COLUMBIA — On a day in early November, an international smorgasbord was spread on the table, and a group as diverse as the food settled in for supper.
Nov. 11 is the birthday of Baha'u'llah, and Columbia's Baha'i community was celebrating. Friends took the time before prayers to catch up and enjoy one another's company.
Two of them, Kurt Saxton and Nicholas Okamoto have much in common — a talent for storytelling, a desire to travel and a commitment to the Baha'i faith. But their journeys to the table could not be more different.
Raised a Christian in Kansas City, Saxton discovered the Baha'i faith later in life. Okamoto grew up in Hawaii with a Baha'i mother and a Buddhist father.
Their backgrounds illustrate the variety of paths that can lead to the Baha'i faith, a worldwide community. It is almost impossible to describe the "typical" Baha'i. They live all over the world and come from many backgrounds.
The official Baha'i website cites a worldwide membership of between 5 million and 7 million people found in almost every country. According to Saxton, dozens of active members belong to Columbia's Baha'i community.
Beliefs of the Baha'i faith
The Baha'i faith was founded by the Persian prophet Baha'u'llah in the mid-19th century, according to the website. During a period of forced exile, Baha'u'llah is said to have received a vision from God that inspired him to found the faith.
The religion is built upon a conviction that there is one god and one human race, and the truth is revealed to followers in a set of progressive revelations. Baha'i teachings recognize the origin of many religions as stages in the history of one religion. This concept of unity embraces all colors, creeds, races, nations, social systems and political groups.
The Baha'i faith also believes that world peace is imminent. Working toward that goal, the faith advocates the equality of men and women, universal education, an end to poverty and all prejudice, and eventually the creation of one all-encompassing commonwealth of nations. The Baha'i faith also teaches the peaceful coexistence of science and religion.
The faith has no clergy, and the only temple in the continental United States is in Wilmette, Ill. It is up to members to study and think about the texts and faith on their own.
When Okamoto first told his mother he wanted to be a Baha'i, she objected.
Raised around the Baha'i faith, his original gravitation to Baha'i was opting into the faith rather than true belief. He said his mother was aware of that.
She told him to really dig into Baha'i and explore other faiths, as well. Since a core belief in the Baha'i faith is independent investigation of truth, Okamoto said she wanted him to reach his own conclusions before choosing to be a Baha'i.
"You don't just inherit your religion like your last name," he explained.
A quiet moment gave him clarity. In an upper alcove of a Baha'i Center in Portugal, he was rereading a text and suddenly felt awash in the absolute certainty of the words.
"It wasn't anything fancy or miraculous," he said. "But it was much more profound to me personally."
Now, he isn't aware of any other Baha'i students currently attending MU.
"I hear that 10 years ago there was a big, active Baha'i club on MU's campus," he said wistfully. "I guess it just comes and goes."
For Saxton, the decision to become a Baha'i was also a serious one.
He first became interested through his wife, Katrina, who was already a Baha'i when they met. Saxton spent months poring over Baha'i writings, having in-depth conversations with Katrina about facets of the faith.
As he progressed through the writings, Saxton realized that he was connecting with what they had to say.
"That's when the alarm bells went off," he said. "There's that whole concept of being aware of false prophets."
He began to reread the Bible and compared it to Baha'i writings. Yet, it wasn't text or spoken word that convinced him. It was prayer.
Saxton said he realized that for all of his studying and analysis, he had yet to pray about the decision. It would rest on whether he felt closer to or farther from his god after investigating the Baha'i faith. He registered for his Baha'i ID card later that day.
Living the faith
For both men, being Baha'i means incorporating the faith into their daily lives.
"There's a big part of the Baha'i faith that concerns itself with what to do or what not to do," Saxton said. "But a lot of it has to do with how to be."
He said the principles of the Baha'i faith guide his family life. The faith teaches that no one has the whole truth, and thus, it's important to be open to the experiences and opinions of others.
Within the faith, there is a practice called consultation, which aims to create unity by encouraging people to set aside their egos in order to talk frankly and listen carefully.
For Saxton and his wife, consultation has been an effective strategy.
"My wife and I have not said a word in anger our entire married life," he said.
The faith's teachings on interracial relationships also resonate deeply with him.
"Even before I converted to the Baha'i faith, I found those teachings profound since my wife is Caucasian and I'm not," Saxton said.
Okamoto said the faith has helped guide his professional goals. A student of mathematics and physics, the belief in the harmony of science and religion appeals to him.
The Baha'i faith also views work done in service to others as a form of worship. After spending four years teaching in New York as part of the Math for America program, Okamoto came to MU to pursue a doctorate in mathematics.
He sees developing mathematics research as upholding that emphasis on service as it helps the academic community. Okamoto also works with a Baha'i youth group that plans and participates in service projects.
The Baha'i community in Columbia
Both Saxton and Okamoto are active in Columbia's Baha'i community. Meetings are held every 19 days at a member's home. Holidays are also held in homes and led by members.
The Bahai calendar has 19 months of 19 days each (361 days) with the additional days added between the 18th and 19th months.
The Bahai new year coincides with the spring equinox (March 21). Holy days include Festival of Ayyam-i-ha from Feb. 26 to March 1, the Festival of Ridvan from April 21 to May 2, the ascension of Baha'u'llah on May 29, Race Unity Day on the second Sunday of June and other days of fasting and feasting.
Okamoto admits he misses the large Baha'i community he belongs to at home in Hawaii but says his friends at MU have been incredibly supportive of his faith.
He helped arrange a screening of the documentary "Education Under Fire," a film about the persecution of Baha'i people in Iran, through the campus Amnesty International club. A number of friends and colleagues from the math department turned out to support the screening, he said.
Saxton said he typically encounters two types of people — those who haven't heard about the Baha'i faith but are curious and those who have and are supportive.
"I've yet to encounter anyone that has been hostile," Saxton said.
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