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Baha'i community celebrates racial harmony with Race Unity Day in June

In June 1957, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States declared the creation of Race Amity Day with the hope of promoting racial harmony in a country in the middle of a civil rights struggle drawn along racial lines.

Much progress has been made since that time, said Richard Tomarelli, a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Carroll County. At that time, schools were just being integrated and biracial marriages were illegal in many states.

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Legally, these issues have been settled, he said, and race relations at the community level also seem to have improved.

"It's kind of a learning experience for everyone, that's why you have to be forgiving of other people," he said. "You're not talking about an instant change, you're talking about generations."

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More than 60 years later, the Baha'i community still celebrates racial harmony through the renamed Race Unity Day, which is traditionally held on the second Sunday of June.

"Race unity is one of our founding principles," said Clenda Phillips, another member of the Carroll County Baha'i assembly. "The Baha'i faith believes that all people are one - there's only one race, the human race."

The Baha'i faith was established by Baha'u'llah, who was born in Iran in 1817, and in 1863 announced that he was God's messenger for this age, according to the Baha'is of the United States' website.

Baha'u'llah preached a message that there is one God, and that all of the world's major religions are part of an overall progression on the same path, Phillips said.

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"At each interval, [God] sends a messenger to tell what mankind needs to do to advance," she said, listing Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad as messengers all sent by God at different points to direct mankind.

"It's like going to school," she said. "You start in first grade, learning the first principles, and then the next prophet will teach you the next step. It's an ever-advancing civilization."

Baha'u'llah is recognized by the Baha'is as the most recent prophet, and some of his greatest messages are that all humans must recognize the oneness of humanity, that there is no difference in races, that men and women are equal, and that there should be a world commonwealth of nations, according to the Baha'is' website.

"Baha'u'llah said race would be the most challenging issue for the United States, and until we got that under control, we would not be able to advance that well," Phillips said. "And he said the United States will lead the world in making peace for world peace."

The message of racial unity is still relevant today, Tomarelli said.

"The trick in any society is how to protect the rights of the minority and how to have a balance between the individuals and the group," Tomarelli said of the goal. "The challenge is it requires effort from all parties; you have to be willing to forgive and understand."

His wife, Kathy Tomarelli, said she believes there is still much room for improvement when it comes to race unity.

"There's so much division and still prejudice of race, not just in the United States but everywhere in the world, and it manifests itself in many different ways," she said. "So it's very important to keep educating folks on the oneness of humanity."

Race Unity Day is recognized in communities across the United States every June. Carroll County's assembly of Baha'is has celebrated with interfaith gatherings and picnics in the past, Phillips said, though no public events are scheduled for this year.

The Baha'i community has been in Carroll for about 40 years, Phillips said, and the assembly has about 25 members who meet in each others' homes. Members can be seen at many interfaith activities throughout the county as they attempt to promote unity at the local level.

"Anything that a community is working on to bring itself together, we're willing to help," Phillips said.

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