This Spring, our Bahá'í community began a tour series visiting local historic religious sites throughout DC. The goal is to build bridges with our neighboring faith communities and learn more about the places and histories that are important to them.
To participate in an upcoming tour, view the calendar and RSVP here.
Below are reports and pictures from our trips so far.
An iconic piece of the DC area are the glimmering ivory and gold towers of the Mormon Temple emerging from the treeline on the northern bend of the Beltway in Kensington, Maryland. Like thousands of people every day, you may have passed by them on the way to and from work or on a trip to the suburbs. But have you ever stopped to see the structure up close? Recently a group of local Bahá'ís took the opportunity to visit our Mormon friends (as community they are officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS). The Temple is separated from the busy road by a stretch of forest, which may account for the somewhat clandestine feeling about its exact location, but once one finds the entrance to the grounds, the visitor is treated to a breathtaking expanse of immaculately manicured gardens and the stunning view of the immense Temple itself.
Our group was graciously received by Elder Don Olsen, the current director of the Temple visitors center, along with a host of cheerful volunteers of all ages. After introductions, Elder Olsen turned us over to a young female volunteer (referred to as 'Sister') who very capably guided us through a brief overview of the use of Temples in the LDS community. Although it is not open to the public and used only for special church rituals like baptism and weddings, we were shown pictures of the ornate interior and had each function explained to us. The visitors center boasts an extensive, museum-quality display that presents the narrative of the Book of Mormon (the community's holy text), an overview of the current administrative structure of the church, and provides an opportunity for guests to research their family genealogy. There is also a rotating exhibit hall that at the time of our visit features some frequently asked questions about the LDS community. Elder Olsen and our tour guide readily answered our questions in further depth and we discussed some of the parallels between the Mormon and Bahá'í communities: history of persecution and exile in early days of the communities, somewhat similar administrative structures, and renewal of God's Message in this day through a recent Divine Messenger (Joseph Smith for Mormons, Bahá'u'lláh for Bahá'is).
Before leaving, we gifted Elder Olsen with a copy of Commonalities, a comparative study of the LDS and Bahá'í religions written by a Bahá'í scholar married to a Mormon. The text is highly recommended to anyone interested in learning about the many unifying concepts - as well as honest differences - from both faiths.
For more information about visiting the LDS Temple grounds and their visitors center, see http://www.ldschurchtemples.com/washington/
America's Islamic Heritage Museum - Anacostia SE DC (April)
The Islamic Heritage Museum is a little-known but invaluable resource located just a short walk from the Anacostia metro station. Housed in the former Clara Muhammad School, each of the museum's rooms are filled with artifacts and stories that have been painstakingly researched and collected. The displays take visitors from the arrival of Muslims to America with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (and possibly earlier) through to the modern day influences and contributions of Muslim-Americans.
Brother Amir, the museum's director, graciously made himself available to guide our group from beginning to end. Much of the information, particularly about the early presence of Muslims in our country, surprised us. For example, the first mosque in the U.S. was built in South Dakota! The oldest mosque still standing today is in Iowa! (Not at all what we expected to hear!) One room in the museum is entirely dedicated to the history of the Nation of Islam, which is arguably the most readily-identifiable Muslim movement in America. Clara Muhammad, for whom the building was named, was the wife of Elijah Muhammad, one of the central figures of the Nation of Islam; and Brother Amir himself came up in that community.
Our group of Bahá'ís felt warmly welcomed by our hosts and as a token of gratitude presented Brother Amir with a copy of Bahá'u'lláh's 'The Hidden Words.' He deeply appreciated the book and invited our community to come back any time, even offering to host an interfaith devotional gathering if we were interested. We certainly are!
For more information about America's Islamic Heritage Museum, visit www.muslimsinamerica.org
Franciscan Monastery - Brookland NE DC (May)
We lucked out on the gorgeous day we picked to visit the monastery and its beautiful gardens, with flowers in full bloom. But we definitely weren't alone: coincidentally that day was also a neighborhood plant sale, so the grounds were full of visitors and our half dozen Bahá'ís packed into a large tour group.
The "knight" assigned to us was a terrific storyteller and shared many details and stories about the numerous artworks that decorated the interior of the monastery. It was amazing to see how many references to important moments from Christian history were recreated in the space. For example, one shrine in the sanctuary that features a mural of Jesus on the cross is supposed to be the actual height of the mount where the crucifixion occured, so approaching visitors have the sense of what it was like to observe that scene. Another notable part of the tour was moving through the replica of the catacombs, the miles of narrow underground passageways where early Christians buried their dead.
After the tour, our group fanned out in the gardens to sniff the large variety of flowers and admire the hundreds of translations of the Lord's Prayer which decorate the surrounding walkway. We're not sure if the monastery is open to outside gatherings, but it would be a wonderful place to hold a devotional gathering, particularly when the flowers are at their peak.
For more information on the Franciscan Monastery, visit www.myfranciscan.org