(RNS) — It was December 1989 in Cote d’Ivoire, and a complete stranger had me locked in a bear hug.
We were both waiting at the last checkpoint before the Liberian border. I was in West Africa working for USAID, the State Department’s development arm, but on that day, I was on my way to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where hundreds were gathering for a music festival put on by the Baha’i community to provide an inspirational example of unity among the country’s many tribes and ethnic groups.
Without much to do while waiting in line, he and I got to talking. Once I told him where I was going, his face brightened with an infectious smile, and he drew me in for that hug, which I’ve never forgotten. He, too, was a Baha’i, and he and his friends were going to the very same festival.
We were from two entirely different parts of the world — him from Nigeria and me the United States. But we were bound together by one man, born in Shiraz, Iran, on October 20, 1819.
This October, Baha’is around the world are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Siyyid Ali-Muhammad Shirazi, known to us as the Báb. The Báb, whose name means “The Gate,” shook up 19th century Iran with a revolutionary messianic claim. In 1844, he declared himself a new prophet of God and began to write books, epistles and commentaries that he claimed were divinely inspired.
His message was deeply mystical, and his writings addressed a God whose essence was fundamentally unknowable but whose spiritual attributes of love, justice, mercy and compassion inspired entire devotion.
Compelled by the beauty of his writings and the power of his persona, thousands of followers flocked to the Báb and his message. They came from all walks of life, including the governor of Isfahan Province, Manuchihr Khan, though many of his chief disciples were young people, as he was. Some of his converts were Islamic clergymen who were awed by his ability to respond instantly, comprehensively and persuasively to intricate theological questions.
The language of his writings was challenging, complex and inventive. A central theme of his mission was the urgent need to purify one’s heart for the coming of one even greater than himself, whom he referred to as Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest.
In 1863, Bahá’u’lláh, a leader within the Bábi community, announced to a small group of Bábis that he was the one whose coming was foretold by the Báb. Over the next few years, the vast majority of Bábis flocked to his cause, and, until his own death in 1892, Bahá’u’lláh composed an astonishing volume of books, letters and tablets that constitute the primary texts of the Baha’i Faith.
The Báb never got to see the fulfillment of his claims. In 1850, Iran’s clergy and governmental authorities, unnerved by his teaching and his popularity, executed the Báb by firing squad after torturing and killing many of his followers.
After releasing me from his strong hug, my new brother and I decided to combine our parties and travel to Monrovia together. But as we got to the border the scene was unusually disquieting. The Liberian guards were deadly serious, and the atmosphere was tense. Finally, after waiting for some time in a border post, a soldier armed with a rifle strode stiffly into the room and turned sharply to face us.
“You must go back,” he ordered, in a tone that brooked no argument.
Sunset was coming and we all needed a place to stay. We imposed upon the hospitality of a small village within 100 yards of the Liberian border, whose residents graciously housed the women in our party in their homes, while the men slept on the cool cement floor of the schoolhouse. We nonetheless passed a somewhat uneasy night after seeing soldiers and border guards racing back and forth along the border.
The authorities in Iran had hoped that by killing the Báb, they would also snuff out the light of his message. However, it moved swiftly and irrepressibly beyond the borders of 19th century Persia. Leo Tolstoy counted himself an admirer of the Báb, and Matthew Arnold, the British poet and critic, remarked that, “most people in England have at least heard the name.”
The reasons the Báb captured the imagination and attention of such a global audience are of course sundry and complex. But they’re the same reasons why he remains so inspiring to the six million Baha’is of the world and the same reasons why the broader global community can celebrate with us on his bicentenary.
The Báb’s life is a model of the importance of independently investigating the truth, free from blind imitation of past practices; the power of young people to create social change; the need for the emancipation of women; and the unstoppable power that a noble idea can have when it is backed by spiritual conviction.
Spurred by this power, the Báb and his followers realized a commitment to their ideals that, 200 years later, their example continues to electrify the Baha’is of the world. As the sun sets Monday (Oct. 28), Baha’is everywhere will be gathering with their fellow believers, friends and well-wishers in homes, community centers, temples and other innumerable spaces to offer prayer and pay tribute to the vision of the Báb and the one whose coming he foretold, Bahá’u’llah.
At its core, this vision, which it was the task of Bahá’u’llah to fully unfold, involves building a world community in which prejudices of race, religion, class, gender and nationality have been laid to rest and in which the specter of imminent war no longer haunts the horizon.
As my last days by the Liberian border would prove, this vision is undoubtedly the most pressing legacy that the Báb has left to humanity.
I awoke on the floor of the Ivorian schoolhouse to the sound of my brother and his Nigerian compatriots practicing their singing for the upcoming festival. I think back now with amazement on how the Báb’s birth was the first bead in that long rosary of events that led me there.
The music was so moving that it was hard to imagine that anything could go wrong. Yet, over the next few days, we continued to try and fail to enter Liberia. Within days, troubling word began to reach us of violent skirmishes.
Soon, those skirmishes would escalate into a civil war that, within a year, would topple the Liberian government.
After we separated, I never saw my Nigerian brother again, but the tie that binds us remains magnetic and powerful. Our time together echoes in my soul every time I meet Baha’is in unlikely circumstances. I find in these meetings a warmth that is a locus of peace and brotherhood amid conflict, as the words of the Báb urge us:
“Become as true brethren in the one and indivisible religion of God, free from distinction, for verily God desireth that your hearts should become mirrors unto your brethren in the Faith, so that ye find yourselves reflected in them, and they in you.”
(Anthony Vance is the director of the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)