by Janet Ruhe-Schoen. 282 pages, Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing, 2015.

reviewed by Lex Musta for Journal of Bahá’í Studies. Available at US BDS and on Amazon.

 

In Janet Ruhe-Schoen’s important new book, Champions of Oneness: Louis Gregory and His Shining Circle, Hand of the Cause of God Louis George Gregory is quoted as saying, “The work of overcoming [racial disunity] is full of hope, and adds immeasurably to the joy of life. The efforts are highly inspirational to the youth in life’s green spring; and to the aged, they disclose the fountain of perpetual youth, another name for divine happiness” (204). Today those words reverberate with added poignancy as entire cities in the United States are shaken to their core as the National Guard has had to be deployed in multiple instances in recent years in response to protest and violence arising from racially charged incidents. We currently live in a society where conflict and suspicion reign and wildly divergent narratives of America’s past and present are told.

Gregory—who was a Bahá’í from his declaration in 1909 to his death in 1951—was at the epicenter of a distinct, ongoing approach to diagnose and overcome the racial disunity  that Shoghi Effendi so aptly termed “the most vital issue confronting America” (Advent 33). The Bahá’í vision of how to approach racial injustice and build racial unity has always been somewhat unique for its emphasis on the need for spiritual, as well as political, legal, social, economic, and cultural, transformation. While governments and some of the public discourse has tended to emphasize themes of law, politics, and order, the Bahá’í community has argued for an integrative and comprehensive approach in which the challenges of overcoming racial oppression and building social unity are viewed as one and the same.

The distinct elements of the Bahá’í approach were exemplified at the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to America. On April 9, 1912, President William Howard Taft stated in his address to Howard University alumni that “the only way by which [lynching] can be suppressed is that some time we shall have men as sheriffs and as governors and as prosecutors and as jurors who will see to it that the men who are engaged in pulling the rope under those conditions shall themselves swing by the rope” (Du Bois 12). Two weeks later, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá delivered a speech at Howard University that contrasted sharply with President Taft’s. He explained that a spiritual solution is required to challenge the souls of people, to enlist individuals ready to blaze the trail of human amity, to overcome suspicions and “mix together completely,” and to “become very loving toward” and “enhance [the] honor” of the other (44). In other words, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá provided the vision that to overcome racial disunity we must change our mindsets, worldviews, and ways of acting,  challenging the very social meanings that divide one from another—a theme that Shoghi Effendi emphasized in his writings:

No less serious is the stress and strain imposed on the fabric of American society through the fundamental and persistent neglect, by the governed and governors alike, of the supreme, the inescapable and urgent duty—so repeatedly and graphically represented and stressed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His arraignment of the basic weaknesses in the social fabric of the nation—of remedying, while there is yet time, through a revolutionary change in the concept and attitude of the average white American toward his Negro fellow citizen, a situation which, if allowed to drift, will, in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, cause the streets of American cities to run with blood. (Citadel 125)

Showcasing Gregory as a prime example of the Bahá’í approach to racial healing is the subject and vital contribution of Champions of Oneness. Ruhe-Schoen’s book reveals to us Gregory’s unique role as an example of the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humanity, and it vividly illustrates how, motivated by love, justice, and equality, he worked to build unity in diversity—something we can all do in our communities and neighborhoods. It also reminds us of the audacity and courage that was inspired by Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on questions of race. Gregory was a trailblazer of racial unity . For example, he married interracially before interracial marriage was legal in many states.

Gregory has been the principle subject of other books in the past, such as Elsie Austin’s groundbreaking Above All Barriers and Gayle Morrison’s historical and archival work, To Move the World. Both studies provide valuable insights into the life of the spiritual figure of the Hand of the Cause of God. Another significant work that discusses Gregory’s impact is Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis and Richard W. Thomas’s edited collection, Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North America, 1898-2000, which focuses more expressly on how Gregory was “standing at the heart of the most challenging issue for the American Bahá’í community—the problem of obliterating racial prejudice” (26). Significant research is ongoing that continues to build upon these works and others.

Champions of Oneness makes another unique contribution to the literature on this subject by paying more attention to the social and interpersonal context in which Gregory lived, worked, and served. Organized into seventeen powerful chapters, the book offers four intertwined and complementary perspectives on Gregory’s life that together provide a comprehensive study of his example and influence, including lessons we may choose to emulate. The first perspective considers the formation of the community that welcomed him into the Bahá’í Faith. This viewpoint provides encouraging guidance to any Bahá’í pioneer wishing to establish a community of love and unity in diversity wherever he or she lives. The second perspective examines those experiences of Gregory’s that brought him to search for a spiritual solution to the issues of racial disunity and violence that challenge and continue to plague the United States. Ruhe-Schoen describes Gregory’s experience with his grandfather’s assassination and his route to find peace through Faith (26). She also describes how Gregory coped with racial violence by being “happy” and preventing his thoughts, through “prayer and effort …from crystallizing around particular events … in order to do effectively the work to which [he was] directed” (182). Seen from this angle, his story inspires all of us to see opportunity to play a constructive role and act amidst the great racial trials of this age. The third perspective takes into account the stories of the contemporaries with whom he interacted most closely in his peerless work. As Ruhe-Schoen suggests, Gregory’s associations provide a guide as to the importance of seeking out co-workers  in the struggle to end racism and build unity. The fourth perspective entails an exploration of Gregory’s influence on those who learned from him, and it reveals the value of mentorship and experiential wisdom and the importance of always striving to do better. Taken together, these four perspectives provide one of the most complete views yet written on the insights of Baha’i responses to racial disunity that can be gleaned from Gregory’s life.

Through its well-researched and nuanced details, Champions of Oneness is also helpful in how it encourages further vistas of research and dialogue that will help develop a broader understanding of the critical role Gregory played in both Bahá’í and American histories of race relations. For example, when describing the community that welcomed Gregory into the Faith, Ruhe-Schoen notes that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá recognized race amity matriarch Mrs. Amalie Knobloch and revealed a tablet to be read when visiting her grave (77). Mrs. Knobloch and her family were early Bahá’ís in America who consistently visited and hosted Americans of African descent, thus illustrating the quality of racial unity that is central to the Bahá’í teachings. While Ruhe-Schoen does not expand much on Mrs. Knobloch, it is a reminder to further explore the rare and specific guidance from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to honor and inspire the early champions of racial unity in the Bahá’í Faith. In this regard, one might find it worthwhile to read the provisional translation of a Tablet of Visitation purported to have been revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in honor of Mrs. Knobloch.[1]

noisettefamilygathering2011

(click on image to enlarge)

Ruhe-Schoen also prompts us to broaden our understanding of Gregory’s formative social context. When defining Gregory’s closest companions as “symbol[s] of guidance” and the “essence of the love of God,” Ruhe-Schoen observes that Gregory’s wife had “good ties with his family, the Noisettes” (213). Scholars have yet to undertake a study of Gregory’s extended family, and Ruhe-Schoen’s efforts remind us of the importance of deepening our exploration of these intimate connections and family ties. While not referenced in the book, it is worth noting that in 2011 a gathering of the Noisette family in Charleston, South Carolina, received an address from the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States. In attendance was Gregory’s great-niece Patricia Banks Edmiston, who knew Gregory personally, emulated his example, and successfully fought to desegregate the flight attendant career path through her 1957 lawsuit against Capital Airlines.

Ruhe-Schoen’s Champions of Oneness is a narrative of hope and inspiration that will certainly help the rising generations emulate his example. We live in a time when racial violence is making names like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Montrell Jackson, Trayvon Martin, Patrick Zamarripa, and too many others part of our public discourses. We are reminded daily that the very destiny of America—as the Bahá’í Writings state—is tied up with the challenge of racial injustice. Champions of Oneness inspires us all with Gregory’s energy and spirit to make our contribution by teaching the oneness of humanity. This is a book to study as an individual and as a community in order to renew and quicken our commitment to the most challenging issue facing this country.  In this respect, the book encourages its readers to pursue America’s proud “other tradition”[2] that is worthy of further study for the betterment of America and the world.

Works Cited

‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visits to the United States and Canada in 1912, edited by Howard MacNutt, 2nd ed., Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982.

Austin, Elsie. Above All Barriers: The Story of Louis Gregory. Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976.

Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt, editor. “Along the Color Line”. The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, vol. 4, no. 1, 1912.

Etter-Lewis, Gwendolyn, and Richard Walter Thomas, editors. Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North America, 1898–2000. Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2006.

Finch, Ida, et al. Flowers Culled from the Rose Garden of Acca. Bahá’í Library Online, bahai-library.com. Accessed 3 October 2016.

Morrison, Gayle. To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America. Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982.

Shoghi Effendi. The Advent of Divine Justice. First pocket-size ed., Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990.

———. Citadel of Faith. 3rd ed. Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980.

Thomas, Richard W. Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress. Association for Bahá’í Studies, 1993.

 

Lex Musta is an independent researcher whose work focuses on the role of social meanings in shaping race relations. He completed his MBA studies in Paris at Schiller International University. His latest publication, co-authored with Dr. Roshan Danesh, is “Some Reflections on Bahá’í Approaches to Social Change.”

[1] See Finch et al. Flowers Culled from the Rose Garden of Acca. The Tablet of Visitation was first read by Gregory’s first Bahá’í teacher, Lua Getsinger, on 27 March 1910:

Visiting Tablet Revealed for the Attracted Maid-Servant of God, Mrs. Amalie Knobloch, who has Ascended to the Kingdom of God!

He is God! O, thou Pure Spirit, Amalie Knobloch! Although thou didst soar away from this terrestrial world, yet thou didst enter into the immeasurable, illumined Universe of the Almighty. While in this life thou didst hear the Divine Call, beheld the light of Truth, became alive by the Breaths of the Holy Spirit, tasted the sweetness of the Love of God, became the Maid-Servant of the Lord of Hosts and the object of the Bounties of His Highness the Desired One. Thou didst lead the erring ones into the Path of Truth and bestowed a portion of the Heavenly Food to those who are deprived. Thou didst consecrate the days of thy existence to the Service of His Highness the Clement and spent thy time in the diffusion of the Fragrances of the Paradise of Abha. There are many souls perfumed and many spirits illumined through thy services!

O, thou divine, beloved Maid-Servant! Although thou didst disappear from the mortal eyes, yet thou didst train and educate thy daughters, each of whom has arisen to serve the Kingdom like unto thee and is engaged in the guidance of the souls. In the Assembly of wisdom they are the lighted candles; they sacrifice their lives in the Path of God; they are gardening in thy orchard and irrigating thy rose-garden. Happy is thy condition, for thou art enjoying Eternal Life in the Kingdom of Everlasting Glory and hast left in this world kind and loving Remembrances.

Happy are those souls who visit thy luminous resting-place and through thy commemoration receive and acquire spiritual Powers!

Knobloch’s gravesite, and that of Joseph and Pauline Hannen, whom Gregory considered the pioneers of race amity, are located at Prospect Hill Cemetery, 2201 North Capitol Street NE, Washington, DC.

[2] In his book Racial Unity, Dr. Richard Thomas, professor emeritus of history at Michigan State University, pioneers the race relations concept of the “other tradition,” which explains that the lasting advances in American race relations are the result of close, multiracial collaboration.