Bradenton Baha'is fast-growing religion stresses equality among worshippers

mclear@bradenton.comMay 10, 2014 

Allan Wunsch

Allan Wunsch had been attending a Christian church most of his life, but felt some doubt creeping into his faith.

"I kept feeling there's something not right here," he said. "I started thinking, 'Why would God just leave us alone for 2000 years?'"

That was back around 1980.

And just about that time, Wunsch found himself at events near his Long Island home where representatives from the Baha'i faith had a presence. Over the course of a couple of months, he met with Baha'is to learn about their religious beliefs.

"We met for eight weeks and all I did was ask questions," he said. "After eight weeks I was able to find a 98 percent correlation between us, and the other 2 percent was easy for me to take care of. It just made sense."

Wunsch has been a Baha'i ever since, and he's now on the board of the Baha'is of Manatee County. It's one of four Baha'i assemblies in the Bradenton-Sarasota area. Others are based in Bradenton, Sarasota and Sarasota County.

They've just concluded the Baha'i Festival of Ridvan, which started April 21 and ended Friday.

This year represented a rare occurrence as Easter, Passover and Ridvan coincide. Baha'is marked the beginning of Ridvan with a gathering at the Rose Garden on the grounds of the Ringling. The first, ninth and 12th days of Ridvan are celebrated as holy days when Baha'is are not supposed to work.

The Ridvan festival is named after an island where Bahá'u'lláh resided at the time he declared he was this era's messenger of God.

Being a Baha'i, Wunsch said, doesn't mean he's no longer a Christian. He could also consider himself a Muslim.

"If you're a Baha'i," he said, "you're really all three. We are encouraged to read and to know the holy books of the different religions."

The basis of the Baha'i faith goes back to 1863, when a Persian nobleman named Baha'u'llah declared he was the messenger of God for his era. Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus Christ and Muhammad were all predecessors, he said.

"He is just the most recent," Wunsch said. "In 50 years or 100 years or 200 years there will be another."

Bahá'u'lláh's central message, Wunsch said, was one of pacifism, and unity of mankind and all religions. Bahai's believe there is only one God, only one human race, and all the world's religions represent stages in the revelation of God's will.

One of the faith's goals is the elimination of all forms of prejudice. Equality and the importance of developing the moral capacities of children are also central to Baha'i.

"The Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens," Bahá'u'lláh wrote.

There is no Baha'i clergy, Wunsch said. Members of each community periodically elect a board -- there's no campaigning and no one is an official candidate -- and no brick-and-mortar churches or temples. Members gather every 19 days for a feast at the home of one members.

Despite being one of the world's youngest religions, Wunsch said, it's one of the fastest-growing.

There were about 500,000 followers of the faith in 1953, and estimates of the number of Baha'is worldwide is around 7 million.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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