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A holy shrine of the Bahai faith is seen in the northern Israeli city of Haifa in November 2006 picture. Founded in the 19th century by a Persian nobleman, Bahai is considered by some scholars to be an offshoot of Islam. The faith sees itself as an independent religion and its 5 million followers .(Photo by: ISRAEL BAHAI/ REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD (ISRAEL))
Living out the Baha'i faith in service: A journey to Israel
More than a million people visit the gardens every year. Apart from being at the holiest site of his faith, for members it's an opportunity to meet other members of the faith serving there.
TNS — Anis Eghterafi stood engulfed by beauty. Beauty in the gardens surrounding him. Beauty in the community he helped create.

“Words can’t put into description how beautiful that culture [is] that is created there,” he said.

Even so, he tries to do just that, speaking to his Maryland community about his recent travels to Israel and Uganda.

The 20-year-old spent the last two years at the Baha’i World Center in Israel volunteering because of his Baha’i faith. He worked as a security guard at the Center, walking more than 1,000 steps some nights. He would greet guests and explain how the gardens were a burial site for one of the manifestations of the Baha’i faith.

More than a million people visit the gardens every year, Eghterafi said. But apart from being at the holiest site of his faith, he relished the opportunity to meet other members of the faith serving there.

“Being with all these diverse people around the world, it felt like it was its own country within Israel,” he said. “It was almost like being in a utopian society, but seeing that it was real gave me hope to this idea that we are working for.”

The Baha’i faith accepts all religions in its pursuit of the unity of all people. The religion began in Iran in the mid-19th century and is followed by around 7 million people today. In the Baha’i faith, God reveals understanding through manifestations in the form of the prophets from other religions, such as Muhammad and Jesus.

Eghterafi’s mother, Sereena Fiorini, said service is a central aspect of the faith because the followers are creating unity. Eghterafi was raised to do everything he could to help others, such as volunteering to mentor young people.

But Eghterafi’s servant heart and compassion was not always accepted. As a student at Middletown Middle School, he was bullied — targeted with racial slurs because of the color of his skin, mocked because of his name. He temporarily changed his name to Anthony. He blamed himself for the bullying, feeling it was his fault for being different, he said.

“It seemed like a very different environment, he said, “where the entire environment and the community didn’t accept you. And so, it was very difficult to accept yourself or even understand who you are.”

The difficulties were a challenge to his beliefs, Eghterafi said, but they strengthened his resolve for the Baha’i faith. The faith became his own — not something in which he participated just because he was asked. The bullying and negativity showed him the larger need for spiritual development and empowerment, he said.

Things improved when Eghterafi transferred to a different school. However, he had seen the real impact of the Baha’i community on previous pilgrimages to the World Center. Those trips influenced him to pursue a year of service there.

The gardens are a tranquil environment that offers a peaceful change of pace from the surrounding area, Eghterafi said.

“Stepping in the gardens, you feel that you’ve automatically removed yourself from that busy city atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a place that really touches all the senses,” from the rocks underfoot to the birds chirping to the scent of rosemary in the air.

While beauty at the World Center is undeniable, Fiorini said, she knows her son was inspired by meeting some of the volunteers serving there.

“It’s just a very, very beautiful, peaceful place,” Fiorini said. “He was really impressed with other security guard volunteers from Africa and different places, how this had impacted their lives.”

Fiorini encouraged Eghterafi to serve in Israel because she knew firsthand the impact the country can have — she volunteered there herself as a young woman.

In September 2016, as soon as Eghterafi was old enough, he left for Israel. He was nervous at first, he admitted, but found himself welcomed by a community of volunteers from around the world, all with the same goal.

“It showed you that we all are one,” Eghterafi said. “We all are the same family. Once you take away someone’s house, once you take away their job, their country and you put them in the same house, you realize there’s no difference.”

After a year of service — a year of checking bags, walking the grounds and welcoming guests — Eghterafi decided to return for another year. He felt he was developing himself spiritually and morally in ways he could not in another place, so he delayed college for another year.

Fiorini saw a change in her son. He was even more mature and spiritual than before, so she encouraged the second year of service, too, she said.

“I just saw that transformation in him,” she explained. “That kind of wisdom and that kind of maturity you can’t really gain by studying books in school.”

Eghterafi returned to the United States in July. He is enrolled at Frederick Community College to complete his introductory courses. He said he wants to continue building the kind of fellowship he experienced in Israel, in spite of the negativity he sees as pervasive in American culture.

He is not concerned about getting burned out from such an ambitious mission after his experience abroad.

“There’s a certain point that once you see that [style of life], it’s very difficult to go back,” he said. “Being in that place and having that tangible feeling, I really want to bring that idea to other people so they can also understand that this is workable.”

©2018 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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