PALM HARBOR, Fla. — It's one of the world’s newest and fastest-growing religions. However, many people still have never heard of the Baha’i religion. Millions of people around the world have converted to the religion because of its message of unity and community.
The Baha’i religion was founded in 1844 in Persia, which is present-day Iran. Followers believe in the oneness of all world religions. Since its founding, it has spread to almost every corner of the world, including right here in the Tampa Bay area.
In Palm Harbor, some in Manfra family have not eaten all day long. That's because, like many religions, Baha’is have a season when they fast.
From March 2 to the 21, and from sunup to sundown, Bahai’s, over the age of 15, don’t eat or drink.
“We get up, say a prayer, eat a big breakfast and then we push through the day until sunset and then say another prayer and then eat. To me, it’s important because it makes me examine what I may be doing or intaking that might be excessive,” said Jaime Manfra, who is a part of the religion.
Dr. John Hatcher, a professor emeritus from the University of South Florida, has written several books about the Baha’i religion.
“We believe that there is one God and really one religion. The religion of God, but it’s been revealed in successive and progressive stages throughout the history of humankind,” said Dr. Hatcher.
He said Baha'is embrace the world's largest religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity. They believe that God revealed himself to humanity in different parts of the world at different times through the prophets of those religions to bring teachings that addressed the needs and conditions of humanity. Dr. Hatcher teaches virtual classes about the history and virtues of the religion every other Wednesday and posts them on YouTube.
You will not find any sermons or clergy in a Baha'i place of worship. Places of worship just serve as a place where people come to reflect and pray in their own way. One of the religion's core tenets is unity through community regardless of race, religion or nationality.
“The elimination of prejudice, independent investigation of faith, equality between men and women,” said Leslie Farrell, who has been a Baha’i for 22 years. “My roommate in college was a Baha’i. She didn’t ever say anything though. She had a prayer book that said ‘Baha'i Prayers,’ and I asked her ‘what is that?’ and then she just told me about it and I thought that sounds like a religion that I have that I didn’t know existed."
Back in Palm Harbor at the Manfra’s house, the sun has finally set and the family, along with some of their non-Baha’i friends, are ready to break their fast after a quick prayer. They feasted on chicken, fish, macaroni and cheese, and fruit.
Baha’is believe that children should be old enough to make a conscious decision when choosing a religion, which is why you can only officially become a Baha’i once you are 15 years old. Ajay Manfra turned 16 recently and he said he made the decision to join the religion because of how inclusive it is.
“It’s so open-minded and I feel like with me, myself, I’m an open-minded person and I really like to keep everybody included. And it’s really just diverse. And that’s what it stands for. So, that’s a really important one to me,” said Ajay.
Ajay’s friend, Clayton, is not Baha’i, but he said he always feels welcome in that community.
“I always feel included when I go to the Baha'i meetings or just when we meet up and just have fun. I feel really welcomed. Even though I’m not Baha’i, I still do feel welcomed and I still feel there,” said Clayton
There are more than 6 million Baha'is worldwide and about 177,000 in the United States. It's definitely still considered a small religion, but there are four places of worship right here in the Tampa Bay area.