In 1969, in the home of a new friend, I saw a framed set of four buildings. I did not immediately remember that I had seen the same four on a display at the local fair a few years before, nor did I consciously remember that one of the four had been filmed by my mother on a farm wives trip to Chicago to see stockyards and grain processing plants. I was intrigued by the buildings. Now, over fifty years later, I wonder if some dim memory was unconsciously triggered.
They looked religious, but not churches (there were no crosses), nor mosques (no minarets), nor synagogues. I did not know what they were. All four seemed to be round, even though three of them had obvious sides and corners. All four had a dome in the center. Three had an intermediary level between the ground floor and the dome, the fourth did not. In that one, the dome sat on top of the ground floor. The three had obvious doors and windows, the fourth did not, though exterior of the ground floor of the latter was obviously entirely glass.
I looked at them often enough that my friend explained them to me. They were buildings he was proud of. Each was located on a different continent: North America, Africa, Australia and Europe. He explained that they were continental Bahá’í Houses of Worship, or specifically: Dawning Places of the Praise of God. Each is devoted specifically to prayer and meditation, no sermons or other activity take place inside. In fact, sermons, or even commentary, are specifically forbidden. Only scriptures from the world’s revealed religions could be read out loud. I’d never heard of such a thing before. The space is reserved for prayer and meditation.
They are gifts, he explained, open to anyone in the world who was willing to be respectful. That seemed reasonable to me.
He explained that each one is the central institution of a complex of social and humanitarian agencies, most of which had not yet been developed. These would include a hospital, schools for all ages, care for the aged, an orphanage, among others. Some schools had been started, but in different places were schools were more necessary. Over the decades since that conversation, I have learned that the number of schools has grown to nearly a thousand, most in places where the government can’t afford to provide them. In addition, tens of thousands of personal development projects are being conducted.
My friend explained that members of the Bahá’í Faith built these Houses of Worship without financial contributions from others. He said they are offered as a gift to all of humanity, they wouldn’t be a gift otherwise. Bahá’í s are forbidden from accepting money from others for Bahá’í projects. What kind of religion is this, I wondered?
He went on to say that Bahá’ís intended to build more of these buildings around the world, and I have seen that take place in the half century since then. Bahá’ís number less than ten million around the world (numbers are difficult to come by due to the problem of gathering statistics from many places around the world, and the numbers only refer to adults, so to add in children, the true numbers are very likely double that). Because of the small numbers, erecting these buildings are collective endeavors. Financial contributions from Bahá’ís around the world help to build each one. This money is funneled through the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Israel. That Center helps coordinate multi-national projects in the Bahá’í community and there are many.
These Houses of Worship are being built in stages. The first stage was on a continental, or regional, scope. After the four I first saw, others were erected for Latin America, the South Pacific, Asia, and South America. When those were finished, attention was turned to Houses of Worship on national and local levels, beginning with two National Houses of Worship (in Papua New Guinea and Democratic Republic of Congo in their capital cities) and five Local Houses of Worship (in Battambang, Cambodia; Agua Azul, Columbia; Matunda Soy, Kenya; Lenakel on the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu; and Bihar Sharif, India). All but three have recently been completed; construction of the three is on schedule.
This April a new series will be announced. The location of these buildings is determined by the strength and size of the relevant Bahá’í communities. One of the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith encourages the voluntary sharing of wealth. Most of the money for these buildings comes from the more affluent parts of the world, while many of the the buildings are in less developed parts of the world. Bahá’ís are glad to do this. It enables them to help people they would not otherwise be able to assist. Like many endeavors of the Bahá’í community, it is a global, cooperative effort.
Interestingly, none of these buildings look like the others except for their round, nine-sided shape, and being culturally consistent with their location. Those are architectural requirements. Not all have domes. One has a central spire. One looks like a lotus flower, another looks like a grass hut. One looks vaguely like an African mud hut, but with ten skylights in the roof! Three, in the tropics, are open-air, so the breeze blows through. One looks like an upturned woven basket; another, like a tall, wide brimmed hat, yet another, like an upside down bowl. A collage of them all together is a colorful panorama. Each is a unique Dawning Place of the Praise of God.
This progress, especially in its physical manifestation, has amazed me as it has unfolded over the past five decades. I am eager to see, and assist with, what more will come.