Each September, undergraduates throng to Tercentenary Theatre to peruse the vast array of student groups at Harvard. A quick survey of the various booths, tables and displays reveals a number of thriving religious groups, with organizations like the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship and Harvard Hillel boasting membership rosters in excess of 150 students.
With only six active members, two of whom are currently abroad, the Harvard Baha’i Association could hardly be considered one of the more prominent groups on campus. One key tenet of this alternative religion might explain why: Baha’i takes a firm stance against proselytizing. The faith strictly forbids its followers from pressuring people to change their beliefs, instead emphasizing the importance of mutual understanding of other religions. For these few students, joining the Baha’i faith represents a conscious, informed decision to embrace a more inclusive form of spirituality.
The Baha’i religion stresses the idea of a united world population and the equal validity of all faiths. The religious community also eschews any form of hierarchy. Thus the president of the Harvard Baha’i Association, Michael A. Sabet ’07, is president in name only. He is a point of contact for the group for the Harvard community, but he has no official role within the organization. “Aside from prayer, which is mandatory, there is very little ritual—no clergy” says Sabet. “Each person is responsible for their own spiritual developments.” The association holds devotional meetings, where members pray and read sacred texts. But none of the members take leadership roles during these meetings.
Baha’i is based upon the inclusion and equality of other religious ideas. As Sabet explains, his interpretation of faith includes belief in Christ. “I hold Christ and Baha’i to be of the same station, equally worthy of veneration” he says, “because they’re equal in the Baha’i mind.” [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]
Recently declared Baha’i members Kendra N. Boothe ’09 and Katherine C. (Kacey) Wilson ’10 have followed different paths to their new faith, but they came from similar starting points. Both were raised Catholic, and, in college, were exposed for the first time to organized beliefs that articulated what they had been feeling for a long time.
For Boothe, declaring herself as a Baha’i was a logical extension of the views on spirituality she already had. “I think I was a Baha’i for a while before I declared for myself that I was a Baha’i” she says. “The belief in the oneness of religion, and that religion is supposed to unite people, and not divide people… this was comforting to hear because I thought it was something I always knew, but was never really articulated.”
Still, Boothe says she was “at first hesitant” about the decision to convert. It took a summer of traveling throughout Singapore, Italy and the U.S., along with interaction with other Baha’i communities, to realize that she wanted to declare. “I consciously recognized that as I was traveling abroad over the summer, focusing on the Baha’i writings and asking myself, ‘is this true?’”
Wilson’s decision came much more quickly—she knew she wanted to join after attending only one meeting of Harvard’s Baha’i group. Wilson, whose family is Roman Catholic, first came into contact with the Baha’i Association through the Inter-Faith Council (IFC). “I joined IFC as soon as I came here on campus, and through IFC I met some people on Baha’i” she says. “None of it didn’t attract me...it’s not about a fight of whose religion is right and wrong, and who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell, it’s all about helping each other and to create social justice and to eliminate economic crises.”
Family and friends have been supportive for the two most recent Baha’i converts at Harvard. Boothe cites her family’s varied religious background as a cause of their openness. “Having an aunt who was a Muslim, knowing that there wasn’t really anything wrong with other religions” factored into their acceptance of the switch, she says.
The response from Wilson’s parents has been equally supportive. “My mom can see how much I’ve grown since I’ve switched to the Baha’i faith,” she says. “It was difficult to explain to my church friends at first, but when you see how happy a person is...it’s hard to be upset for anybody, regardless of their decision.”
This newfound satisfaction itself seems to be a component of loved ones’ acceptance of the conversions. Boothe says that her parents can recognize a positive shift in her demeanor. “I think people can notice changes” she says. “I’ve been told I look happy and healthy.”
CORRECTION The March 1 magazine article "Baha'i: The New High" misquoted Harvard Baha’i Association President Michael A. Sabet ’07. Sabet said that he held Christ and Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, to be of the same station. The article incorrectly quoted him as saying he held Christ and Baha'i to be of the same station.