A new religion for an old town
“Trespassers may be baptized,” reads a sign on the wall. In the shadow of the white-peaked First United Methodist Church was another house of worship: The Baha’i Center, a seed of Persia taking root in downtown Salem. Much like the Baha’i Center, The Baha’i religion is small and easy to overlook.
The center is quaint and plain; it’s about as big as an average classroom at Chemeketa. Their walls are adorned with religious paraphernalia: maps tracing holy journeys once made, a rug with flowing Arabic script etched on the fabric and a painted quote from one of their spiritual leaders, Abdu’l-Bahá’. This, combined with the shelves of books of their lending library, give an impression more of a library than a house of worship.
“It’s a very new religion as far as religions go. It began in 1844,” said Dorothy Pederson, a Baha’i convert, “there were two founders. One is called The Báb, which in Arabic means ‘the gate,’ and the other is Bahá’u’lláh, which means ‘the glory of God.’”
The religion sprouted in the Ottoman Empire, which was predominantly Islamic, and the Baha’i were seen as apostates and were persecuted from their very inception. Pederson said, “Well, originally The Báb, who was the very first founder, was killed by a firing squad and about twenty thousand of his followers were also killed. Bahá’u’lláh was put into a dungeon and was in the dungeon for a few months and then was exiled for the rest of his life.”
Despite this violence, they are a religion of peace.
Carolyn Hermann, another follower of Baha’i, stressed the importance of the agreement between science and religion in Baha’i. “They’re both supported by each other, they’re two sides of the same coin. Another one is universal education and compulsory education for all people around the world. Good decisions can’t be made by someone who is ignorant.”
Hermann went on to say that Baha’i also believe in “the eliminations of extremes in wealth.”
“There’s only one God. People call him by many different names around the world, but only one God. This God has been communicating with humankind throughout the ages, sending messengers to different places at different times to help people understand their spirituality and develop a relationship with God,” Pederson said. “Some of these messengers include Abraham, Christ, Muhammad and Buddha.”
The Baha’i faith has been sprouting in Salem since the 1950s. At its inception, the community was small, but they currently have about 70 registered members in the city. Up until eight years ago, they had been meeting in each other’s houses. “We kind of outgrew that. Seven years ago we decided it was time to rent a space. So, we’re renting this space from…the Methodist Church,” Pederson said.
The Baha’i faith has spread all over the world. They have significant populations in India, Iran and the United States. Despite the religion being widespread, there are no Baha’i politicians. “One of the ways we exemplify that [unity between race and religion] is not becoming involved in politics. We’re forbidden, actually, to participate in partisan politics,” Hermann said.
The Baha’i faith has been persecuted in the past, but there has been little of that in Salem.
“I don’t know that we have, as a group, faced any persecution [in Salem]. Some individuals may have mild reactions from other people. I’ve had friends, once they found out what my beliefs were, decide that they thought I believed in a different God,” said Pederson.
The Baha’i do their best to have good relations with other religions, as exemplified in the fact that the Baha’i Center is located in a building owned by the Methodist Church. “I’d say from the Baha’i standpoint we’re definitely friendly and supportive of the other religions, but it’s not always reciprocal.”
Despite a focus on amicable relationships with other beliefs, the Baha’i faith is largely self-sufficient. Their center is completely funded by the Baha’is alone. “Only Baha’is can contribute to the Baha’i fund. So, it’s all done by the Baha’is. We don’t accept contributions by people to help our cause,” said Pederson. “There have been times in the past where it has been difficult. It’s really a matter of spiritual maturity, that you put not only your time but your material resources towards what you really believe in. And our community has really grown in maturity. It doesn’t seem anymore to be a problem, meeting the needs each month.”
The Baha’i will be celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of The Báb on Oct. 29 of this year. This anniversary is quite important and it also demonstrates how young the faith is. Despite opposition in the recent past, the religion will continue to spread their idealistic values.
Pederson said, “We need to recognize that we are all one family. This universe, thinking that this is the only one or that this is the only right one, but we’re all following the same god. So it’s time to quit fighting about it and build towards universal world peace.”
The Baha’i Center is located on 680 State St., Salem. right across from the Hallie Ford Art Museum. They are open to visit on Wednesdays from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and on Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.