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History of Baha’i “Firsts” in Jefferson County, WV

ABOUT US: OUR “FIRSTS”

First mention of the Faith in the U.S.: Reference to the Baha’i Faith was first made in an American public forum in September1893, during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The occasion was the meeting of the World Parliament of Religions, where it was noted that “‘a famous Persian Sage’ had died recently in Akká. . . ..”1. The Founder of our Faith, Baha’u’llah, had passed away in Palestine, in exile, on May 29, 1892.

First Baha’is in Jefferson County: Research has turned up mention of our county in a 1920 report of the growth of the Faith in the South, where it was noted that one “Caroline W. Harris . . . taught in a summer colony at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.”2 Nearly a century later, we are reaping the blessings and confirmations.

In 1976, John Dale learned from the national Baha’i center that there were no Baha’is known to be living in Jefferson County at that time, so he moved his family here in September as “homefront pioneers.” The nearest established Baha’i group was in Winchester.

Bill and Julie Gregg were the next members of the Faith to arrive, when they moved their family out to Harpers Ferry from the Greater McLean (VA) locality. Again, they were the only believers here, since it so happened that John Dale had moved on around the same time.

By 1987, the Greggs, the Bixbys, Alex Rahmi, and Nancy Wilkes had all managed to find each other.

The Bixby family had moved to Charles Town from Chicago to share the rustic farmhouse of an old friend, near the Claymont school. Alex had relocated here from Falls Church, VA to open a General Motors dealership the year before. Nancy was a special education teacher from Fairmont, WV. . . . Both Fred and Janet Bixby were physically challenged and lacked transportation. Therefore, our small community (including 4-year-old Alex Gregg) held 19-day Feasts in the Bixbys’ loft in the farmhouse, around a potbellied stove, at the top of some steep steps, in that rural setting — our first Baha’i “center.”

First Local Spiritual Assembly: The first Spiritual Assembly of Jefferson County was formed in January 1996. We had reached the requisite number of nine adult believers at last, with the fortuitous decision of Manouchehr Mohajeri to transfer here from Falls Church after learning that we needed just one more person. He tells a story of how he came within minutes of signing a lease on a rental in Leesburg—and instead serendipitously opted for a temporary home in the Barkdoll family’s basement apartment near Shepherdstown. (Naomi Rohrer and Larry Barkdoll eventually studied the Faith and became pillars of the community.)

Manouchehr inspired and advised our fledgling assembly. The other eight members of that charter body were Nancy (Wilkes) Gordon; William and Julie Gregg; Daryoush “Alex” Rahmi; Aram Hessami (whose mother-in-law had found us); Ardyth Gilbertson, from Falls Church; and Gregory and Brenda Vernon, formerly of Atlanta. Jefferson County was the third locality in West Virginia with an assembly at that time, after Charleston and Morgantown. The faces of our many Baha’i “family” members have changed over the years, but we have been lucky enough to maintain an assembly every year since.

Aram opened his Avanti Restaurant in Charles Town in the fall of 1996, and it became the center of Baha’i community life until it closed in 2007. Assembly meetings famously came with an Italian meal generously served by Aram and his staff! The first Unit (regional) Convention held in Jefferson County convened at the Avanti Restaurant in October 1997.

The new assembly soon successfully petitioned for membership in the Shepherdstown Ministerial Association, setting a precedent for the future inclusion of other non-Christian religions.

First activities: As there is no clergy in the Baha’i Faith, assembly members handle the affairs of the local community. Our new assembly launched the first of its ongoing Sunday devotional gatherings in October 1996. The Sunday program at the Baha’i House of Worship near Chicago was our model, which included readings from the scriptures of other faiths, as well as our own. For the first ten years, our meeting place was the historic Entler Hotel in Shepherdstown, which could also accommodate children’s classes as needed.

Jefferson County was an early adopter of a systematic learning process introduced to the Baha’i world in 1996— the Ruhi series of workbooks, developed in Colombia, South America. The first study circle in the county met in the Charles Town home of Helen Johnstone, after she joined the Faith in April 1997. Manouchehr was holding biweekly firesides in his home in Shepherdstown, which continued as long as he lived in the area.

The first “home” of our own: In June 2007, we were privileged to acquire a building of our own. The former Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation, at 308 So. Buchannan Street in west Ranson, had come up for auction; we were alerted to the opportunity on very short notice by an alert real estate agent who was the husband of one of our believers. The 33-year-old structure was ideal for our adaptive use. That we prevailed with a pre-auction bid, we owe to Divine intervention and the good graces of the owners at the time, who were operating a small business out of the building. That we had the ability to finance it, we owe to a generous benefactor who had pledged to assist any community in the Mountain State to purchase a Baha’i center, provided the members could maintain it. We have tried diligently to live up to his faith in us.

Though our group is and was relatively small, individuals among us possessed all the skills needed to repair and upgrade the structure. The interior was transformed by two windows and a new full-view front door, letting daylight in for the first time. All furnishings came from the Avanti Restaurant in Charles Town, which had just closed its doors in May. A trellis was constructed on the south side of the building in 2012.

Our Baha’i Center is currently one of only two in West Virginia. The Charleston Baha’i Center sits high on a hill overlooking the State capitol dome. Ours is on the demarcation line between a modest residential neighborhood and an old industrial complex (now consisting of a civic center, a playground, and the headquarters of an on-line university).

In June 2008, a Persian Baha’i couple from Hagerstown were the first to be married in the new Center.

“A new creation”: Shortly after we moved into the new Baha’i Center, the vacant house next door, at 306 So. Buchannan Street, went on the market. The “Little Blue House” had been home to the Bayles family until the elderly Mrs. Bayles died; and by 2007, it was a refuge for possums and stray cats. One of our believers purchased the property with the intention of holding onto—and beautifying— the grounds until such time as the assembly might wish to annex them.

The structurally unsound German cottage was razed in April 2010, and the time was right to double the size of the Center’s grounds. In the shade of the spreading silver maple which had dominated the abandoned yard of the old house, a park-like meditation garden now blooms. (Our community is also blessed with a horticulturalist and a Master Gardener.) The new garden was a metaphor for Baha’u’llah’s revelation: “ . . . Within the realms of holiness, nigh unto the celestial paradise, a new garden hath appeared . . . .” The landscaping is laced with short passages from prayers of Baha’u’llah and His son Abdu’l-Baha.

The manufactured stone for the hardscape (patios, planters, paths, and steps) came as an unexpected gift to us in May 2010. A neighbor we employed to do our sitework tipped us off to the imminent liquidation of the inventory of a local Bradstone dealer. Part of the liquidation process involved the offering of their commercial patio display, at silent auction, to the highest bidder. That we were the winners was truly serendipitous. That we were able to assemble the manpower and equipment to handle the logistics of removing the entire display within a few days, credit goes to a member of our assembly with connections to a local quarry. All in all, nearly 50,000 pounds of stone was hauled away that day and stored—later to be reassembled in our Baha’i garden.

Electric lamps illumine the pathways at night. An irrigation system helps with the watering of an ever-changing panoply of flowers. An old outbuilding—a stable—was transformed into a garden shelter. The finished projects represent countless hours of volunteer labor and generous donations of plant material and garden accessories.

The stylized bronze bird sculpture in the garden is entitled “Winged Salute to the Sun.” It faces eastward—toward the rising of the sun and the Point of Adoration, the shrine of Baha’u’llah in Acca, Israel. The working fountain is a fixture from the former Avanti Restaurant. Neighbors are invited to enjoy the garden and “abide therein”. . . for rest and respite.

The first wedding in the garden took place on June 9, 2012, when Chloe Barkdoll and Eman Rouhani recited their vows in a Baha’i ceremony.

  1. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 256
  2. Gayle Morrison, To Move the World, p. 105. Survey was prepared by Louis Gregory, an African-American lawyer who became the first of his race to join and integrate the Washington, DC Baha’i community in 1909. Carolyn Harris was also an African-American.