Katie Thoennes, Alida Hovey and Jesica Thoennes all belong to the Baha'i faith.
It seems an honorable goal for any religion – to unite people of all backgrounds, rise above the division and prejudice of the world, and become lovers of all humankind.
That’s what people of the Baha’i faith hope to achieve. They want people to recognize that we are all children of one loving God. They want to unite all the races and peoples of the world. They want civilization to be built on a foundation of love and justice.
But in their efforts to accept everyone for what they believe and eliminate prejudice, they have come up against some of their own.
“This has been amazing,” said Katie Thoennes, a member of the Baha’i faith for about three years. “To not have an audience, for people to be so narrow-minded that they aren’t willing to let you share that happiness, that’s the hardest part.”
What’s amazing to Katie and her sister, Jesica Thoennes, both of Millerville, and 15-year-old Alida Hovey of Osakis, is the peace and joy that being a part of the Baha’i faith has brought them.
“It has really touched my heart,” Alida said.
At a little more than 150 years old, the Baha’i faith is the newest of the world religions.
It was founded in 1863 in Iran when Persian nobleman, Baha’u’llah (which means glory of God), announced he was the one promised by the Bab, who had foretold the coming of a new prophet of God.
“We believe that Baha’u’llah was a manifestation of God,” Alida explained.
“You have to accept Baha’u’llah as God’s most recent manifestation and try to follow the laws that guide us to help our lives become beautiful and better,” Katie added.
The faith has grown to be the second-most widespread of independent world religions. It embraces people from more than 2,100 ethnic, racial and tribal groups.
That’s why Katie, Jesica and Alida are so grateful that it has transformed their lives and made them better people.
A few years ago, Jesica was discouraged by the conflicting views and fighting amongst religions.
“I thought, can’t we unite?” Jesica pondered. “Isn’t there a commonality that all religions have? I was searching for that oneness.”
Then she “miraculously” read a quote from Baha’u’llah, and it inspired her to study the Baha’i faith in-depth. After working with the Peace Corps in Jordan, she connected with the faith even more. But she still wasn’t sure.
“I was praying really hard to God to show me the way,” Jesica said. “The next morning I woke up and it was very clear to me. It was like a birth light – I want to be Baha’i. The solutions to the world’s problems lie in this faith.”
Jesica took this newfound transformation and explained it to her sister. Katie, who had just graduated from law school, was on her own personal quest for justice and was a rapt listener.
During a nine-month stay in Mexico, Katie lived with a Baha’i woman from Persia on her quest to learn more. After two “awesome” weekend retreats and intense study, Katie followed in her sister’s Baha’i footsteps. It’s a decision she will never regret.
“It’s what’s in your heart,” she said of being Baha’i. “It’s a spiritual connection between you and God.”
While the Thoennes sisters sought out their own faith, Alida Hovey was raised Baha’i. Her grandmother accepted the Baha’i faith 12 years ago, followed closely by her parents, Ryan and Lori Hovey of Osakis. She has investigated other religions, encouraged by her parents, but is fairly certain that it will always be a part of who she is.
“I believe in Baha’u’llah,” Alida said.
Being a part of a faith that promotes acceptance has sometimes had the opposite effect on those who practice it. It has posed a few challenges for Katie, Jesica and Alida.
“Some people shy away from me because I’m Baha’i,” said Alida. “They see it as different, so it’s weird.”
Ironically, the Baha’i’s resolve to abstain from alcohol has posed one of the greatest challenges. Even for Alida, a minor.
“It is hard for me because they [her peers] don’t understand why I don’t drink,” she said.
“I’m 27 and it still comes up,” Katie said. “People feel if you don’t drink you are criticizing them. I’ve never been critical. I’ve never implied anything. I’m not trying to force my viewpoints on anyone else.”
God’s flower garden
Despite the challenges and prejudices they face, Jesica, Katie and Alida all agree that the positive experience of being Baha’i far outweighs the negative.
“You don’t have to be anybody else but who you are inside,” Alida said of her faith. “You feel like you are part of a family.”
“We are all human beings and created by God and we must show love to each other,” Jesica said. “That’s how we overcome the issues that we face.”
“I found all the answers I had been looking for,” Katie concluded. “We are all flowers of one garden that derives its beauty from the diversity of the whole garden. Once you have that concept, the idea of racism doesn’t exist.”