San Diego Baha’i Center

This profile was last updated in 2002

History

Because there are no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith, and because local Bahá’í communities are itinerant until they grow large enough to necessitate an official building designated for communal worship, organized historical archives on the Bahá’ís of any particular area are a rare commodity. However, rumor has it that the first Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of San Diego formed around 1956. The community originally worshiped together in homes before graduating to the use of a separate “center.” Eventually the original center was replaced by two successively larger centers, including the one the Bahá’ís use now. Formerly a Women’s Club, the current building was purchased in 1979.

Description

The San Diego Bahá’í Center is next door to a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, across the street from an elementary school, sandwiched between two major freeways, and minutes from the University of San Diego. This accessibility is not an accident: Bahá’ís are eager to share their faith with the public and often choose sites for their centers with visibility in mind. Still, in the absence of a neon billboard or obviously religious architecture, the center could easily be mistaken for the Women’s Club that it was years ago. To this end, the Bahá’ís have plans to erect a more noticeable sign in front. To get to the center, take the Genesee exit off the 163 Freeway. Continue on Genesee Avenue through two stoplights and make a left on Linda Vista Road. After about 1.5 miles, turn right on Alcala Knolls Drive. (If you pass the University of San Diego, you went too far.) The center will be the second building on your right.

The center is essentially a cluster of three buildings surrounding a small landscaped courtyard. This complex is enclosed by a decorative gate whose function outshines its form in the wake of a series of recent incidents of vandalism and bookstore burglary which prompted the Bahá’ís to install a security system and hire a full-time caretaker. The first building houses the current office (soon-to-be caretaker’s apartment), and the bookstore. The bookstore, by far the most comprehensive of its kind in San Diego County, sells all manner of Bahá’í related books, buttons, music, and pamphlets. It also has a small selection of Bahá’í jewelry and several styles of T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “One Planet. One People. Please…” and “Color Me Human.” The main building consists of a spacious auditorium with a stage in front and full-service kitchen in back. This formal area is used for most public meetings, worship services, lectures, and artistic performances. The third building has bathroom facilities, the Fireside Room, and a small area in the back where the Local Spiritual Assembly meets. The Fireside Room is generally used for Firesides, introductory talks on the Bahá’í Faith geared for the public. The walls are decorated with large framed photographs of the buildings at the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Israel and prominent figures in Bahá’í history. In a far corner, past a cozy conglomeration of couches and coffee tables, lies a small but eclectic lending library displaying, among other things, selections from Bahá’í scripture, several Bibles, and an enormous binder entitled “Resources on Zoroastrianism.” The back meeting room is sparsely decorated with a simple seminar table and a reference bookcase.

Activities and Schedule

The center holds official open hours Wednesday through Saturday nights from 6:00 to 10:00. In addition to these open hours, the center hosts worship services, lectures, socials, classes, and many other events which are posted in a monthly newsletter sent to San Diego Bahá’ís and surrounding Bahá’í communities entitled A Breath of the Spirit. Some regular activities include
1) Sunday Morning Devotional Services at 9:00: a chance for Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís to take turns reading prayers and selections from the holy writings of the Bahá’í Faith and occasionally other faiths
2) Introductory Firesides at 10:30 following devotions: informal talks introducing the basic principles and history of the Bahá’í Faith
3) Topical Firesides also at 10:30: discussions on more specific Bahá’í-related issues for those who have already been introduced to the basic tenets of the Faith
4) Ruhi Study Circles: scripture-based, participatory classes on Bahá’í topics
5) Cluster Meetings: gatherings of individuals who live within a designated cluster of several towns to discuss how best to pool resources for events like children’s classes or study circles
6) Sunday Afternoon Bahá’í Youth Workshop Rehearsal from 1:00 to 5:30: youth who perform dances and dramatic presentations illustrating Bahá’í principles study the Bahá’í Writings and prepare for performances
7) Nineteen-Day Feast Observances: gatherings of Bahá’ís once a Bahá’í month (every nineteen days) to worship, socialize, and discuss business matters related to the local community
8) Local Spiritual Assembly Meetings: weekly gatherings of the community’s nine-person governing body
9) Quarterly Unity Gatherings: opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to socialize
10) Holy Day Celebrations. In addition to these regular activities, the center provides other programming as well. Notable Bahá’ís from the national and international community and local residents who have recently returned from pilgrimage to the Bahá’í shrines in Haifa, Israel routinely give lectures at the center. Bahá’ís strongly support efforts to bring diverse populations into communication with one another, hosting interreligious panel discussions and race unity dialogues whenever they get a chance. The Bahá’ís of San Diego send a representative to like-minded community organizations like the Interfaith Shelter Network and the San Diego Interreligious Council and sometimes collaborate with these groups to host events at the center. For example, the Bahá’ís and the Interreligious Council organize an annual Thanksgiving Prayer Gathering in the main auditorium. The Bahá’ís also allow a few non-Bahá’í organizations, like the Native American Women’s Council, to use the center for their meetings. Each year the Bahá’ís march in the city’s Martin Luther King Day Parade downtown and usually commemorate the holiday with a program at the center. Over the years, many weddings have taken place at the center, along with impromptu parties, Bahá’í conferences, and many a committee meeting. From September until June each year, the center oversees weekly two-hour children’s classes held at the elementary school across the street. These classes provide standard Bahá’í school fare such as instruction in the main principles and history of the Bahá’í Faith, virtues training, and art projects. Children’s classes are canceled if they fall on any of the following nine Bahá’í Holy Days on which work should be suspended: The Feast of Naw-Rúz, March 21; The first day of Ridván, April 21; The ninth day of Ridván, April 29; The twelfth day of Ridván, May 2; the anniversary of the declaration of the Báb, May 23; the anniversary of the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, May 29; the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Báb, July 9; the anniversary of the birth of the Báb, October 20; and the anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, November 12. Field trip destinations include the Museum of Tolerance and the burial site of Thornton Chase, the first American Bahá’í. Visitors are welcome at many of the center’s events, but the Nineteen Day Feast is only open to Bahá’ís. In general, it is best to call ahead of time if you wish to drop in on an activity or request a tour of the facility. Diversity of dress is appreciated at the center, but clothes should be modest and clean.

Demographics

On paper, Persians make up slightly more than half of the San Diego Bahá’í Community. In reality, any given gathering is overwhelmingly Persian. Many Persians speak and understand English perfectly well and many, particularly recent immigrants and the elderly, do not. The community has experimented with different approaches to transcending this language barrier during the Nineteen-Day Feast. Simultaneous translation through earphones quickly became unfeasible and live simultaneous translation required that the Persians all sit together near the translator, thus segregating the meeting and undermining the fundamental Bahá’í principle of unity in diversity. At one time it was en vogue to do a lot of translation into Farsi; the current trend favors almost no translation, except when recommendations to the Assembly need a vote or an individual feels compelled to translate some comment in particular. Because the community continues to monitor the situation and weigh people’s feedback, the translation pendulum may well swing the other way in the future.