Kalamazoo Bahá'ís encourage Meaningful Conversations to promote spiritual growth, community action

Editor's note: As part of a monthly series, Faith in Action, Southwest Michigan Second Wave speaks with Kalamazoo area Bahá’í about their online series, Meaningful Conversations, and the value of spiritual inquiry as a basis for community transformation.

This is the second in a series of stories exploring faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating. The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.

Kalamazoo area Facebook users may have noticed a recurring post over the last couple of years promoting Meaningful Conversations and had their curiosities piqued. These weekly online conversations, focused on such topics as “The Arts as Divine Inspiration,” “Healing Racism,” and “Mind Full or Mindful?” began during the pandemic as part of a national Bahá’í initiative to bring people together in conversation about moral and spiritual matters. 

In Kalamazoo, the social media initiative was picked up two years ago and has proven popular. The discussion group regularly draws new participants, with an average of 10 people joining every week in its first year.

Karen Williams, a Kalamazoo Bahá’í who frequently co-facilitates Meaningful Conversations, says the discussion format is meant to encourage questioning with the further intention to use spiritual inquiry to inspire positive action in the community. As the Bahá’í Faith forbids proselytizing, there is no recruiting or pressure to join, Williams says.

“The idea of Meaningful Conversations is to expand the number of people engaging in nonjudgmental, meaningful conversations on deep topics,” says Williams. “As Bahá’ís, we are encouraged to explore different aspects of our spiritual nature and then apply that understanding and spirit to do work in the community.

Karen Williams frequently co-moderates Meaningful Conversations.“There have been some people who came almost every week for a year. But it’s more typical that people explore it maybe one time or up to a few months,” she says. “As we build friendships, we’re more exposed to activities that other people are doing and get involved in that, as well. It broadens our perspective on what the community wants and needs.”

At a recent January meeting with the topic “What is your New Year’s Spiritual Resolution?”, 11 people from across Southwest Michigan, including Holland and Grand Rapids, gathered online. After a round of introductions, attendees read several short Bahá’í passages, followed by open discussion. In a friendly, well-moderated atmosphere, participants shared freely their responses to questions, such as the relationship between spiritual and material abundance.

“A primary principle of the Bahá’í faith is unity. We try to have conversations with anyone who wishes to find that point of common ground in the spiritual basis, and then use that understanding to work on some grassroots community building,” says Williams. “The conversation is the starting point, but the overall vision and goal are to have people who want to work hand in hand for the betterment of their communities and the world.”

Even though Bahá’í Faith is the youngest of the world’s 12 largest religious affiliations, many don’t know much about it. Over 8 million Bahá’í exist in over 200 countries with a Bahá’í temple on each continent. In the United States, the unique nine-sided temple (signifying that there are many paths to God) is in Wilmette, Ill. 

In Southwest Michigan, Bahá’ís number around 45, says Williams. There are around 175,000 Bahá’ís in the United States. The largest concentrations in the world are in India and the religion’s birthplace of Iran. The Bahá’í Faith can feel like a small, international community, Williams says. “If you are a practicing Bahá’í, you often know other Bahá’ís around the world.”

Historically, the faith originated in 19th-century Persia (Iran) through the teachings of its Prophet Baha’u’llah who maintained that all the world’s religious prophets shared similar truths shaped by the periods in which they were born and taught. The central theme of the faith is unity. 

Baha’u’llah spoke of one single human race preaching that the time has come for the unification of one global society, inclusive of all and focused on equality. Bahá’í believe in spiritual solutions to the world’s problems that are focused on action and involvement in the community. Since its establishment, it has been vigorously involved in the promotion of human rights, the end of racism, the advancement of women, and social and economic development. 

Conversation to action: A natural course

When it comes to putting spiritual principles into action, individual Bahá’ís choose to engage in the community in a variety of ways. Some, like local Bahá’ís Dale Mitchell and Mendez Holliday, are involved in the Kalamazoo chapter of Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust, an advocacy group that works to improve trust between law enforcement and the community, supported by the  Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Mitchell is also deeply involved in Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, which he says shares many of the same principles of Bahá’í about meaningful, open conversations, and equality, a prominent Baha’i tenet.  

Local Bahá’í are also in the preparation stages of bringing to Kalamazoo Parent University, a one-stop successful educational that was founded in Savannah, Georgia 17 years ago by Bahá’í Michael O’Neal, a friend of Mitchell’s. Parent University offers seminars on topics that parents request and need.

“The general purpose of Meaningful Conversations is to really connect and to take that connection and turn it into action,” says Williams. “It’s a twofold moral purpose — to take charge of our own spiritual growth and contribute to the transformation of society.”

Individual paths to the Bahá’í Faith vary

People come to the Bahá’í Faith in a variety of ways. Some are born into the religion, like Williams whose parents, former Catholics, converted before her birth. Others like Holliday, Gary Marx, and Mitchell, followed a winding spiritual path before converting.

While Meaningful Conversations is not meant to be a recruitment tool, Mendez Holliday became a Bahá’í  after attending the local online talks weekly for over a year. During the pandemic, feeling a little isolated, Holliday says he was called to engage with the community when he saw a post for Meaningful Conversations on his Facebook page. 

After a year of attending Meaningful Conversations, Mendez Holliday decided to convert to the Bahá’í Faith.“They did a really good job of having a safe and open space to discuss things that aren’t typically discussed,” says Holliday who owns an insurance business, Holliday and Friends, in Paw Paw. “I felt comfortable. People were very kind and open to my opinion. I’m sure my opinions were pretty strong at the beginning.”

Holliday says he was most attracted to the Baha’i principle of unity

“Sometimes people think of unity as uniformity. We had a few different conversations trying to address that frame of thought. Bahá’ís believe in unity with diversity and opening the mindset to possibilities of what that means. They did a really great job of leaving that space open and allowing someone’s ideas to exist and allowing change to happen naturally. That’s what sparked a lot of the growth that I experienced and that I have seen in other folks that participated.”

Since becoming a Bahá’í  and regularly attending the Baha’i Feasts, which occur every 19 days according to the Baha’i calendar of 19 months in a year with four or five intercalary days, Holliday has also become involved in Kalamazoo’s Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust (ALPACT) supported by Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights (MDCR).

“For ALPACT, we meet with law enforcement officers and plan monthly forums for Kalamazoo County,” says Holliday, who was inspired to participate by Mitchell. “We work with police to build trust with the public. They give us monthly reports and we share reports with them. We’re also working towards other community-based solutions. 

“Everything in the faith is service based. It’s always about how we as lovers of God through inspiration can help us grow, help us prosper all together,” says Mendez. “Bahá’ís believe in unity. Period. That’s what I’ve come to love. They are not trying to recruit anyone. What I came to see is the entire faith is about learning and growing yourself through study and reflection and consultation with your peers who are also doing the same thing. That’s one of the things I love about the faith itself.” 

Gary Marx of Kalamazoo has been a Bahá’í since the 1970s when he encountered the religion through a friend’s brother. The son of German Jews who suffered devastating losses in their family in the death camps, Marx grew up in upper Manhattan witnessing the impact of inter-generational trauma. He was invited by a friend to what was then called Bahá’í  “fireside” gathering. Marx says he remembers his first visits as a series of arguments. He was strongly attracted to the principles of the Bahá’í Faith, but he resisted the belief in a higher being. One day, he says, he remembers exploding: “You are all such intelligent people! How can you believe in God?”

He recalls a woman whom he had a lot of respect for saying to him, “‘Gary, I’ll tell you what. I am planting a seed in your heart.’

“I got mad when she said that,” says Marx. “I looked at her and said, ‘I’ll tell you what. If I ever believe in God, I’ll become a Bahá’í .”

Gary Marx, who grew up in Manhattan the son of Jewish parents, joined the Bahá’í Faith in the 70s. Marx said he kept going to firesides. “Maybe it was what is called emptying the cup. I argued and argued and argued and came to my own resolution. Then I came to share that belief. I enrolled in the Bahá’í faith. That was 1971.”

Raised Jewish, Marx had some concerns over leaving Judaism, but he says he has not looked back.

“Since then, it really has been wonderful. It’s a faith where one of the teachings is that you cannot just believe in one of the prophets of God. If you believe in one, you must believe in all of them. If you just believe in one, it’s as if you believe in none of them.”

“When Bahá’í study religion, we study religion to determine the likenesses among the different faiths, not the differences,” says Marx. “The differences are social, not spiritual, and have to do with exigencies of the time.”

Among God’s prophets or messengers, according to the Bahá’í Faith, are Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses, Abraham, Krishna, Jesus, Mohammad, The Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh (the latter two, Bahá’í prophets).

“Christ was able to speak of forgiveness. Mohammad was able to speak of the idea of submissiveness to God. And that really was marked evolution in the capacity of people to understand spiritual law and spiritual principles. The principles remain the same, but expounded upon more and more as humanity evolved.”

Dale Mitchell, who lives in Bangor with his wife, Terri, has been a Bahá’í since 1985. “We went through a period back in the ’70s, my wife and I, where we were looking at churches. My wife is white and I’m African American. If we went to an all-white church, we got vibes. If we went to an all-black church, we got vibes. So, we bagged it up. I kept my bible and read on my own but was not interested in attending church.”

Born to a family of 10 where all were required to attend church until they were teenagers when their parents allowed them to make their own choices about faith, Mitchell says a couple of his siblings converted to Islam and another couple to Hinduism. But neither religion spoke to him. 

Dale Mitchell and his wife, Terri, of Bangor, felt welcomed in the Bahá’í as a multiracial couple.He attended some Bahá’í activities for a couple of years and was intrigued, stopped going for a while, and then ran into a Bahá’í woman he knew. She said, “When are you going to become a Bahá’í?” He replied, “I kind of feel like I am a Bahá’í already.” Shortly after, he joined. Not only did Bahá’ís espouse racial and gender equality, they promoted biracial marriage.

Mitchell says the principles of Bahá’í speak to him. “In Meaningful Conversations, the way the topics are crafted always address something that concerns society at large from a spiritual perspective. It is clear we are bringing these topics up for discussion and we are looking for the spiritual application that will positively affect the conditions of our world.”

Mitchell joined the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation organization, sponsored by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and found that the goals were in alignment with Bahá’í’s principles of justice and equality, as well as a focus on meaningful discussion. He joined TRHT’s Law Design Team, and through his work there, became involved in ALPACT, a group that includes representation from 11 local law enforcement agencies in Kalamazoo County. 

A spinoff of ALPACT has been the Campaign for Criminal Justice Transparent Community (CCJT), of which Josh Hilgard, the head of the Kalamazoo County Defenders Office and who is not a Bahá’í, was instrumental in creating. CJTC was able to promote and have passed by the Kalamazoo County Commission the implantation of a system for the Kalamazoo County prosecutor’s office to compile data so that people can access arrests and exonerations in real-time.

In addition to his ALPACT work, Mitchell is a motivating force in bringing Parent University to Kalamazoo. Preparation has been underway for six months, which includes interviews with parents in under-served communities to better understand their needs for education and resources for them and their children. “It’s a very democratic process,” says Mitchell. “We want to offer parents and families what they need and want. He says they hope to launch Parent University by the fall of 2023.

“During Meaningful Conversations, we discuss community issues and their spiritual basis. But there are a lot of people who are looking for ways to be involved. It’s an involvement in building a new community. That involves working with other faiths, government entities, whoever,” says Mitchell. 

“The conditions in the world are grievous,” he says. “There is so much suffering. If someone can find an alignment with the Baha’i principles, an alignment with courses of action that will address these concerns, then that’s our objective. Meaningful Conversations are part of the solution because it is through people coming together and having conversations and getting to know our true selves, our essence, that we’ll see each other as less threatening. We’ll see each other as allies and associates in addressing the world’s problems.

“We’d like to see a unified, loving response of people of all faiths towards rectifying the world’s problems and bring it down to the community level so people can really grasp how something can be done together.”

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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.