Sunday, July 17, 2011

I Know I've Been Changed

Article first published as I Know I've Been Changed on Blogcritics.

In 1987, a black man named William 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 the 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 was 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