Every Sunday afternoon in the apartment of David Hickman his newly wed wife, Crystal Rondeaux-Hickman, they and other volunteers teach children the positive principles of the Baha’i faith during their Baha’i Children’s Class.
The class sizes average around 10 students, and on this Sunday nine children - six boys and three girls aged 5-10 - recite verses called “tablets” together to begin the class. “O God, guide me, protect me, make of me a shining lamp and a brilliant star. Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful. Abdu’l-Bahá,” they say in unison.
Abdu’l-Bahá was one of the originators of the Bahai religion, as was his father, who was known as Báb, or the “Gate” for his vision that sought the combining of all major religions that would lead to peace. He was executed on order of the Persian Empire’s prime minister (present day Iran area) in 1850. As a result, many Baha’i liken him to a John the Baptist prophetic figure. The persecution of his many followers called Bábís would follow in the Muslim-dominated area.
Abdu’l-Bahá’s successor, Baha’u’llah, was the founder of what became known as the Bahai religion in the mid- to late-19th century. The Baha’i faith considers Baha’u’llah one of the latest of religious messengers starting from Abraham and leading on up to the likes of Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammed.
Lyon Virostko explained Baha’u’llah is actually a religious title that means “Glory of God,” by the same extension that Jesus is called Christ or the Mohammed called The Prophet. The Baha’i faith encompasses some 6.5 million followers in the world - including 170,000 in the United States.
Lyon Virostko, a lifelong Bahai faith member in Billings as a School District 2 counselor, notes historically the Bahai religion is like nothing that has come before it although it does contains elements of all the major religions as well as being monotheistic.
“Bahullala explained there is only one God, there has always been only one God, and religion is more like a scientific phenomenon,” Virostko said. “So there’s only really been one religion, and it’s an ongoing unfolding part of human society. So Bahullala is simply the latest in this ongoing period of messengers of people created and renamed and delivered by God through their physical and spiritual evolutions,” he said. “The Bahai are very scientific in their approach to religious truth. As a result of that, all of the religions are part of one universal phase.”
Virostko added about the evolution of religion leading up to the Bahai faith: “It’s kind of complicated, but yet it’s not. It’s kind of simple when you step back and look at it. It’s basically saying, ‘All religions at their core are really one.’”
It’s a very pacifistic religion, and a noticeable characteristic of the Baha’i is respect for one’s fellow mankind and a continual striving towards world peace.
Indeed, Bahullala summed up the faith to Cambridge University Professor Edward Granville Browne in 1890:
“That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled — what harm is there in this?”
At the Baha’i class in Hardin, the older children talked with Nova Daniels about what service to the community meant to them. In speaking of unity, David Hickman encouraged the children to come up with ideas to work as a team that would benefit the community. “It’s not about what the adults say, it’s about what you guys want to do for ideas,” he said. “Because how many times a day do adults tell you to be quiet?”
“A lot of times,” a boy chimed in.
“Right. Every day at school,” Hickman said. “But this is not the time to be quiet, this is a time to speak your mind and talk about what you would like to do.”
The children planned out how they would help out their community from raking leaves in older people’s lawns, to volunteering at the local shelter. When they previously lived in Billings, Hickman and his wife had done similar projects with youth.
Hickman said he was born into the Baha’i faith via his mother, and explained teaching the classes was important because when he was a kid he said most people of the faith were intellectuals and educators. “But there was no format we knew about for educating children,” he said. “There may have been one, but we didn’t know about it.”
In teaching children principles of the Baha’i faith, Hickman has learned, “We’re all actually supposed to be doing it, and not just discussing it.”
Practicing what they preach is always on the forefront of a Baha’i faith members heart, and it seemed a natural fit for Not In Our Town volunteer Crystal Rondeaux-Hickman.
Rondeaux-Hickman said she always identified as agnostic, and became “staunchly agnostic” the more she skeptically studied religion after religion before eventually becoming turned off by their irregularities and seeming illogical dogma. “I knew there was a greater being, and we had divine nature, but I had no way of identifying that,” she said.
After organizing a NIOT inter-religious meeting, she became interested in the faith after meeting a Baha’i person. “I actually began studying the religion with the same mentality of every other religion I studied,” she said. “I was waiting to find the breaking point of where I was going to be like, ‘Ah, no way! Shucks!’ But that never happened. I’m no longer looking for that anymore, but part of the Baha’i faith is to continue studying the texts.”
Nova Daniels also grew up in the religion, but didn’t really embrace it until she was in college and started teaching children’s classes herself. And once she started weekly meetings with other Bahai faith members, “It was like getting a taste of water, and realizing how parched you are,” she said. “So we started meeting twice a week!” The Bahai faith actually requires members of the community meet every 19 days at least for a spiritual “feast” of discussion and visiting.
Another appeal to Rondeaux-Hickman was that there was no proselytizing; as in no one in the faith judged her for being or not being Baha’I - nor did they force the issue with her. Indeed, she said it was like pulling teeth to gather information from the person she learned the faith from they were so leery to not come off as pushing the faith on her. Although the children at the class are taught principals of the faith, 15 is still the official age one can became officially Baha’i.
And because they embrace all the positives from religions, Hickman said, “The good thing about being Baha’i is someone can say to say you, ‘Well, I love Jesus.’ I can say, ‘That’s good. So do I!’ And there’s nothing wrong with their faith in our eyes. If they’re leery, you don’t worry about it. If they ask, then you tell them.”
When they study the texts of the religion, Daniels said, “One of those laws is that we’re not allowed to interpret what it means to someone else.”
It keeps the Bahai religion unified and not splintered - such as how Islam and Christianity have become.
Being in Montana and a Crow Tribal member, Rondeaux-Hickman said she is worried her faith will bring prejudices because it does stem from the Persian and Arabic area. The center of the faith now rests in Haifa, Israel on a slope of Mount Carmel. “But I haven’t had any negative reactions,” she said. “But if I do come across negativity, I just won’t discuss it with them.”
Rondeaux-Hickman concluded, “It’s not just about embracing the faith, it’s about taking those divine virtues and the best part of our humanity and sharing that with our communities, and creating a culture of positive virtues.”