Thursday, December 20, 2007

Baha'i social and economic development conference 2007

I have been wanting to attend the annual Baha'i Social and Economic Development conference held in Orlando, Florida for many years. This year I finally did it and being in a large group of Baha'is felt like a wonderful homecoming. The Baha'i world community has come a long way in the last decade and there is a very tangible growth in the capacity of the Baha'i community to begin having a transformative impact on the culture and civilization of humankind.

Before the conference even started I began having heart-warming interactions. As I walked into the bookstore after registering I saw a radiant woman who I remembered from almost 20 years ago (honestly can I REALLY be this old????) when she was doing her Baha'i youth year of service coming from the US to travel through the countries of Southern Africa. Now she is living in Chicago.

Here she is with her beautiful half-Iranian son.

Walking out of the bookstore I greeted another beautiful young woman identifiable as a conference participant by her name tag. We started chatting and she mentioned she was thinking of getting something to eat and so I invited myself along. What an opportunity that was!!! Really what blessings and grace are available to us if we are just a little open to them.

She is originally from South Carolina and now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her four kids. She announced she was a fourth generation Baha'i. I said..."Oh you have some Iranian heritage?" as that is what I tend to assume when I meet people who have such a long Baha'i heritage. No... she is a fourth generation African American Baha'i. The story really begins with her uncle Rick. Uncle Rick at 12 years old started hanging around with the Baha'is in the 1950s in the south. Rick's father (Shelley's grandfather), Charles Abercrombie, was an important leader in a Southern Baptist church and was really worried about this "cult" that his son, Rick, was getting involved with. So Charles Abercrombie asked Rick to invite some of the Baha'is to come to their home so that he could learn more about the Baha'is. Rick invited two ladies who were best friends and who were traveling together in areas of South Carolina for the purpose of teaching people about the Baha'i Faith. These two friends were Joy Failey Benson--a white woman --and Ulele Bobo--an African American woman. These two women came to visit with the Abercrombies and to talk with them about the Baha'i Faith. The conversation went long into the night and Charles said..." Now wait a minute you have to come back now because I still have not understood what you are trying to tell me."

So over the next few days these two ladies came back and spoke with them night after night until really late and Charles had his Bible in hand and they had their Baha'i Writings and they had very heated exchanges. Finally the grandfather and the grandmother were still not satisified and they said that since they were at their house so much and were staying so late every day they might as well come and just move in for a while!! So Ulele Bobo moved in with the Abercrombies for three weeks and after this time of intensive interaction the grandfather and the grandmother became Baha'is. What followed was a period of intense testing. Charles went back to the church to tell them that Christ had returned! The Abercrombies, perhaps not surprisingly, were subsequently ostracized from the church and the community for becoming Baha'is and Charles lost his job. The Abercrombies had their own large plot of farmland and to this they returned and and grew their own food and they built properties that they could rent out and they did just fine. This spiritually receptive couple went on to have eight children who all became staunch supporters of the Faith.

Shelley's father, Sherryfield Abercrombie, was six when Joy and Ulele walked together into his family's home for that first time and the shock of seeing a white woman and a black woman together as friends in the Jim Crow south was enough to persuade his very young heart of the power of the message they brought. He said right there and then that he wanted to be a Baha'i. Sherryfield is now retired and is "pioneering" all on his own out remote in the African bush of Lesotho thereby answering the call of the Universal House of Justice (the governing body of the Baha'i World Community) for African American Baha'is to travel to Africa to serve humanity and teach people about the Baha'i Faith there. He is using his own money to establish a school there and now Shelley is here at the Social and Economic Development conference to help to realize her goal of supporting her father in establishing his school as an official non-profit organization that can apply for grants.

So Shelley is a fourth generation Baha'i because her great-grandmother learned of the Faith from her grandfather and became a Baha'i too. And now Shelley who works in a restaurant, is studying full time for her Masters in Business Education, is a full-time Mom and a full-time Baha'i, active in absolutely everything and she is raising the fifth generation of the Abercrombie Baha'is. She said that with all the children and grand-children and great-grandchildren of these two original pure-hearted souls there are now 60 Baha'is in their family. She has relatives serving the Faith all over the world but she is right there serving in inner-city Ann Arbor with her new fiance who has made it possible for her to come out here to the conference and who works as the executive director of Peace Neighborhood Center. I felt so honored to have met her and to have had a chance to chat with her.

The experience chatting with Shelley reinforced my awareness of the power of personal narratives!


Blogger sashwee said...

what a great story. I hope someone among those 60 is collecting material for a book. THat is a story that needs to be told, with pictures.

6:20 AM, December 25, 2007  
Blogger leila said...

this powerful, moving story brought tears to my eyes. ditto sashwee, and thank you!

love from leila

4:53 PM, December 25, 2007  
Blogger Rutledge, Juliet said...

This is my mother that you are talking about. Who are you?

9:52 PM, December 06, 2010  

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