Baha’ullah set this standard:
If ye meet the abased or the down-trodden, turn not away disdainfully from them, for the King of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth them with such tenderness as none can fathom except them that have suffered their wishes and desires to be merged in the Will of your Lord, the Gracious, the All-Wise. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 314)
As a result, ‘Abdu’l-Baha loved those who were laid low and broken by life. In addition to the poor, the sick and the African-Americans, who we’ve covered elsewhere, these included the disabled, the homeless, the laborers, women and criminals. Let’s look at them one at a time:
The disabled relied on Him for money:
For instance, there was a poor, crippled woman named Na’um who used to come to Abdu’l-Baha every week for a gift of money. (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
He visited a Salvation Army Shelter where a thousand homeless men ate a special Christmas dinner:
Among the most touching contacts the Master had with the poor in the Occident were surely His visits to the Salvation Army headquarters in London and to the Bowery Mission in New York City. ‘On Christmas night, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited a Salvation Army Shelter in London where a thousand homeless men ate a special Christmas dinner. He spoke to them while they ate, reminding them that Jesus had been poor and that it was easier for the poor than the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The men sat enthralled. Some were so impressed that in spite of hunger and the special dinner before them they forgot to eat. When, on leaving, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave the warden of the Shelter money with which to buy a similar dinner on New Year’s night, the men rose to their feet to cheer Him as He went, waving their knives and forks in the air. They little realised that He had experienced trials, hardship and suffering far greater than any they had known.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 78)
He loved those who worked hard:
Corinne True told the story of a cleaning woman who greatly wished to meet Abdul-Bahá, but was too embarrassed by her rough, work – worn hands to do so in the public reception line. Mrs. True urged her to go to Abdul-Bahá and finally, hoping to simply touch His robe and dash away before He saw her hands, she approached the Master. As she bent over to touch His robe, He took one of her hands and raised her up. Abdul-Bahá carefully examined the captive hand and with deep love and understanding gazed into her eyes. “Sacrifice!”, He uttered simply. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 196)
He told them they should not feel ashamed of doing useful work:
A man passing by the gates of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s house in Haifa, carrying a basket, put it down as soon as he saw Him, saying that he could not find a porter and had to carry the basket himself. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá remarked afterwards that a man should not feel ashamed of doing useful work. (H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu’l-Bahá – The Centre of the Covenant, p. 414)
He praised their service:
A workman who had left his bag of tools in the hall was welcomed with smiling kindness by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. With a look of sadness the man said: “I don’t know much about religious things, as I have no time for anything but my work.” “That is well. Very well. A day’s work done in the spirit of service is in itself an act of worship. Such work is a prayer unto God.” The man’s face cleared from its shadow of doubt and hesitation, and he went out from the Master’s presence happy and strengthened, as though a weighty burden had been taken away. (Lady Bloomfield, The Chosen Highway)
Some of those He helped, asked for His prayers:
There came a light tap at the door and there on the threshold stood the little chambermaid. Her eyes were glistening with tears and in a sort of wonder, and oblivious to the rest of us, she walked straight up to the Master: ‘”I came to say good-bye, sir,” she said, timidly and brokenly, “and to thank you for all your goodness to me…I never expected such goodness. And to ask you — to pray for me!” ‘Her head dropped, her voice broke…she turned and went out quickly.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 78)
When ‘Abdu’l-Baha was visiting North America, women were still in many cases downtrodden.
Thornton Chase, named by the Master as the first American Baha’i, along with Carl Scheffler and Arthur Agnew, members of Chicago’s House of Spirituality, arrived in the Holy Land, right after Corrine True had departed and Abdul-Bahá surprised them all. When, responding to a question by Mr. Chase about the Temple, He said, “When you return consult with Mrs. True – I have given her complete instructions.” These directions baffled the three men because, up to that point, only men had served on the House of Spirituality and were involved in decision-making. Being given the responsibility for the Temple was extremely challenging, particularly as a woman in a country where women did not yet have the opportunity to vote. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 110-111)
Even so, He warned women there were times when we were to stand up for the rights of men:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sense of justice and equality also embraced the quality of relationship between men and women. He once smilingly turned to the ladies in a group of listeners in America and said that, ‘in Europe and America, many men worked very hard so that their wives could have luxuries. He related, again with a smile, the story of a husband and wife who once visited Him. Some dust had settled on the wife’s shoes, and she told her husband peremptorily to wipe it off, which he dutifully did. Did she do the same for her husband, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had queries. No, had been the reply, she cleaned his clothes. But that was not equality, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had remarked. “Now, ladies,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, “you must sometimes stand up for the rights of men.” It was all said with good humour, but the lesson was plain: moderation in all things.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 113)
He loved women whose husbands had left them:
In the 1970’s I met Inez Greeven. She went on Pilgrimage during the days of Abdu’l-Bahá, in 1920 and again in 1921. She told me that during her Pilgrimage the Master asked her, “Where is your husband?” She said, “This was the one thing I did not want Him to ask me about. I answered, “Well, Abdu’l-Bahá, he is not here.” “Yes, I can see that he is not here. Where is your husband?” I told Him, “Abdu’l-Bahá, he left me for another woman.” “Yes, I know,” He replied. “And because you have forgiven him, God has forgiven him.” (Brent Poirier, Inez Greeven’ First Pilgrimage: http://bahai-storytelling.blogspot.com/2010/02/abdul-bahas-use-of-storytelling.html and http://bahai-storytelling.blogspot.com/2010/07/story-of-gate-of-garden-quote-from.html
He raised them to challenges they didn’t think they could meet:
‘Abdul-Bahá tested both the faith and courage of many of the Baha’is He met and Corinne True was one He really challenged. First, He had put her in charge of the Temple project, a woman dealing with many men. Then, as they stood at the train station before He left for Minneapolis, Abdul-Bahá told her, “Mrs. True, I want you to speak in public. I want you to tell the people about the faith.” This completely floored Corinne and she objected, saying, “But Master, I can’t do it; I have no training, no experience. I’m too frank.” “The faith”, she Thought, “had many gifted speakers, but she didn’t consider herself to be one of them.” Knowing what she was frantically thinking, Abdul-Bahá told her how to do it: “Forget what you can’t do. Stand up and turn your heart wholly toward Me. Look over the heads of the audience and I’ll never fail you.” (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 195)
He heard the longing of pure hearts and helped them get what they wanted:
One California Baha’i, Georgiana Dean, had moved from the West Coast at the request of Abdul-Bahá to care for Mrs. Dealy, who was going blind. Miss Dean had abandoned a good job and a love for California to fulfill the Master’s request. When Miss Dean met the other California Baha’is, she was overwhelmed by homesickness. Harriet Cline suggested she take the problem to Abdul-Bahá, which she did. When Miss Dean returned from her interview, tears were streaming down her face, but it shone with a radiance I have seldom seen. “He told me to stay with Mrs. Dealey as long as she needed me, and I am going to obey with all my heart and soul.” Through her sincerity, however, her prayers were answered. Within a few days Mrs. Dealy no longer needed her and she was able to return to California. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 115-116)
Here’s a description of the other downtrodden taken care of by ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
The Master’s life was very full at this time. Not only did He care for the friends of Abu-Sinan, but in `Akká and Haifa all the poor looked to Him for their daily bread. Even before the war the spectre of starvation had not been very far from many of these pitiful people, but now when all the breadwinners (Germans and Turks) had been taken for the army, the plight of the women and children was desperate, for alas! there were no government “separation allowances.” Nothing and no one but the Master stood between them and certain death from hunger. (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
In 1907 Corinne True was in ‘Akká with the Master. She was one of many who were deeply touched by the love of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, demonstrated so clearly in His customary Friday morning acts of charity. From her window she ‘saw between two and three hundred men, women and children gathered. Such a motley crowd one can see only in these parts. There were blind, lame, cripples and very feeble persons, the poorest clad collection of people almost that the earth contains. One man had his clothing made of a patched quilt, an old woman had gunny sacking for a cloak; children were so ragged that their clothing would scarcely stay on them. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 80)
We see a crowd of human beings with patched and tattered garments. Let us descend to the street and see who these are. It is a noteworthy gathering. Many of these men are blind; many more are pale, emaciated, or aged. Some are on crutches; some are so feeble that they can barely walk. Most of the women are closely veiled, but enough are uncovered to cause us well to believe that, if the veils were lifted, more pain and misery would be seen. Some of them carry babes with pinched and sallow faces. There are perhaps a hundred in this gathering, and besides, many children. They are of all the races one meets in these streets – Syrians, Arabs, Ethiopians, and many others. These people are ranged against the walls or seated on the ground, apparently in an attitude of expectation. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
Here’s a great story about ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s love for criminals:
On the night of 20 August, a horrifying young man came to a meeting at the Kinney’s house. From head to foot he was covered with soot. His blue eyes stared out from a dark gray face. This was Fred Mortensen, a reformed criminal. When he was young Fred had got into all kinds of trouble, determined to be “as tough as any”. One day, Fred and his gang saw some bananas in a shop window and thought that they looked really good. Fred later wrote, “About this time I heard a dog barking inside the store, and looking in, I saw a large bulldog. That seemed to aggravate me, and, to show my contempt for the watchdog . . . I broke the window, took the bananas, and passed them around . . . It cost me $16 to pay for broken Windows, to keep out of jail.” But in 1904, Fred’s brothers and gang decided to rob a train. Fred’s younger brother stole a big bag of mail. Then Fred spotted the police racing up, so the gang split in all directions. Fred didn’t think his younger brother could outrun the police while carrying the bag of mail, so he took it and ran. His brother escaped, but that left the police to chase him. “In my haste to get away from them, I leaped over a 35 foot wall, breaking my leg, to escape the bullets whizzing around about – and wound up in the garden at the feet of the Beloved”. At Fred’s trial he was defended by Albert Hall, who introduced him to the Faith: “It was he who brought me from out the dark prison house; it was he who told me, hour after hour, about the great love of Abdul-Bahá for all his children and that he was here to help us show that love for our fellowmen. Honestly, I often wondered then what Mr. Hall meant when he talked so much about love, God’s love, Baha’u’llah’s love, Abdul-Bahá’s love, love for the Covenant, love for us, from us to God, to his prophets, etc. I was bewildered.
Fred’s great-grandson, Justin Penoyer writes: Because Fred could not read at this time, Hall gave him a dictionary to use in order to read a Baha’i book, also provided by Hall. With these new books, Fred taught himself how to read. For reasons even he did not completely understand that the time, Fred’s experience in jail had a profound impact. However, as soon as he was able to walk, Fred decided it was time to leave.
While in jail, he lured the guard close enough to his cell to take him by the neck, strangle him to unconsciousness, and take the keys. Fred spent the next four years as a fugitive. He fled first to California, where he worked for the Oakland paper. After experiencing the great earthquake of 1906 . . . Fred decided the Midwest was a far safer region. He then toured the Dakotas, moving from town to town, occasionally finding employment with local papers.
It was during this time that Fred rediscovered the book given to him by Albert Hall. Yet unlike four years prior, . . . His mind became fixated upon the words of Abdul-Bahá. Though faced with possible arrest, in 1910, he returned to Minneapolis to visit Hall . . . to learn more about the Baha’i Faith: “I returned to become more bewildered, so I thought; and I wondered why.”
Fred was in regular communication with Albert Hall who, despite his status as an attorney, did not turn them into the police. This, combined with Fred’s surprise that a complete lack of attention given by the authorities, gave the impression that he need no longer fear prosecution for his jailbreak. No longer a fugitive, Fred moved to Minneapolis.
When he heard that Abdul-Bahá was at Green Acre, and that he might go back to his home (Palestine) and not come West, I immediately determined to go and see him. I wasn’t going to miss meeting Abdul-Bahá after waiting so long to see Him . . . So I left home, going to Cleveland.
Despite his enthusiasm, Fred was anxious about meeting Abdul-Bahá. After all, who was he, a poor man with dubious history, to meet one such as Abdul-Bahá? Yet the night before he left Cleveland, Fred had a dream: I was Abdul-Bahá’s guest; that I Sat at a long table, and many others were there, too, and of how He walked up and down telling stories, emphasizing with His hand. This, later, was fulfilled and He looked just as I saw Him in Cleveland.
Because his funds were low, Fred had to hobo his way to Green Acre. Trains ran, at this time, on coal power; coated with soot and grime, were filthy outside the travelers compartments. This was not only most unpleasant, but also dangerous and exhausting. “Riding the rods”, as it was known, Fred hopped a coal train on the Nickel Plate Railway from Cleveland to Buffalo, New York. He arrived around midnight, where he then jumped a train headed for Boston, arriving around nine next morning.
Fred continues the story: “The Boston and Maine railway was the last link between Abdul-Bahá, and the outside world so it seemed to me, and when I crawled off from the top of one of its passenger trains at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I was exceedingly happy. A boat ride, a street car ride, and there I was, at the gate of Paradise. My heart beating double time . . .
I had a letter of introduction from Mr. Hall to Mr. Lunt, and in searching for him, I met Mrs. Edward Kinney, who, dear soul, was kind enough to offer me a bed. She awakened me next morning about six o’clock, saying I’d have to hurry if I wished to see Abdul-Bahá. Arriving at the hotel, I found quite a number of people . . . on the same mission, to see Abdul-Bahá. Being one of the last arrivals, I was looking around when someone exclaimed, “Here he comes, now”. When Ahmad [Sohrab] introduced me to him, to my astonishment he looked at me and only said, “Ugh! Ugh!”, not offering to shake hands with me. Coming as I had, and feeling as I did, I was very much embarrassed.
After greeting several others Ahmad was about to go to His room, he suddenly turned to me and said in a gruff voice… “Sit down”, and pointed to a chair. I meekly obeyed, feeling rebellious over what had happened. Such a welcome, after making that difficult trip! My mind was in a whirl. It seemed but a minute until Ahmad came down and said; “Abdul-Bahá wishes to see Mr. Mortensen.” Why, I nearly wilted. I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t expected to be called until the very last thing . . . He welcomed me with a smile and a warm hand clasp. His first words were “Welcome! Welcome! You are very welcome”, then, “Are you happy?” – Which was repeated three times. I Thought, “why do you ask me that so many times? Of course I am happy”
Then, Where did you come from?
Answer: from Minneapolis.
Question: Do you know Mr. Hall?
Answer: Yes, he told me about the Cause.
Question. Did you have a pleasant journey?
Of all the questions I wished to avoid this was the one! I dropped my gaze to the floor – and again He put the question. I lifted my eyes to His and His were as two black, sparkling jewels, which seemed to look into my very depths. I knew He knew and I must tell.
Answer: Riding under and on top of railway cars.
Question: Explain how.
Now as I looked into the eyes of Abdul-Bahá, I saw they had changed and a wondrous light seemed to pour out. It was the light of love and I felt relieved and very much happier. I explained to Him how I rode on the trains, after which He kissed both my cheeks, gave me much fruit, and kissed the dirty Hat I wore . . . When He was ready to leave Green Acre I stood nearby to say goodbye and to my astonishment He ordered me to get into the automobile with Him. After a week with Him at Malden, Massachusetts, I left for home with never-to-be-forgotten memories of the wonderful event – the meeting of God’s Covenant.
Fred story was far from over, for he became a very different person. After this time with Abdul-Bahá, Fred later recollected his experience: “These events are engraved upon the tablet of my heart and I love every moment of them. The words of Baha’u’llah are my food, my drink, and my life. I have no other aim than to be of service in His pathway and to be obedient to His Covenant. Abdul-Bahá referred to Fred as “My son”, yet because of his appearance and the attention Abdul-Bahá had shown him, certain Baha’is became jealous and this resulted in Fred’s near expulsion from the early Baha’i community.
But just a year later, Fred received a tablet from Abdul-Bahá: “That trip of mine from Minneapolis to Green Acre will never be forgotten. It’s mention will be recorded eternally in books and works of history. Therefore, be thou happy that, praise be to God, thou hast an illumined heart, a living spirit, and art vivified with merciful breath. As Fred’s great-grandson writes, 32 years later . . . The Guardian of the Baha’i Faith included Fred’s story in God Passes By, and on his passing in 1946, cabled to his family: “Grief passing beloved Fred. Welcome assured in the Abha Kingdom by Master. His name is forever inscribed Baha’i history.” Hand of the Cause Louis Gregory called him “Frederick the Great.” (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 168-172)
‘Abdul-Baha as a Role Model for the Downtrodden
Perhaps ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s love for the downtrodden stemmed from His personal experience:
Early in 1904 Ethel Rosenberg made her second pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Still confined to the city of Akká the Master and His family were living in the prison house. For eight months Ethel stayed there as His guest. She wrote, ‘To sit at ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s table, in His simple home, with Christians, Mohammedans, Jews, and those of other faiths, all of them breathing forth the spirit of living brotherhood is a privilege not readily forgotten.’ During her visit enemies of the Cause became particularly vicious in the attacks against ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and caused Him and His loyal followers enormous problems and indescribable grief. Deeply distressed by this fact, she asked the Master why He, a perfect Man, had to go through such sufferings. He answered her, ‘How could they (God’s teachers) teach and guide others in the way if they themselves did not undergo every species of suffering to which other human beings are subjected?’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He’d known severe deprivation:
From January to April, through the worst part of winter, with small children, and elderly relatives, with insufficient food and inappropriate clothing they struggled through the freezing mountain ranges. It was so bitterly cold that they could not speak; there was so much snow, wind and ice that at times they could not move. But the hand of Almighty God was over them through out that perishing, awful journey and with His unfailing protection, they finally arrived in Baghdad. (Ruhi Book 4)
At one time, He too was hungry and had little to eat:
In Europe, on one occasion, remembering the desperate days in Tihran when Baha’u’llah was incarcerated, their home sacked and their properties confiscated, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá could yet say, ‘Detachment does not imply lack of means; it is marked by the freedom of the heart. In Tihran, we possessed everything at a nightfall, and on the morrow we were shorn of it all, to the extent that we had no food to eat. I was hungry, but there was no bread to be had. My mother poured some flour into the palm of my hand, and I ate that instead of bread. Yet, we were contented.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 164)
Like a true Leader He never called upon His followers to do something He hadn’t done:
Like the true Leader He never called upon His followers to go where He had not blazed the Path. (Howard Colby Ives, Portals to Freedom, p. 200-201)
No one could keep up with his assistance to the poor and needy:
There was a man in Haifa who disliked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Whenever he saw the Master, he crossed the street to avoid Him. Finally, one day he approached ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and said, ‘So You are called the Servant of God.’ ‘Yes,’ said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘that is my name.’ ‘Well,’ said the man proudly, ‘I am Moses.’ Very well, Moses,’ said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘meet Me at this corner at seven o’clock in the morning tomorrow and we will go and serve the people like the great Moses did.’ The man agreed and when they met the next morning, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá took him on His routine of serving the unfortunates, helping the poor and needy, consulting with people and giving counsel. At six o’clock that evening when they returned to the spot where they had started, he was extremely weary. ‘Remember, Moses,’ said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá before they parted, ‘I’ll meet you here tomorrow morning at seven o’clock.’ Again they met the following morning and again ‘Abdu’l-Bahá took the man through His regular work. Returning at six o’clock that evening the man was very tired. Sternly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told him, ‘Remember, Moses, tomorrow morning I’ll meet you here.’ They met the third morning and again ‘Abdu’l-Bahá took him through His regular work day. When they returned that evening, the man was exhausted. As they parted, the man said, ‘’Abdu’l-Bahá, tomorrow morning I will no longer be Moses.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He educated people about injustices:
So sensitive and sympathetic was the Master to human suffering that He admitted to surprise that others could be quite oblivious to it. In Paris, He expressed His feelings: ‘I have just been told that there has been a terrible accident in this country. A train has fallen into the river and at least twenty people have been killed. This is going to be a matter for discussion in the French Parliament today, and the Director of the State Railway will be called upon to speak. He will be cross-examined as to the condition of the railroad and as to what caused the accident, and there will be a heated argument. I am filled with wonder and surprise to notice what interest and excitement has been aroused throughout the whole country on account of the death of twenty people, while they remain cold and indifferent to the fact that thousands of Italians, Turks, and Arabs are killed in Tripoli! The horror of this wholesale slaughter has not disturbed the Government at all! Yet these unfortunate people are human beings too.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 68)
He bore His hardships so the Cause of God could push on unconstrained:
A companion of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on His journey in America recorded a moment when the Master expressed His anxiety for the future: ‘I am bearing these hardships of traveling so that the cause of God may push on unconstrained. For I am anxious about what is going to happen after Me. Had I had ease of mind on this score I would have sat comfortably in one corner. I would not have come out of [the] Holy Land… I fear after Me self-seeking persons may disturb again the love and unity of the friends.’ The Master talked in sorrowful tones until the automobile stopped at a hotel in Chicago. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He reminded them that the purpose of prayer was to trust God and be submissive to His will:
One day a despondent little Jewish girl, all in black, was brought into the Master’s presence. With tears flowing, she told Him her tale of woes: her brother had been unjustly imprisoned three years before – he had four more years to serve; her parents were constantly depressed; her brother-in-law, who was their support, had just died. She claimed the most she trusted in God the worse matters became. She complained, ‘. . . my mother reads the Psalms all the time; she doesn’t deserve that God should desert her so. I read the Psalms myself, — the ninety-first Psalm and the twenty-third Psalm every night before I go to bed. I pray too.’ Comforting and advising her, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá replied, ‘To pray is not to read Psalms. To pray is to trust in God, and to be submissive in all things to Him. Be submissive, then things will change for you. Put your family in God’s hands. Love God’s will. Strong ships are not conquered by the sea, — they ride the waves. Now be a strong ship, not a battered one.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 132)
I’d like to close with the standard set by ‘Abdu’l-Baha for a “true Baha’i”:
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute! This is the work of a true Bahá’í, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Bahá’ís, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name. (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 81)
He certainly was a good role model for us to follow!
What have been your struggles with following in His footsteps? Post your comments below!