If you want to find Toronto’s Baha’i community, follow the ace singing into Flemingdon Park.
It’s a safe bet that not all Baha’i gatherings in Toronto are as musically inclined as the one that meets in a Flemingdon Park apartment each Sunday evening. In fact, if you closed your eyes during one of their recent devotional services, you could almost imagine that the low, husky voice off to the right was Stevie Nicks. Meanwhile, the excitable, fluttering soprano soaring in from the other side of the room respectably channeled a young Aaron Neville. Singing the prayers of their faith, the dozen voices didn’t sound so much like a spiritual choir as they did a collection of headliners, each displaying their own personal flair. They could no doubt pull off a terrific “We Are the World” at XO Karaoke on Bloor.
And one glimpse at this young, mostly twentysomething group suggests they pretty much are the world. The Baha’i and friends of Baha’i who collect in North York’s Flemingdon Park—Toronto’s most multi-lingual neighbourhood—represent a constellation of nations, stretching from India and Iran to El Salvador, Haiti, and Colombia. There’s a young woman from Florida who also attends Catholic church, a man from the neighbourhood who identifies as Jewish, and a number of Muslims, too. “Once, we had a Zoroastrian come,” said Lomeharshan Lall, a 26-year-old from Guyana and one of the three roommates who hosts.
The mix of people present reflects how fast and how far one of the world’s newest major religions has spread. Founded in mid-19th-century Persia by the prophet Baha’u’llah, Baha’i currently claims to have six million followers scattered in more countries than any other religion after Christianity. At least two Baha’is resided in Toronto as early as 1898, and now there are roughly 2,000 here. A faith without clergy, they gather in small groups in living rooms throughout the city, and for larger meetings descend on the Bloor Street building they purchased in 1993, which used to house the Toronto Academy of Medicine.
The success of the religion is likely due to its anti-tribal nature. Baha’is believe that people of every faith are united under one god. They feel that all previous prophets—from Noah and Jesus to Mohammed and their own Baha’u’llah—relayed directives from the same source. “With all these prophets’ messages, because they are [received] from God, the knowledge is identical,” explained Lall. The difference between the messages, he said, reflects the fact that each prophet translates them in accordance to the capabilities of the people of the time. In that sense, lessons that involve gender equality or methods of justice evolve a little bit more with each new prophet. Lall cited Mohammed’s pronouncement that, in court, the testimony of two female witnesses would equal one man’s. “Today, we might see that as unfair,” he explained. “But at that time, it was big progress.”
When he’s not studying to earn his degree in environmental sciences and international development at U of T, Lall is also involved in one of his faith’s services: holding junior youth groups for kids aged 11 to 14. Akin to Scouts Canada, the groups meet weekly to read from a standardized book of stories and songs that are meant to provoke discussion about morality. According to Lall, who moved to Flemingdon Park from downtown a year ago to live near his group, the lessons might inspire kids to plan a neighbourhood litter clean-up or help out local seniors. In Jamestown last year, one junior youth group presented a workshop on healthy eating, after they became concerned that a number of their family members were suffering from diabetes.
Although the youth groups’ lessons contain passages from Baha’u’llah and other Baha’i figures, kids are not expected to convert. Not that that allays all skepticism. “Some parents hear the word ‘faith’ and are not interested,” Lall admitted, though he says that, on balance, the program has been a success; currenly, there are 400 kids involved in 30 groups.
The adults aren’t the only ones who can be wary. Lall says that the kids themselves—especially those from “priority neighbourhoods” like Flemingdon Park—may question the Baha’is involvement. “Some ask, ‘Why do you have to do this in our community? Why does everybody say we need help?’ The neighbourhood has a bad image and they’re defensive about it,” he said, explaining that he tries to focus on different questions. “We say, ‘Your neighbourhood is beautiful. How can we help it grow? What are things we can do as a group?’ They obviously love their neighbourhood, even though there are some struggles in it.”
“The junior youths are at an age when adults find kids annoying and rebellious,” Lall said. “But we should see them as being inquisitive, having a strong sense of justice, and searching for truth.”