For Robert Merriken and other county residents, Friday evenings are an end to secular time and an opportunity for a spiritual beginning.
"I love it. I live for it, and it is free will," Merriken, the public information representative for the Bahai community in Howard County, said as he entered a Bahai member's house for a weekly gathering.
Merriken is one of a handful (sometimes five, sometimes 20) of the 150 followers of the Bahai faith living in Howard County who get together each week for food, social interaction, prayer and a discussion of one of the faith's tenets.
"Allah 'U' Abha," Merriken said as he sat down in the den to partake in the week's discussion of unifying science and religion. "That is the Bahai greeting, meaning 'God is the most glorious.'"
Filing in seconds apart, the cosmopolitan group of 20 Bahais encircled the designated speaker, and another member began an informal prayer: "Thank you, Lord our God, who unifies the spirit of all and fulfills our needs," said Dermot McHugh, an agronomist for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Science teaches us ways and tools, but religion provides the instruction on how to use it," said Farhad Tahmasebi, a mechanical engineer with NASA and the guest speaker.
Exploring the Big Bang Theory, Tahmasebi attempted to enable the group to see the relationship between science and religion. "We had an explosion, we had atoms, but who created those atoms?" Tahmasebi said.
Founded in 1863 by Mirza Husayn-Ali, usually referred to as Baha'u'llah in Persia, which is now Iran, the Bahai faith has 8 million followers and adherents representing virtually every country, Merriken said. The faith emerged from the Babi Faith, founded in Persia in 1844 by Mirza Ali-Muhammad.
The Bahai follow a solar calendar of 361 days with 19 months, each consisting of 19 days. The extra four days are called days of God, a period of giving and sharing fellowship in the community.
"On these days, we perform charitable works called Ayyam-i-Ha," Merriken said. The Bahai new year starts with the vernal equinox. The current Bahai year is 157 B.E. (Bahai Era).
Every 19 days, the Bahais have a feast consisting of prayers, a discussion of community business matters - local and international - and a meal.
"It's our way of connecting with the community," said Marsha Ghazanfari, a Columbia attorney whose father faced persecution as a Bahai living in Iran before and after the Khomeini regime.
"Iran is a theocratic Islamic state. They thought that we were heretics," Ghazanfari said.
A Bahai follower embraces the religion through his or her free will. The only requirement is that a member writes a declaration that he or she believes that Baha'u'llhah is the prophet of the day and gives it to the nine-member local administrative body.
"There is no proselytizing in this religion," said Dr. Nasir Bashirelahi, a Bahai member and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Dentistry.
A monotheistic religion, the Bahai faith's central tenets are oneness with God, oneness of religion and the oneness of mankind.
"That means that all of the religions teach the same idea and [it] is a revelation from God," Bashirelahisaid. "That means there is one God, one race and one religion."
Despite its founding principals of monotheism, openness and universality, the Bahai faith has faced opposition, particularly in Iran. From its earliest beginnings, through the shah's fall in 1978, Bahai followers were systematically persecuted, harassed and discriminated against, said Bashirelahi, whose mother was a Muslim and father was Bahai.
"The teachers would make fun of you in school if you were Bahai," he said. "Others would single you out and pick on you. It was a minority religion, and Islam was the predominant one."
Bashirelahi said that the theme of racial unity appeals to Howard County residents, which accounts for the county's growing Bahai community. Ten years ago, the community had only 50 people, and it has grown to 150, according to a recent Bahai census.
"To prefer one religion over another is blasphemy," Bashirelahi said. "Each religion says the same thing. This is the essence of today - the unity of mankind."
Information about the Bahai community: 410-730-6540.
Sun editorial assistant Karen Keys contributed to this article.