It is an evening members of the Howard County Baha'i community look forward to every year, a chance to sing, pray and pay respect to the founder of their faith in a ceremony stressing world unity and peace.
"Today is the day on which the glory of God was born, and we meet here to celebrate," said Pinnock Casely-Hayford, a native of Ghana, formerly an Anglican who joined the fast-growing religion in 1984. "Today is the day that the son was born."
Mr. Casely-Hayford was among 60 members of the Baha'i Community of Howard County who gathered at The Barn in Oakland Mills Thursday to celebrate the birth of the prophet Baha'u'llah, founder of the religion.
Baha'u'llah, whose name means "Glory of God" in Arabic, established the Baha'i faith in the 19th century in what was then Persia and now is Iran, emphasizing world unity and racial harmony.
Baha'u'llah, who proclaimed himself a messenger from God, taught that the God in each religion is the same God and that mankind is one. He was born Nov. 12, 1817, in what is now Tehran, Iran, and died May 29, 1892.
His birthday and death are two of the nine holy days on the Baha'i calendar.
Today, more than 5 million people around the world practice the Baha'i faith, described by Baha'is as second only to Christianity in its rate of growth. The county group, which has about 100 members, was established in 1964 and meets in The Barn on Sunday mornings.
During the celebration Thursday, the Baha'is sang, prayed, read from Baha'u'llah's writings and shared a potluck dinner.
Mr. Casely-Hayford sang several original songs, including, "The Thief in the Night," which described how Baha'u'llah left important lessons before he died.
"Remember his teachings. That's most important," he told the group of adults and children from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds.
Dr. Gary Fleming, who manages research grant awards at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Rockville and became a Baha'i in August, was the guest speaker.
He summarized Baha'u'llah's life, telling how the founder was imprisoned in a filthy pit and exiled for his teachings.
Muslims believe divine revelation ended with the prophet Mohammed, and considered Baha'u'llah's teachings blasphemy, persecuting Baha'is in Iran.
"The mission of the Baha'i community . . . is healing the ills that divide the human race," Dr. Fleming said. When that is achieved "the world will . . . become a paradise."
Mobarek Anderson, 81, of Kings Contrivance, said she was given her name by Baha'u'llah's son, 'Abdu'l-Baha, who visited Washington, D.C., in 1912. Being a Baha'i "has been my whole life," she said.
Others said they were attracted to the faith because of its willingness to embrace anyone who wants to join.
Pat Kennett, who is Irish and was reared a Roman Catholic in New York City, said she began to think religion was difficult and couldn't understand why.
"I wanted to find out why all people couldn't get along," she said after Thursday's ceremony.
A woman at a health spa in Atlanta introduced her to the Baha'i faith in the 1970s. "It's so incredible to see that world-embracing vision," Ms. Kennett said.