I was in kindergarten the day my parents came to school with a pan full of cupcakes spelling out “Happy Ayyám-i-Há,” dashes, diacritical marks and all. My classmates loved it, of course. Frosting and sprinkles were all they knew or cared about.
But as my parents explained this period of hospitality and gift-giving in the Bahá'í Faith, my cheeks began to grow hot. I knew that this wasn’t how other kids were.
And in that moment, I knew how desperately I wanted to be like other kids.
It’s not that I was ashamed of my faith. But already, I was beginning to learn that it complicated certain things for me that were easy for others.
When the kindly old man in the department store smiles at you and your mother and asks, “What’s Santa going to bring you this year, young man?” he doesn’t want to hear, “Actually, we believe that all the major religions come from God and are part of one evolving revelation. So while we exchange gifts with our Christian friends and family, in our household, we celebrate Bahá'í holy days.”
No. He wants to hear “a bike” and then wish us Merry Christmas. Like normal people do.
* * *
I was 14 when I got my first job at the local grocery store. That was also the year that I was first told I was going to hell.
A checker, barely older than me, somehow learned of my faith and, with a flip of her long red hair, promptly declared, “Anyone whose name isn’t written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be sentenced to eternal damnation.”
Variations on that theme were expressed by several of my friends over the following years. But while it might sound harsh in the retelling, I was consistently impressed by the sincerity of their intention, by the love and genuine concern they had for my well-being.
That said, being placed on the wrong side of the lake of fire doesn’t exactly make you feel like one of the guys. And that’s really the crux of it. To be different is to be on the outside, looking in. And I – shy and awkward – really wanted to be in.
As the foremost philosopher and social critic of our time, Homer Simpson, once lamented, “I’m not popular enough to be different.”
I say that the Bahá'í Faith became my own when I went off to college. I was the only Bahá'í on campus that semester. My parents and home community were hundreds of miles away.
And one afternoon, it dawned on me – I could just quit.
I could walk away from this whole Bahá'í thing and never look back. I could be anything I wanted to be, do anything I wanted to do, and no one would stop me. No one would even know.
I entertained the possibility, but only for a day or two. Deep down, I knew that giving up this part of myself wasn’t something I really wanted. From that point on, though – for better or worse – this path was no one’s but my own.
* * *
My parents and the older Sioux City Bahá'ís had tried to prepare us for the challenges of college life. Much of that advice ended up centering on the prohibition of alcohol and mood-altering drugs.
The pressure to conform is real, of course; we all face it in one way or another. But gradually, in my mind, peer pressure became something like a bad after-school special crossed with an ‘80s horror movie. I imagined a ring of distortion-lens party people holding crack pipes and 40s, chanting, “Join us!” as circus music played eerily in the background.
Of course it was nothing like that. Almost everyone respected my choices, and a few perks even began to emerge. As people got to know about my faith – at least the boozy, druggy part of it – they began waiving my cover charge at house parties. Some even kept a small stash of non-alcoholic beverages in a back corner of the fridge for me.
At one point, a classmate decided that morally, as a Catholic, she shouldn’t drink until she was 21, to respect the law of the land. When she turned down a cup at a function a few weekends later, the young woman working the keg asked in all seriousness, “Really? Are you a Bahá'í?”
It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
* * *
No one denigrated my beliefs or questioned my values. But as the semesters went by, I grew weary of feeling different and alone. I began to envy, and sometimes resent, my Christian friends for everything they seemed to take for granted.
I lived by a Catholic church at that time. Sometimes at night, I would go sit in the empty pews and stare up at the saints and pillars, trying to imagine a life different from the one I had always known. Who would I be, worshiping in a sanctuary of hundreds as opposed to a rundown apartment of one? What would it feel like to rest on a tradition stretching thousands of years into the past, versus one barely acknowledged in the present?
I didn’t know. I couldn’t even imagine these kinds of things. But in those moments, the thought of sinking beneath a sea of anonymity, unremarkable, inconspicuous, faceless – it sounded pretty darn good.
* * *
My children are 9 and 11 now. They’re beginning to wrestle with the same issues I did at their age. When they hesitate to explain why they missed school on a Bahá'í holy day or to invite their friends to a neighborhood devotional gathering, I see some of myself in them. And I feel for them.
Is patterning your life after teachings that others do not embrace a form of stigma? The great religious teachers seem to hint in this direction. Two-thousand years ago, Jesus Christ said to His followers, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
Similarly, Bahá'ís in various parts of the world today are jailed and sometimes executed for their faith. Their pensions are confiscated, their shops burned, their cemeteries bulldozed, their applications to university rejected.
Yet, people like this are not victims. For religion is neither inborn nor inherited. It’s a choice. And those who have chosen to face persecution throughout the ages have done so not simply to “be” one sect or denomination over another. Rather, they have sought to contribute their share towards the world of peace and prosperity that has been the promise of all the world’s sacred texts.
* * *
This is perhaps what’s needed of religion today. Not a label that separates and divides, but a shared vision of a future that unites increasing numbers from every background and walk of life.
Growing up, many of us understood the Bahá'í Faith in largely congregational terms – gaining members, losing members, tending to the needs of avowed adherents. That conception has been stretched mightily in recent years, and the process has not always been an easy one for Bahá'ís.
But the faith that my children are growing into today reflects, in many ways, a much deeper understanding of the reality that any true revelation from God belongs to humanity as a whole, not just its own members and believers. This is a truth that must continually be translated into reality and action. And as my kids and others’ work toward this end, I am hopeful that they will be laying the foundations for a world in which prejudice and stigma are but faint and faded memories.
Mark Scheffer is a writer with the Baha'i International Community United Nations Office. He lives in Sioux City with his wife, two children, two cats and a newly-acquired dog. He plays bass with the Sioux City Symphony, studies the martial art of Judo, and spends a good amount of his time thinking about the spiritual, social, and material advancement of society.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, August 4 at Be Yoga Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Little Did I Know.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.
This story was produced as part of an Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which supports media practitioners who want to tell stories of resilience in communities around the U.S. and abroad. ivoh is a nonprofit committed to strengthening the media's role as an agent of change and world benefit.