Saturday, May 10, 2008

Unity in Diversity: A Boston Story

A garden in Boston's South End neighborhood.

In the years that I have served on the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Boston, the local governing council of that community, I've learned to see this city through the eyes of 'Abdu'l-Baha who visited it three times during 1912 and wrote this in a letter to the Assembly:

"O ye spiritual friends of this prisoner!

According to what is heard and is evident, you have arranged an assembly in the utmost beauty and a number of you present yourselves in that meeting with all love and unity and engage in communion (i.e., reading of the communes), chanting of the verses, spiritual conversation and you must strive to make Boston a fruit-garden and a rose-garden. Verily, this is not difficult with the Lord.

The beloved of God in this mortal world are each a spiritual trumpet. They breathe the breath of life and thus confer upon them that are dead in negligence and ignorance, the life eternal. They are the merciful physicians who bestow upon the spiritual patients eternal healing.

The city of Boston hath great preparation (literally, readiness), but the endeavor of the righteous is needed and the efforts and strivings of the free are necessary. For unless the seed is sown, the bounty and blessing will not be attained; until the tree be planted, the fresh fruit will not be produced; unless the candle contact with fire, it will not ignite; and until a light dawn, the darkness will not vanish. Therefore, the beloved of God must sow the seeds and plant the fresh plants in that garden. They must ignite the extinguished candles so that the purpose may be attained and the beloved intent unveil its face. In the spirit of humility and supplication do I beg and implore at the Divine Threshold and seek for you assistance and providence."

Gardens are used frequently in Baha'i scripture as a metaphor for the beauty of human diversity when it is united through the Word of God:

"Consider the flowers of a garden: though differing in kind, colour, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm, and addeth unto their beauty. Thus when that unifying force, the penetrating influence of the Word of God, taketh effect, the difference of customs, manners, habits, ideas, opinions and dispositions embellisheth the world of humanity. This diversity, this difference is like the naturally created dissimilarity and variety of the limbs and organs of the human body, for each one contributeth to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole. When these different limbs and organs come under the influence of man's sovereign soul, and the soul's power pervadeth the limbs and members, veins and arteries of the body, then difference reinforceth harmony, diversity strengtheneth love, and multiplicity is the greatest factor for co-ordination.

How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruits, the branches and the trees of that garden were all of the same shape and colour! Diversity of hues, form and shape, enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof. In like manner, when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which ruleth and transcendeth the realities of all things, is capable of harmonizing the divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas, and convictions of the children of men. Verily, it is the penetrating power in all things, the mover of souls and the binder and regulator in the world of humanity."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 291)

I just read an inspiring story about the South End, the neighborhood where we have our Baha'i Center that exemplifies the principle of unity in diversity. Check it out:

THIS YEAR, Boston - with the rest of the country - marks the 40th anniversary of a year that generated history like few others. In 1968, President Johnson shocked the nation by declining to run for reelection. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the next night in Boston, James Brown took the stage for a concert whose calming words helped keep our city from burning in the riots that engulfed so many others.

Each of those events deserves the attention it has received. Amid them, Boston ought not forget another, one whose legacy lives on in our city today: 1968 was the year a small group of Puerto Rican activists refused to let their community be pushed from the city in the name of urban renewal - and in so doing, created a national model for renewing urban areas without suffocating their heritage. It was a critical step to our becoming the multicultural city we are today.

In 1968, there was little reason to doubt that the Puerto Rican community in the South End would suffer the same fate as other ethnic communities whose neighborhoods had gentrified - and whose sense of shared identity had therefore been diluted, making them collateral damage in a broader effort to reinvigorate downtown.

Conventional wisdom held that this was the price of progress. Boston's downtown was being transformed into a world-class business and tourism center replete with gleaming skyscrapers. It was a choice - or so the assumption went - between advancing that vision and preserving Boston's once-vibrant ethnic neighborhoods.

Then something extraordinary occurred: Having been asked to accept eviction, the Latino community of the South End - a powerless and largely poor Puerto Rican population in the heart of Irish Boston - said no. When they stood up and demanded that their heritage be both respected and preserved, Boston's new, 38-year-old mayor, Kevin White, said something equally remarkable in reply: He said yes - and gave the community the rights to develop 30 acres in the South End. The result was a historic and still-thriving community of affordable housing called Villa Victoria. Read the whole article here.

The principle of unity in diversity is often thought of at the level of individuals, but this story reminds us that neighborhoods are another aspect of our lives where this principle is important. Imagine if decisions regarding our cities and towns across this country were made in the spirit of this principle.

"Let there be no misgivings as to the animating purpose of the world-wide Law of Bahá'u'lláh. Far from aiming at the subversion of the existing foundations of society, it seeks to broaden its basis, to remold its institutions in a manner consonant with the needs of an ever-changing world. It can conflict with no legitimate allegiances, nor can it undermine essential loyalties. Its purpose is neither to stifle the flame of a sane and intelligent patriotism in men's hearts, nor to abolish the system of national autonomy so essential if the evils of excessive centralization are to be avoided. It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity..."
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 41)