MARQUETTE - Followers of the Baha'i religion in the Marquette area are used to getting both questioning looks and blank stares.
They're a patient lot, as their religion, called the youngest of the major religions practiced worldwide, teaches that the human race has evolved and is still evolving into a "oneness" - that all humans should be considered equal, regardless of race, sex, nationality or wealth.
Pronounced "buh-HI," this religion created about 150 years ago endorses these modern ideas. That seems to be what attracts many adherents in the U.S., including in the Marquette area.
A study group that includes Baha’i followers and those interested in the religion met recently at the house of Dennis and Lisa Furr McCowen. Clockwise from lower left are Marquette residents Lisa Furr McCowen, Cora Thiele, Jon Strom, Dennis McCowen, Elma Strom and Daniel Burlingame. At left, Burlingame looks at one of the Baha’i study guides during the meeting. (Journal photos by Steve Brownlee)
"I wanted to feel my life has meaning," Chris Swadley of Marquette said. "I was raised as a Christian, but I slowly became less involved and started to drift away.
"When I had my first child, I felt it was important to have spirtuality in my life.
"A lot of people come to Baha'i and say, 'This is what I already believe!' "
Another adherent from Marquette agrees.
Cora Thiele was raised in a household practicing both Christianity, specifically Presbyterian, and Baha'i.
"I love the figure of Jesus Christ, his story and the parables that were told to me," Thiele said.
But she asked lots of what she called "awkward questions" at Sunday School as she grew into a teen, and at about age 15, made the decision to identify as Baha'i.
The Baha'i community in the area participates in the Marquette Interfaith Forum, which meets each month at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette.
The Baha'i Spiritual Assembly from Marquette also sponsors an interfaith devotional meeting monthly.
Unusual to the faith is an acceptance of most other religions that believe in a single God, which include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and even some lesser known ones like Zoroastrianism.
That's because these other religions aren't considered to be contradicting the Baha'i message - instead, they have all contributed to it.
Their differing presentations about God are seen as what was appropriate at the time of the message, according to the Baha'i website at www.bahai.org.
"Evolution is probably the correct word for the truth that God reveals," said Clarken, who acted as a clearinghouse for area people to learn more about Baha'i. "As the human race grows and matures over time, God is able to reveal deeper truths."
About five years ago, Clarken took a position at the Baha'i World Center in Haifa, Israel. The center is the seat of the religion's international administrative body as well as a central location for several Baha'i shrines, such as the burial site for two of its most important founding figures, the Bab and Baha'u'llah.
Currently, one of the Marquette area's leading resources for the faith is Dennis McCowen, a semi-retired carpenter who lives in Marquette. He is secretary of the Baha'i's Marquette Spiritual Assembly, a local administrative group.
He estimates that there are 15 or 16 adherents in the city of Marquette, a total of 20 to 25 in Marquette County and about 40 to 50 in the entire Upper Peninsula.
"Mankind is now coming into its maturity as evidenced by the explosion of scientific knowledge in the last century and a half," said McCowen, 67, who took about 25 years to fully become Baha'i from the time he originally heard of the religion in the early 1960s. "This maturity is the reason that it became time for God to send another prophet."
Probably the last step that brought him fully into Baha'i was wanting to have an identical, or at least similar, spiritual life when he married his wife, Lisa Furr McCowen.
"We both became Baha'is before we were married in a Baha'i ceremony in 1986," Dennis McCowen said, adding that it was a simple ceremony.
Proselytizing - attempting to persuade nonbelievers to convert - is forbidden, though members can certainly talk about their faith to anyone who expresses an interest about it.
It's one reason the religion has a fairly low profile in the community.
Another reason may be that the Baha'i World Faith rejects most of the hierarchy inherent in other major religions, including clergy.
The nearest Baha'i House of Worship - akin to a Christian church - is about 400 miles away in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette.
Those who govern administratively are elected through several levels beginning locally. Local communities - including the Marquette area's - has a nine-member spiritual assembly that is elected annually.
Local groups elect a nine-member national assembly, which in turn elects the international governing body, the Universal House of Justice in Israel, every five years.
Delegates at all these levels are admonished not to push their points of view, but instead to decide based on spiritual principles laid down by Baha'i's founder, Baha'u'llah, more than a century ago.
Among the Baha'i basic tenets are the equality of all people; the destructiveness of prejudice, whether racial, religious, national or economic; the need for each person to investigate truth for themselves; the harmony between science and religion; the importance of family; the overwhelming need for world peace; and that there is one God.
An interesting facet of this forward-looking religion that breaks down stereotypes is that its birthplace is in the Middle East - specifically in Iran during the mid-1800s, then known as Persia - which many Americans consider a backward-looking place with its strict Islamic views.
Where the Baha'i faith diverges from more popular religions like Christianity and Islam are the two prophets - also called messengers from God in the Baha'i faith - the Bab and Baha'u'llah.
In 1844, Bab announced himself the founder of a new religion that would be based on the works of another prophet, and in 1863, Baha'u'llah declared he was that prophet.
Those who follow Baha'i have been subjected to persecution in Iran ever since, especially since Iran has a strong Islamic fundamentalist base.
The persecution seems to have flared up in Iran since its Islamic revolution of 1979 as tensions have risen between East and West, and Baha'i from all around the U.S. - including in Marquette - have written letters asking the U.S. to bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government to stop the persecution.
Baha'is also make a distinction between the original messages delivered by older religions and their later interpretations, something that could easily rankle fervent followers of those religions.
"When we become Baha'is, we need to accept all the religions of the world," Clarken said. "Pure teaching comes from God - what man does is perverts it to suit his own purposes."
McCowen suggests those who want to learn more about Baha'i should visit the international website or call 1-800-228-6483. In addition, he and his wife can be reached at 226-3252, or Chris and her husband Lynn Swadley at 228-6976.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.