Baha'i Association using art to unify and educate the community
Although only ten or so people attended Friday's Unity Painting event at Brody Hall, they represented a stunningly diverse cross-section of the world.
One attendee was from Iran. Others were born in the Dominican Republic and Angola. Some believed explicitly in the Baha'i faith, and others simply wanted to paint and discuss spirituality with like-minded people.
That's exactly the kind of unified message the MSU Baha'i Association is looking to portray. Marketing senior Mesha Farahani, a practicing Baha'i, said that she tries to relate these events back to artistic expression in support of a campaign called Paint the Change. This campaign is intended to raise awareness for parts of the world where people are denied educational opportunities for political or religious purposes.
"People all over the world are painting murals in support of raising awareness about this going on," Farahani said. "We decided to have this paint night together in support of (that) ... and just to bring people together in general. That's why it's called Unity Painting."
Amin Ghorbanpour knows what it's like to face this problem. Ghorbanpour is from Iran, a country where admitting you're a Baha'i can get you monitored, arrested, or killed. In Iran, where 99.5 percent of the population is Muslim, there is little tolerance for beliefs that go against Islam, he said.
The Baha'is directly contradict Islam in a few ways, perhaps most significantly, in that they believe in a prophet who came after the death of Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
As a result, Ghorbanpour had to study at the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education, an "underground university" that the government does not recognize and has tried to shut down, going so far as raiding homes where classes are held.
"People can't go to school, people can't have governmental jobs and other civil rights," Ghorbanpour said. "As a Baha'i, basically I could go to elementary school, middle school, high school, but I did not have access to university level education and academy programs because of my religious beliefs."
Ghorbanpour, who is now an geotechnical engineer, said he appreciates his opportunities to now attend events like the Unity Painting without fear of persecution.
"It leads to my personal progress as well as helping my community," Ghorbanpour said. "I think that should be something that people should be able to do everywhere in the world. It's sad to see that in part of the world, we don't have that opportunity to sit together and discuss some important human issues."
Farahani said it's been somewhat of a struggle to get people to turn out to her organization's events. Playing down the religious aspect of her organization in favor of its principles, she's attempted to appeal to a wider audience who may be turned off by explicit displays of faith. She's okay with this because she believes the message that the Baha'i faith looks to portray isn't simply about gaining converts.
"(We're) focusing more-so on the pivotal teachings of the Baha'i faith instead of the religious part of it," Farahani said. "People tend to relate more to the teachings than the religion because they usually already have an established religion."
The Baha'i Association's events don't avoid religion completely though. Before paintbrushes were even touched, the event started with a prayer, followed by a discussion of readings with headings like "Material and Spiritual Progress" and "Walking a Path of Service."
Electrical engineering junior Edson Nascimento, who is not of the Baha'i faith, is friends with Farahani and has been to a few of the Baha'i Association's events. He enjoys attending them because he believes art is a medium anyone can use to express themselves.
"Here we discuss values that I appreciate, like family and mentorship, so I think it is a good use of my time," Nascimento said. "Most of the things that we talked about tonight, we share with people that don't have a religion. They share the same values, so I think everybody can benefit from this stuff."