Nora Kobusinge – United States of America
In the shadow of the African Baha’i Temple
Did you know that safari is a Swahili word meaning journey? My safari began in Uganda. I was born in Entebbe, raised in a Christian protestant family, going back, on both sides, for generations. But as I grew up I absorbed many prejudices such as: Catholics are to be pitied, Muslims disdained and Jews only exist in the stories of the Old Testament. I was also heedless, totally unaware that I was playing, laughing, going to school in the shadow of the African Baha’i temple. I must have seen it countless times as my family drove around Kampala, but I didn’t know what that building was or how the faith it represented would alter my life.
And so I began my Safari
Fast forward to the political upheavals that plagued Uganda and all the nascent African republics struggling to shake off their colonial fetters. Coup d’etat, guerrilla warfare and rampant genocide forced my parents to flee our equatorial idyll. My father, an important government official, was one of a handful to get out. Almost overnight the country bristled with armed men and the city choked with military roadblocks. In fear for our lives, my parents decided our family should split up. Leaving as a big group would make us more conspicuous. Dad escaped by bus and my siblings left by plane. My mom and I boarded a train because I was deathly sick, burning up with fever and the airlines would not allow me on board. We took nothing but the clothes we stood in, left behind everything we owned. We all headed across the border into Kenya. We reunited in Nairobi and spent a year living with relatives and surviving on the kindness of friends. Eventually Dad got a job with the World Bank and we landed in Washington D.C.
I will gloss over the intervening years of cultural shock, loneliness, homesickness and eventual assimilation. As the years rolled on I finished high school, went to college, worked as a teacher for many years and remained an active and devout Christian. I had always had questions about my religion, doubts that lingered and were never answered satisfactorily. I had parents who encouraged my intellectual curiosity. So I explored new age ideas, Transcendentalism, Ayurveda and Hinduism. I began reading Buddhist literature, and at one time I even spent a year professing to doubt the existence of God. But all the time I felt a yearning, seeking, longing. Finally I conceded to the small voice in my spirit. The one that I had to be still in order to hear. The one that whispered and told me that the void in my soul was shaped like God.
So I abandoned my atheist pose and returned to my Christian roots. I had never restricted myself to a denomination or sect and went from church to church searching but finding that what I sought was always just out of reach. I even considered Catholicism because of its Marian perspective. I had strong feminist leanings. On my weekly trek to school, work and home, I used to drive past a building that had many flags waving around the perimeter of its grounds. I didn’t know what that building was but I love flags and noticed that unlike many other institutions, this campus waved flags from every continent including Africa and Latin America. One day I found out that it was a Baha’i center. That Sunday I dropped into the Baha’i building and was a little confused because I thought I had missed the service. Many people smiled at me but no one really spoke to me so I just grabbed a few pamphlets on my way out. Although I was encouraged by the statements about the equality of women and the diversity of a self-styled “global” faith, I had no clear way to explore further (this was pre-Google). My hectic life as a school teacher demanded all my attention and so I did not investigate. But I continued to yearn for something I couldn’t name. Something that hovered right in front of me, so ethereal, so luminous but always out of reach. I continued my safari, wondering around on the drought-plagued grasslands of heedlessness.
And then my dearly loved father died. I was devastated. Plunged into a deep, unrelenting bereavement. For years I struggled to climb out of the emotional abyss into which my father’s death dropped me. My loss was like a huge Venus flytrap and I was the tiny ant clinging desperately to the slippery slides. Sinking, sliding and slipping. I felt completely alone and no one knew how to help. I continued to go to church, work and school. Outwardly coping, yet inwardly, bereft. I was adrift in an ocean of pain with no anchor, no land in sight and only storm clouds on the horizon.
My family had a Ugandan friend who is a Baha’i. He and his wife were often guests in our house for Sunday dinners and other celebrations. My own spiritual quest was deeply personal and private so I was unwilling to pry into his beliefs. I had never asked him about his faith or indicated any interest in it at all. I was attending a church every Sunday with my Mom but I was not really happy there. But now I had the internet and after some weeks of research and reading I called our family friend and asked him when was the next Feast? He was flabbergasted. He had no idea that I was even remotely interested in the Baha’i Faith. He also happened to be out of town when I called him, but I found this out much later. He didn’t tell me that as a non-Baha’i I could not (then) attend feast. He never breathed a word of discouragement, instead he suggested I attend the small, local Baha’i centre the following Sunday. I agreed.
When Sunday dawned I didn’t want to get out of bed. The bed was nice and cozy and what was the point anyway? It will just be the same words, the same fake smiles, only different faces. Finally, my mother made me get out of bed because she wanted me to go to church with her. I was torn. Should I go to church with my Mom or go and explore the Baha’i Faith? My Mom was disappointed when I decided to go to the centre as I had promised. As I pulled into the parking lot I saw 4 or 5 people on the sidewalk in front of the entrance, smiling. I glanced in my rear view mirror to see who they were smiling at. I parked and walked towards them before it occurred to me that these people, who were now smiling broadly, were waiting for me. Me! I was enveloped in their smiles, friendly handshakes and warm hugs. I had never been welcomed like this before. Not at a church, not by people who didn’t know me. Later I found out that as soon as our friend hung up the phone with me, he called a number of his Bahai friends and asked them to expect me and welcome me on Sunday. I was so glad that I got out of bed that morning. And so began my baby steps into the faith. I had stepped off the sun-scorched Savannahs and entered a shady grove cooled by a bubbling brook.
It took about 6 months of firesides, Ruhi study and deepening for me to truly surrender. For a time I tried to alternate between Christian church with my Mom and the pull of the Baha’i centre. But I’ve never been a person of half measures. When I considered the depth of spiritual conversation with Baha’is, the answers so simply and profoundly stated in the Baha’i writings, I realized my previous life was like ashes in my mouth. And so I declared.
I read Baha’i literature voraciously, lamenting my wasted years of knowing about the Baha’i faith but not following my usual instinct of investigation. I realize now that I wasn’t ready back then. I felt so excited about all the writings. I had felt like a fish, stranded on the hot sand of the beach, surrounded by air but unable to breathe, gasping, flopping around, dying. Baha’u’llah, by His grace, picked me up and dropped me into the cooling, soothing ocean of His love and saved my life. I never looked back. I stopped searching. Baha’i rains turned my spiritual drought into lush greenery. The desolate plains were now covered by grazing animals and I was one of the little newborn calves bounding about and leaping for joy.
I became a Baha’i. I found that the more I understood the Baha’i faith, the more I understood my Christianity. The veil of magical thinking that had marked my limited understanding, began to lift. I became deeply involved in the life of my community; Feast (finally), devotionals, firesides, teaching, studying, neighborhood classes, travel-teaching. I tried everything at least once and began to find the place where my gifts and talents would best be utilized. I began and continue a personal transformation. There are characteristics about myself that I don’t like. They include (but are not limited to) my impatience and my pride. These are things about myself that I struggled to change, knowing that God loves me and forgives not only my lapses but also my slow progress. And family. Paradoxically I had found a new family yet simultaneously had become even more isolated in my family of origin where my new-found faith was viewed with suspicion and a tacit hostility. But this never deterred me. I learned how to pray. My prayer life changed from the egocentric me, me, I want, I want, give me, give me to God-centered make me, take me, use me, Thy will be done and thank You. I stopped demanding and learned to supplicate, to plead for virtue, peace, healing and to love God with all I am. I learned to extol and magnify Him and to truly humble myself. And I thrived. Confirmations came to me in successive waves. I was on fire!
As the years rolled on I began to realize that becoming a Baha’i had saved my life- not only spiritually but also literally. The change was subtle, slow, almost imperceptible. I began to realize that even though I still miss my father, I have let him go. The feeling of desperate-despondency has changed. The hopelessness, isolation and pervasive sorrow has lifted. One of the first prayers I learned was the one that begins “Oh Lord, refresh and gladden my spirit…” I could never recite it without crying. I would sob when I said “I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved….” I felt like a liar, a hypocrite. I didn’t believe that God could refresh and gladden my spirit. Not my sad, disconsolate spirit. I felt almost guilty for asking Him to do the impossible. But now, eight years later, I can recite that prayer and believe. Against all odds, I have climbed out of the Venus flytrap. I have not lost my father, he has simply gone on ahead.
My first six years as a Baha’i were marked by constant reading and study, in groups, alone, on Skype, conference calls. I was being deepened by friends who care about my spiritual safari. Or who counsel me when I stray too close to the lions of self and ego. Friends encouraged and supported me. And the writings! What a bounty to have such access to original guidance, scriptures and revealed prayers. As I have matured, my focus has shifted to become more outward looking.
Arise and Serve
Because it is written:
Wherefore, rest ye neither day nor night and seek no ease. Tell ye the secrets of servitude, follow the pathway of service, till you attain the promised succor that cometh from the realms of God. (‘Abdu’l-Baha)
As a Baha’i I found a platform from which I could act on deeply cherished desires to change my little corner of the world. Initially I tried ideas to raise money for the fund, to foster cohesiveness in my community and to mobilize others to join me in my efforts. I would sometimes grow frustrated. (Remember my impatience?) But a wise friend counseled me and reminded me that it’s called “individual initiative” for a reason. I decided to do something that I could start and finish on my own. Inspired by this scripture:
O Ye Rich Ones on Earth: The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. (Hidden Words of Baha’ullah)
My physical health has always been fragile and extended bouts of illness would sometimes cause me to lose my job. As a result, there have been times in my life when I didn’t know how the rent would be paid or where my next meal would come from. The friends who stepped up to fill those gaps for me were sent by God. I want to pay forward that kindness and compassion.
I began a blanket drive. The purpose of the drive is to gather donations from the friends and distribute the blankets to homeless people. I was prepared to collect the donations from the friends and distribute them on my own. I was swamped with clean, gently used blankets. And I found myself joined by 2 or 3 other friends who also wanted to serve.
When you call on the Mercy of God waiting to reinforce you, your strength will be tenfold…
(Paris Talks pp35-39: gr28)
Talking with a homeless man: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
While I was prepared to work on my own, that first winter, I was joined by 3 friends. The four of us loaded up a big SUV and ventured downtown. We distributed 50 blankets to people we found huddled in doorways and sleeping on grates. My feeble effort inspired and encouraged others. Someone began a drive to collect toiletries and socks, also for the needy.
I grew up in a music-filled home and culture. One of my talents is singing. I love to sing.
“…the Manifested Light, Baha’u’llah, in this glorious period has revealed in Holy Tablets that singing and music are the spiritual food of the hearts and souls. In this dispensation, music is one of the arts that is highly approved and is considered to be the cause of the exultation of sad and desponding hearts…” (Baha’i World Faith, selected writings)
I started a choir- just a small group of friends. We made our debut performance during Unit Convention, 2016. If the response was anything to go by, many hearts were cheered. We made a joyful sound. My heart knows the exultation caused by music.
Being a Brick
My safari continues. Initially my Mom, with whom I am very close, felt very threatened by my new-found faith. But over the years she has come to accept my conversion. She sees that I’m happy and surrounded by friends who support me in extraordinary ways. She now enjoys attending Baha’i social gatherings with me. This was unheard of when I first declared. Now I look back on my childhood growing up in East Africa with some longing but mostly with fondness. I had to leave Uganda to see the African Mother Temple. I had to go far away, in order to return. Someday I will go back to Uganda on pilgrimage and complete the circle of my life, the bestowal of my extraordinary, always God-guided, safari.
In the meantime I study and teach the faith, I try to serve my local, national and global communities. Sometimes I am discouraged, tested, and tried, just as we all are. I am learning to rejoice in my tests- to be grateful for every trial. But I am still on the steep side of that learning curve. Another wise friend once told me that each of us believers is like a brick. Alone, we serve little purpose but together we become the foundation for an amazing, Divine edifice. I try to be the best brick I can be.
Part of my global family
3 February, 2017