The Baha’i Faith is one of the youngest and fastest-growing world religions. It has grown so quickly, in fact, that in recent years it has reached Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy community.
Mike and Aida Champion are two of the more than 170,000 people practicing Baha’i in the United States. After moving to the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood three years ago, the couple started holding weekly devotional services and children’s classes at their home in an effort to help the growing religion flourish even more.
Since its emergence in Iran in 1844, the faith has grown to have more than five million followers in more than 200 nations and territories throughout the world, although the greater Philadelphia area has only about 1,250 followers.
And Philadelphia proper has only about 200 Baha’is, Mike said. “Our community’s pretty small.”
The Baha’i presence was established in Philadelphia in the early 20th century and the community has changed a great deal since then, especially over the recent decades.
“When I was growing up, the Baha’i faith didn’t have clear approaches to building community and to receiving seekers or people interested in the Baha’i faith,” said Shaun Gould, a lifetime Philadelphia Baha’i follower.
“We were very inward for some time and now we are trying to be more outward, trying to include people who are not Baha’is in the different activities we do like children’s classes, youth groups, these devotional gatherings,” Aida said. “So the Baha’i faith is going through a really beautiful transition where now all these new people are coming and they’re giving their new ideas.”
And with the spreading of this young religion has come the dominance of young people among the faith. The Philadelphia community is particularly young because there are many colleges and universities from which Baha’i attracts followers, Aida said.
“You see the transition in that it was a lot of older people and little by little it’s becoming younger, and with that there’s a new vibe,” she added.
However, Mike attributed the smallness of the following in Philadelphia proper to the slight number of young families in the city.
But the religion has not grown in every country like it has in the United States. In fact, followers of the faith in its birthplace of Iran have been systematically persecuted since its inception because they’re seen as a threat to the country’s religious establishment.
The oppression has resulted Baha’i followers losing their jobs, pensions, properties and inheritances; facing discrimination in education and employment; facing violence incited by state-sponsored propaganda; arbitrary arrests and unlawful trials; and thousands of individual Baha’is killed for their beliefs.
And as this continues today, it does not go unnoticed by the Philadelphia Baha’i community.
Baha’i founder Bahaullah says, “when somebody gives their life or lives in suffering for the cause of God, the universe trembles,” Aida said. “So many people are suffering right now in Iran and, to me, the fact that we are able to talk about it means their suffering is helping the rest of the world grow.”
Gould agreed. “I think knowing that there are people dying for their faith presently and suffering for their faith in a real way is very inspiring,” he said. “This is a way to live your life and something worth suffering and being uncomfortable for. The Iranian Baha’is are an incredibly inspiring model for us.”
Becky Kerner is a reporter with Philadelphia Neighborhoods/Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, a content partner of NewsWorks