AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF , 8/17/03: AUSTIN TEXAS - Believers of different faiths, the Baha'is and Baptists, have been meeting weekly this summer to make connections that overcome religious and racial barriers.
The Rev. Ralph Daniels gets to the heart of that challenge right away, when he asks, "What separates us when we have supposedly the love of God in us?"
During the hour-long session, those gathered read from the Bible and the Baha'i holy book, ask questions and pray.
Two years ago, Daniels met Baha'is while working with Austin Clergy Committed to Racial Reconciliation and invited them to services at Zion Hill. Members of the two groups began forming friendships through children's activities.
Eventually Daniels and Jane Froelich, a Baha'i who serves on the racial reconciliation committee, decided to learn more about each other's beliefs. One group brings the Bible; the other brings the Baha'i holy writings.
As is the case in Austin, Baha'i congregations tend to be multicultural. The religion comes from Persia; believers say God sent his most recent messenger, Baha'u'llah, in the mid-19th century to preach unity and proclaim that the world's religions are all stages in God's revelation to humanity. Today, an estimated 6 million Baha'i followers, who emphasize racial equality, represent hundreds of nationalities.
The Baha'i-Baptist partnership is one of several interfaith efforts that often take place with little fanfare. A Catholic-Muslim alliance and an East Austin drive, led by clergy members, to help people learn Spanish, are two other projects underway to build relationships between groups that might otherwise feel alienated from each other.
Khotan Shahbazi-Harmun, a fifth generation Baha'i, moved to the United States from Iran when she was 12. She likened the group's members to "spiritual archaeologists digging to find unity."
"It's a spiritual fact," Shahbazi-Harmun said. "We are one."
Though Christians might strive for the same attitude about race, the Rev. Louis Jackson, associate pastor at Zion Hill, recognizes that it's seldom put into practice. "The most segregated day of the week is on Sunday," he said. "Everybody's segregated. Blacks over here, whites over here, Spanish over here.
"Some of the people at our church still don't understand," he added. "They think (Baha'is) don't think the way we think. God made us all. We're all the same, see."
It helps that Baha'is honor Jesus Christ.
"Make no doubt about it: We believe in every word of the Bible," Baha'i Allison Ashley told the group at a recent session. "We believe Jesus was the only begotten son of God, and we are united."
But for some, it's no less confusing that they also believe all religions are one, and celebrate Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, or that Baha'is are more inclined to use the word "mistake" instead of "sin."
In the case of a partnership between Catholics and Muslims, the main hurdle was faith. The two communities emphasized their common belief in God and set to work on a common goal: helping the homeless.
Earlier this month, they delivered food and basic necessities through a ministry sponsored by St. JohnNeumannChurch called Mobile Loaves and Fishes. On Aug. 10, Muslim and Catholic clerics held a joint service at St. Mary's Cathedral.