noa and Ann Haendel believe their faith should stretch beyond the routine of public worship. It is to be expressed daily, in little kindnesses, in serving others and in volunteering time and talents to those less fortunate.

    Ms. Haendel, 66, volunteers with American Jewish World Service. She has worked with non-governmental organizations in Senegal and Zimbabwe and is preparing to leave for Uganda around Thanksgiving.

    "I am acutely aware that I was born in a time and place where I was able to receive a first-rate education and I feel a responsibility to share that. That derives from my Jewish background that you have a responsibility to the community and the world," Ms. Haendel, a member of Temple Beth-El, 400 Pasadena Ave. S, said this week.

    "Judaism isn't faith-based. It's action-based," the former administrator for the federal government added.

    "It's not enough just to say, "I believe' or to pray. One has to act. I learned this as a child. . . . There was a time when I couldn't do very much. I was a single parent. I had a very demanding job. I'm no longer working and my kids are grown and on their own and this is payback time."

    A lawyer by profession and a Bahai by faith, Ms. Eskandari, 33, donates her services to the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, helping to mediate disputes with clients. She does other pro bono work as well and has been a mentor to students at Stetson University College of Law and the University of Tampa. Ms. Eskandari has volunteered at Gulfcoast Legal Services, a non-profit corporation that provides free legal assistance to the poor. She now serves on the board of directors of the United Nations Tampa Bay Chapter as well as Congregations United for Community Action. She also is helping to organize this year's interfaith Thanksgiving service.

    Ms. Eskandari, an immigration lawyer based in downtown St. Petersburg, says though: "I feel as though I'm not doing enough. In the Bahai faith, it's said the highest form of worship to God is through service to humanity at large. We can do that through our profession also. Work, especially if it is done with a spirit of service, in the Bahai faith, it really is putting your religious teachings into practice."

    The Bahai faith, founded 158 years ago by Bahaullah, the son of a wealthy Iranian family, teaches that there is only one God and one race. Bahaullah advocated universal education, a universal auxiliary language, world peace and banishment of extreme wealth and poverty.

    Like Ms. Eskandari and Ms. Haendel, Mrs. Noa, 94, puts her faith into practice. The former St. Petersburg Times employee volunteers with the after-school tutorial program at Childs Park United Methodist Church, 3940 18th Ave. S. Though she no longer drives, she also is active in her church, Gulfport United Methodist, at 2728 53rd St. S.

    "I've always done it," she said of her volunteer work.

    "I just can't sit around. I don't even even have a rocking chair," she quipped.

    Acknowledging that there is tragedy in the world, Mrs. Noa's response is: "You can't dwell on it. You know it's there and you do what you can do. It's important to do the little things. The big things eventually take care of themselves."

    The Sept. 11 attacks have only convinced Ms. Eskandari to do more, she said.

    "I am very devastated, but at the same time, as a spiritual person, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe, as a Bahai, all of this will lead to world peace and we are going to have it. It is promised in the Bahai writings. They say it is not only promised, it is inevitable."

    Born in Iran, Ms. Eskandari came to the United States at age 8. Her parents, devout Bahais, sought asylum for the family because of Iran's relentless persecution of members of the faith. Today Ms. Eskandari, part of the local spiritual assembly of the Bahai Center of St. Petersburg, 676 Second Ave. S, does not shy away from encouraging her immigrant clients. She advises them to value the rights that come from living in the United States, such as equality of the genders and freedom to worship.

    Her clients include one of the men from Bangladesh recently questioned by Tampa Port Authority officers and detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service after they were seen videotaping the grounds of the Port Authority. Mohammed Abdul Malik had overstayed his temporary work visa, Ms. Eskandari said.

    Recently she spoke to students at Boca Ciega High School about law, but admitted she did not stick to legal issues.

    "I went beyond that. I didn't hesitate to mention God in the classroom. I asked them to think, "What is my purpose in life? What am I going to do? What is my contribution to this world?' "

    Mrs. Noa believes her calling is to work with children.

    "I like to teach them reading," she said. "I hug them and they hug me. . . . It isn't all reading. It's giving them a little TLC. Many of them don't get it," said Mrs. Noa, who has volunteered at All Children's Hospital and in Connecticut, where she once lived.

    "The children I tutor now are from second to fourth grade. We've had tutoring for children that didn't speak English and we've had many children that come from families that just don't have the time for these children and they get to third and fourth grade and they can't read, and that really makes me unhappy."

    This year, United Methodist Cooperative Ministries of the Suncoast presented Ms. Noa with its First Servant Heart Award for her work.

    "I just keep going," Mrs. Noa said during an interview Wednesday.

    "I figure the Lord's keeping me here for something. I'd better do good. I'm on overtime."

    Ms. Haendel feels a similar sense of urgency.

    "I just hope that my health holds up and I can continue to do this year after year after year, with less time between assignments, because I think that the window of opportunity will get smaller," Ms. Haendel said of her work with American Jewish World Service.

    "I don't really think that it's a question of choice at this time of my life," the grandmother of five said of her volunteer work that takes her away from home for three to four months at a time.

    "It's just a part of who I am, the necessity to use the skills and talents that I have. It makes me feel great that I can contribute in some small way. What better legacy to leave my grandchildren?"

    Ms. Haendel said she gains as much from her work as she gives.

    "Being in a different culture and meeting people whose life experience is so wonderfully interesting, that's pure pleasure," the St. Pete Beach resident said.

    "I suppose the pleasure that I get from going abroad and working abroad is as good as someone who perfects his golf game. . . . I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. It's not heroic."

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