Eastern religion finds comfortable home in South

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- The difference was as plain as the streak of ivory makeup on Alisa Bates' best friend.

Bates was a rambunctious child growing up with her family in El Paso, Texas. At a sleepover one night at the Bates house, the giggling girls sneaked into mom's makeup, "just playing around, you know," she said.

Since it was her mom's makeup, Bates was the one who got to do the applying. She pulled the top of her mom's foundation, an off-ivory base, and began spreading it across her friend's face.

And that, she said, is the first time she realized her friend was black.

"All this time, I had been looking at her as a person and a friend, not as a color," Bates said.

As a Baha'i, she had never been told to do any different. Now 20 years later, she and a community of believers live in Cumberland County, in the heart of the Bible Belt.

The desire to see past skin color and social ranking have been central values in the Baha'i faith since its beginning in the 1860s. One of the world's fastest-growing religions, Baha'i claims nearly 6 million believers.

The local Baha'i assembly is smaller than many local churches -- about 70 members overall with families stretched from Linden to Lumberton to Hamlin.

It's also one of the younger assemblies in North Carolina. The Raleigh and Charlotte assemblies were formed in the late '50s. Wilmington has a community dating back to the 1920s.

Fayetteville's first assembly formed in 1971, but faded away in the late '70s. The current assembly formed soon afterward, in 1981, when a cluster of local families began to meet.

"Just about anywhere a Baha'i community exists, it's that way," said Janis Holden-Toruno. She's lived in Fayetteville for 21 years, placing her among the longest-serving members in the Cape Fear region. "We tend to be small, close-knit communities."

Like many, Holden-Toruno became a follower after she called "a serious thirst for spiritual truth" led her to the writings of Baha'u'llah. He was the founder of the Baha'i faith in 1863 and is considered by its followers to be the latest in a series of manifestations from God.

Which doesn't mean Baha'is renounce other faiths. On the contrary, one of the basic tenants of Baha'i teaching is that all religions that come from God are the same truth, seen through a different lens of time and teaching.

"If you truly listen to the teachings of all the great prophets, you will find the common messages," said member Laurie Lynch. "Which only makes sense, because they all come from the same source. God sends his manifestations to mankind, each with a new revelation. It's only as people are able to understand that God's will is revealed to them."

That, Baha'is believe, is why the message of their spiritual founder was not revealed until the mid-1800s.

"Each message is built on top of the one that came before it," said Jeannie Tenczar. She was raised by Baha'i parents, but chose to investigate other faiths before "coming home."

"When you study all the books of God, you see the manifestations of God, but then as time moves further from them, the message gets obscured. Then God sends another messenger.

"The message depends on our capacity to understand and our needs, since we messed up the last messages so badly. But messages from God have always been the same."

The messages from Baha'i writings stress "the oneness of God, the oneness of mankind and the oneness of religion." Baha'is stand strongly for universal human rights, the freedom of individuals to search for spiritual truth and working within the community for the betterment of others.

Baha'u'llah encouraged his followers to study other religions, which would lead to a greater understanding between people. Followers also learned a new language, Esperanto, in the hopes that the world would eventually adopt one language.

"I think Esperanto has lost that one," said Baha'i Ouida Long. "Many Baha'is now believe that English will become that international language."

There is no church, no clergy in the Baha'i faith. Instead, believers elect nine local assembly directors by secret ballot.

"There's no active campaigning," Holden-Toruno said. "And we aren't to be involved in partisan politics. We vote, and we carry our own personal beliefs, but we are not to be involved in trying to sway others."

That admonition includes speaking about their faith. Baha'i is not an evangelistic religion. Believers will talk to anyone about their faith, but will not push it.

"Our belief is that everyone must come to God through prayer and study," Lynch said. "We are here to support one another and to strengthen."

"But not to twist arms," added Long. Like many Baha'is, she came to the faith after searching. In her case, her search ranged from Southern Baptist to Catholic.

"I never could find a real spiritual peace," she said. "I was in Georgia and read a newspaper story about a group that was trying to bring peace to the world. It was the Baha'i faith. As I read, it was like, 'This is what I've been looking for.'

"After several firesides (a term Baha'i followers use for meetings to discuss their beliefs), I made a decision to join. My husband thought I had joined a cult. Then two months later after studying the writings and teachings, he joined as well."

When Long mentioned the word "cult," several of her friends nodded their heads. When they told family and friends of their decision to follow a religion few had heard of and fewer had studied, the assumption was the Baha'i faith must be a cult.

"We aren't a cult, for one simple reason," Holden-Toruno said. "Cults go to great lengths to cut their members off from the rest of society. One of the principal teachings of Baha'i writing is to be part of the world. Since we are all God's people, we are called to serve.

"A cult tries to keep its members from contradicting opinions. Baha'is are encouraged to read and study the faiths of others. There are no secret ceremonies, no strange outfits to wear, no mumbo-jumbo."

"We are admonished to stay away from alcohol," added Lynch. "But when you consider the damage alcohol does to individuals, that's not a bad price to pay."

Given the religion's teaching of seeking peace, it seems unusual to have several members of the local assembly also serving in the Armed Forces. But Holden-Toruno said the seeming contradiction isn't strange.

"Baha'i's are very strong in their belief in civic duty," she said. "We don't view the military as bad. Many Baha'is are doctors, or working the medical field, helping others. ''

"We consider ourselves equal with the other religions of the world," Tenczar said. "No better, no worse. We are able to worship God in a synagogue or mosque or church, because He is the same God. ''

However, that ability comes with a cost, Tenczar added. "It's a sort of duality. On one side, being Baha'i means you can worship God in a synagogue or mosque without worrying that you're out of place. I went to a seder at Beth Israel, and I've never felt so welcome in a place of worship.

"But at the same time, you're never really at home. There are some things others who don't know the Baha'i faith can never understand."

Baha'is believe that lack of understanding will change as individuals think more globally.

"Like it or not, the world continues to shrink," Bates said. "Technology has made us all more familiar with the rest of the world. We have to get along with each other."

"All of us can be bridges of understanding between races, between religions," Lynch said. "I see mankind as a garden of flowers, all different colors and types, but all flowers. Together we're a wonderful garden."