America’s Last Chance

The year was 1966. The times they were a-changin’. In the Bahá’í universe, the pieces were falling into place. The first Universal House of Justice had been elected, and the world seemed to be ready for new answers and new leaders. It was the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X had recently been assassinated. Black Americans were asserting their status and rights as full citizens. The time was right to introduce Black America to Bahá’u’lláh’s message of racial equality and unity.

I was just a year old. My family moved from south Los Angeles to Saint Helena Island, just off the coast of South Carolina. We lived in the town of Frogmore, the location of legendary Penn Center. Saint Helena Island, midway between Charleston and Savannah, had once been a sanctuary for free blacks (Union territory during the Civil War), and the location of a school for the same. It remains an active cultural heritage center to this day. In the 1960s, Penn Center was a conference center for some of the leaders of Black America. My parents even joined in a meeting attended by Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and—I daresay—even Joan Baez. Continue reading

Minions of the Millennium

Recent news in the Baha’i world of “mass teaching” efforts remind me of one of my favorite songs from childhood. It was a Baha’i-ified traditional C-major tune with an occasional descending B-flat for blues effect, probably a Negro spiritual, that I knew as “We Are Soldiers in God’s Army”. I’ve been teaching myself to play it on violin lately, and have felt compelled to some liberty with the lyrics.

The Baha’i lyrics are best described as millenarian, Biblical, and didactic; in general, a call to convert the masses. They begin as follows:

Now the Báb blew His trumpet
Announcing to the world the time had come
And like a thief in the night, He came by the Gate
And said He was the Promised One

Verse after verse, the song parades Baha’i leaders before us, exhorting Baha’is to get out and proselytize in the footsteps of their leaders:

Bahá’u’lláh was the Prophet
He had the Word that is right for now
And when the road got rough and the going got tough
He just stood there and taught anyhow

These verses refrain a curious conflict of tenses (perfect vs. imperfect) that brings to mind some of the intrinsic problems with universal progressive revelation, such as “if it was right for now 150 years ago, is it right for the present “now”? And, “is it really right for everybody?

The chorus goes as follows:

We are soldiers in God’s army
We gotta stop and teach the Word for now
We gotta hold a lotta love and unity
We gotta hold it up until we die

I don’t have much of a problem with the verses, as they tend to say so much about the predominant Baha’i state of mind, and truly, the chorus does as well, but I think some variations on the chorus might do the song some good. For example:

(Oh-oh-oh-owoh-oh …)
We are minions of the Millennium
We gotta stop–and think for ourselves
It’s time to see (its time to see beyond our idol called “Unity”)
It’s time to break it down so we can see.

Here the singer turns from the mic and says “break it down”, whereupon the maestro steps into his A-major improvisation.


We are minions of the Millennium
We gotta stop–and “see with our own eyes”
We gotta think instead of followin’ the leader
There’s more to life than playin’ “Simon says”

And finally, as the music fades:

We are minions of the Millennium
We’ve had our fun–playin’ blind man’s bluff
We gotta think (we gotta think instead of followin’ the leader)
We gotta use our eyes so we can see.

Drifting Southward

Old Jacksonboro Road crosses the Savannah Highway within a half hour of Charleston. The name for this intersection is Jericho. It was once the name of a community. Today it is a crossroads on the outskirts of a town called Adams Run.


Jericho was once the site of a hotel, a post office, and a store with gas pumps. The hotel had three stories if one counts the spacious attic with dormer windows and bath. It had exterior wooden stairways, which resembled fire escapes. Around 1964, it was converted to a boys’ home by the Reconnu family. They operated the boys’ home until about 1968.

The store came equipped with a soda vending machine that would allow a mischievous boy to yank a bottle out without paying. The trick to it was not to brag to ones mother about the achievement.

The Mission returned to Carolina in mid-1970 to discover the Hotel Jericho, a bargain for a gastronomical temple, complete with guest suites and a burn pile in the back, all blackened from the last fire and wet from the last rain, with an aroma of metamorphosed plastics, rotting food, and rusted scrap metal.

It turned out the Hotel Jericho had too many hidden maintenance and repair issues, and it wasn’t easy to unload. Without sufficient income, the Mission was not able to sustain its Jericho burn-rate for long. In the wink of an eye, they packed up and left the Hotel Jericho for a little trackside house in the hamlet of Ruffin, which is little more than a railroad crossing on the Lowcountry Highway. The Mission wasn’t actually able to sell the Hotel for a couple years after it left Jericho. In the following years, the final solution seemed to have been found when it all burned down in a couple of fires.

The new location did have its luxuries. The day they arrived, Armen and Cindy discovered the new site came with its own playground: a rusty old metal swing set, an old, half-empty bottle of soda complete with an escort of hornets, and a shed in the back.

Every hot, sweaty night, freight trains would thunder by, shaking the house as they passed, and blasting through the cacophony of insect songs. The tracks, with the trestle down the way, were a temptation for wandering feet, haunted by the occasional odd shoe left to seed the imagination of a young boy. The oily, black sleepers seemed laid out to trip up the traveler, and the cool steel rails seemed like blunt blades.

Every bit as terrifying as the rails was the altogether foreign and unnatural experience that is called—with no lack of irony—kindergarten. Armen had hardly been introduced to the terror of mass education when the Mission was compelled to move on to nearby Walterboro, where he was fortunate to attend kindergarten at a small Catholic church just down a dirt road from the Mission.

The Mission was at least able to draw in some income at Walterboro, but not enough. The Mission’s kitchen and clinic served all comers. It could hardly afford to turn anyone away, but it was put under more and more pressure to do just that. Serving both whites and negros was an affront to southern whites. The Judge had not come to the South to tell anyone how to live—he had come to celebrate the South, but as an Armenian, it was difficult for him to allow himself to participate in the marginalization of a people.

The Mission was nearly compelled to return to California, but the Judge found an opportunity in the Piedmont. It was on the edge of Appalachia, in an old house with a forested canyon in the backyard, where Armen would sometimes explore. Cindy would occasionally come along, but she would unavoidably fall behind while looking out into the woods or up at the sky. She would sometimes accompany her brother when he would explore the crawl space under the house. When they found some loose bricks in the crawl space, she helped him rearrange the bricks to resemble a miniature house. The partnership ended, however, when Armen began to build small fires in their brick fortress. Cindy did not share Armen’s fondness for fire. In fact, she expressed a mortal dread of the smallest flame. It was another one of her quirks that her adoptive parents imagined might have been acquired during her time in Istanbul. At the Mission, she seemed most at home in front of the small black-and-white TV set watching westerns. She seemed transfixed by the Indians in particular.

As passionate as the Judge had become about soul food, he couldn’t manage to make a living selling soul food as food for the soul to Southerners. He’d extended and enhanced the culinary experience in unique ways, but the fact that he was a Yankee in Southern eyes seemed to always get in the way. He didn’t think of himself as a Yankee; he saw himself as an Armenian and a Fresnan and an American, but he began to realize that how he saw himself didn’t matter in the South. Recognizing this, leaks began to break through his resolve. He thought about how long it had been since he’d listened to a Giants game on KSFO. He thought about the dry bake of the Fresno summer air, and the cool, moist blanket of the Tule fog. Hearing that Willie Mays had been traded away to the New York Mets was the last straw. The Judge resolved to return to California this time as a Californian. For the first time, this would mean coming home. The Mission was packed up under an evening thunder storm, just after the mess from Cindy’s fifth birthday party was cleaned up. Kale ran off, tale between legs, to make a mess of his own in the basement. The showers fell harder, mixed with hail and with shorter intermissions, until the Mission set float and began its drift westward.

©2008 Dan J. Jensen

The Two Souths

We had moved to South Carolina or South Africa four times by the time I turned fifteen. During those four stints, we lived in seven different towns. The principal motive for all this motion was to participate in mass conversion of Blacks to the Bahá’í Faith.

Mass conversion wasn’t just something that we were drawn to because it meant bringing God’s Word to lots of receptive souls. It was, and remains, an essential component of the Bahá’í “entry by troups” prophecy. It is vitally important to the Bahá’í Faith that it expand. For this reason, Bahá’ís have been pushed continuously to relocate to new places so that they might spread the Faith.

It may be that few Bahá’í families were uprooted as completely as ours, and I’m certain that Dad’s wanderlust played a part, but I have no doubt that our displacement was a direct result of directives of the Bahá’í leadership. We were not just spreading the Good Word; we were fulfilling prophecy.

Courthouse in Albany, GA

I think, leaving some room for doubt, that we would have stayed put if we could have afforded it. Our problem was that whenever we would go to these spiritual locales, Mom and Dad could never make a decent living. Either there just wasn’t enough of a market, or segregationists would do what they could to discourage Mom and Dad from running an integrated business. In Walterboro, South Carolina, Mom and Dad caught heat for serving both whites and blacks. After Walterboro, they opened a practice in Easley, which enjoys the dubious distinction of being near to the town of Piedmont, made so infamous by the film “Birth of a Nation” as being the fictional cradle of the Klu Klux Klan. Their luck was no better there.

Though I don’t harbor any sympathies for the whole enterprise of saving souls, I respect the effort that Mom and Dad made to live by their principles. I’ve not known many Bahá’ís who were so willing to dedicate their lives to their Cause, and how many Bahá’ís had the courage to take on the twin demons of segregation and apartheid at the business level?

I say courage, but maybe there was some naiveté as well. Still, courage and foolishness are old bedfellows. What I think may have been unfortunate is the price that my oldest sibling paid for our misadventures. Sometimes kids pay a price for their parents’ ambitions, but it’s not as though Mom and Dad abandoned any of us. Speaking for myself, I was too young to notice. Even when I was a teenager in the South—or in South Africa, I was too displaced to care, even when I found myself between the racist overtures of whites and the fists of blacks.

Born free

Dad’s blind, so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that he never was much for playing catch or bicycling with the kids, but you’d be surprised what he was willing to try on occasion. Of course, if you’d like to wrestle, he’d always be happy to take you on. As for Mom, she worked, of course. She worked and worked. She’s still working.

When all was said and done, we didn’t see much of Mom and Dad during the day. For one, they worked hard, Dad being the chiropractor and Mom being the jane-of-all-trades office manager. Then there were times when they’d go out for a well-deserved cup of coffee or tea. There was also all the Baha’i work, and on an odd day they might be planning our next move or house hunting.

Many of my boyhood memories of dealings with authority figures often involved my sisters, who were 11 and 5 years older than me. In general, there wasn’t a lot to stop me from doing as I pleased.

I remember quite clearly going out for a walk when I was about age four, and getting a ride home in a police cruiser.

The Walterboro that I remember was just a crossing of a pair of dirt roads, with a church and a couple houses. There’s more to the town than that, but that’s all I can recall. Back behind our neighbor’s house, across a field, I remember an outdoor freezer that was stuffed with juice pops. It must have been behind a store, but that didn’t matter. I only remember the freezer and the pops. Long, slender bags full of sweet, frozen punch.

The dirt roads were full of ruts, and there was a big hole between the houses. I don’t know what it was for. Garbage, perhaps. I remember pieces of newsprint tumbling around it. At dusk, there was the truck that would drive through, dusting the neighborhood’s mosquitoes with DDT. What an unearthly memory.

There were pranks, makeshift go carts, a bb gun, a pig attack, plenty of spankings, and a bush fire. There was nothing quite so scary as when my big brother got pneumonia, and no thrill quite like getting a hold of one of his model cars or erector set creations.

Then there was the sexual exploration, the likes of which I wouldn’t experience again until adulthood. Just good clean interracial intercourse among consenting children. Just doing our bit for racial unity, I guess.

We moved to Liberty after I graduated from kindergarten. I then matriculated to playing with fire in the crawlspace under our house, getting beat up at school, and being cajoled by playmates into throwing pebbles at cars.

After school, I would often show myself into town to partake in some window shopping (I don’t think I ever stole until I was seven). One time while dashing off to the five and dime, I got hit by a car. I was knocked out cold, rolling, I was told, down the street. My collar bone was broken. The lady that clobbered me bribed me good. I’d never seen so many cool toys in my life, but man did it hurt. I didn’t dare cross a street for years, unless no cars could be seen on it.

King of the World

The Bahá’í Faith drove many of the big decisions in our family, and I’m certain that much of Mom and Dad’s time was dedicated to the Faith, yet I can’t remember much, if anything, about the Bahá’í Faith from our time in Walterboro. Maybe I was too young to be involved in all that.

I do remember that one of the neighbor kids had been named Jesse Owens.

Perhaps the most prominent event from our time in Walterboro, as far as my five-year-old mind could gather, was the day when everybody seemed to be talking about Joe Frazier, a local boy from Beaufort, and Cassius Clay (who had taken the name “Muhammad Ali” years before). As far as I can recall, there was a fight between the two names, and the name “Cassius Clay” had won the fight, but I later discovered that I had got it wrong.

Cassius Clay, 1964
New York Journal-American Staff Photo (De Lucia)
Source: HRHRC, University of Texas

I used to shrug at that memory, thinking of it as a historically meaningless sporting event, bemused by the fact that I had remembered the loser as the winner, but over the years I have come to realize that Ali may have been among the most influential men of the time. What could we Bahá’ís, with all of our enlightened racial profiling and spiritual bureaucracy, do for Black America that this man could not do with his skill, intelligence, adaptability, toughness, political courage, and poetic hubris? Here was a new breed of exemplar for the ever-so-humble American Negro: “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

By the way, you may be wondering where Ali got his quick step and gift of gab. You guessed it: he’s Irish.

My Black Catholic Heritage

There is a community just outside of Walterboro, South Carolina, known informally as “Catholic Hill”, with a remarkable history. Back in 1856, well before Emancipation, a Catholic church building burned down. The white membership disbanded, leaving the parish, for all practical purposes, defunct.

St. James Catholic Church
St. James the Greater

Fast forward to 1897, across the closing decade of the Slavery Era, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction. A vibrant Catholic community of former slaves and their descendants are discovered. They had been worshipping for over 40 years without a priest or any support whatsoever. Now, after 180 years, the church of St. James the Greater is still going strong.

I was not raised a Catholic, though it might be said that Dad was. As far as I can recollect, his upbringing as a Catholic amounted to being told by a priest that he was going to Hell. His mother had been raised in a very strict Catholic tradition in a Nova Scotia village where Gaelic was still spoken. She had rebelled after the priest had reported to her father that she had been seeing a Protestant boy. She married a Lutheran years later, but she still appeared to retain some Catholic allegiances. I’m told that she was excommunicated, but ultimately exculpated by the Church.

When we moved to Walterboro from nearby Ruffin, we rented a house on the edge of a black neighborhood, near St. Joseph’s, a relatively new church that had been founded as an outreach effort by the Diocese and the Trinitarian Order about ten years earlier. St. Joseph’s had a school program, so I naturally attended kindergarten there. I remember walking down the bumpy dirt road to the church with the Owens boy who was my friend at the time. I remember all the great wooden toys they had, and I remember the processions of costumed giants occasionally passing by. Perhaps I had been there for mass as well.

As far as I was concerned, it was just a great place to play. Years later, I was told that I was the only white child there. Until that time, I don’t think I had given any thought to the color of the people there.

Bishop Hallinan at St. Joseph's
The bishop breaks ground at St. Joseph’s.

Unfortunately, St. Joseph’s did not enjoy the longevity exhibited by St. James the Greater. Sometime back in the 1990s, the Trinitarians left town and the Diocese abandoned St. Joseph’s. It seems hard to see it as anything but a lost opportunity for Walterboro and the Diocese to expand on a unique religious heritage.

Ruffin It

Our life of excess and extravagance could not last forever. In the wink of an eye, we packed up and left the Hotel Jericho for a little track-side house in the hamlet of Ruffin, which is little more than a railroad crossing on the Lowcountry Highway.

Our new house did have its luxuries. I remember the day we arrived. My younger brother David and I discovered our new home came with its own playground: an old metal swing set, an old, half-empty bottle of soda complete with an escort of hornets, and a shed in the back.

Every hot, sweaty night, freight trains would thunder by, shaking the house as they passed, and blasting through the cacophony of insect songs.

Railroad tracks in Ruffin, SC
Railroad tracks in Ruffin, SCMeredith Foss

I remember walking up the tracks with my older brother Al. We would pass the occasional odd shoe, and Al would tell me stories about how people would slip and get trapped under the tracks. Al denies telling me such stories to this day. Perhaps he forgot. I certainly didn’t!

I started kindergarten in Ruffin, and that’s about all. I can’t remember anything about that kindergarten, except for the first teary, terrifying day. We probably didn’t leave Ruffin long after that day. Before long we were following the tracks to Walterboro, where Mom and Dad hoped to make a better living.

© 2006 Dan J. Jensen

Hotel Jericho

Old Jacksonboro Road crosses the Savannah Highway within a half hour of Charleston. The name for this intersection is Jericho. Today it is considered part of the town of Adams Run.

Jericho School Annex for Coloreds

Jericho was once the site of a hotel, a post office, and a store with gas pumps. It all burned down in a couple of fires sometime after we left South Carolina a second time in 1972.

The hotel had three stories, if one counts the spacious attic with dormer windows and bath. It had exterior wooden stairways, which I remembered as fire escapes. Around 1964, it was converted to a boys’ home by the Reconnu family. They operated the boys’ home until about 1968.

The store came equipped with a soda vending machine that would allow a mischievous boy to yank a bottle out without paying. The trick to it was not to brag about getting a free soda to one’s mom.

Mom and Dad looked at the hotel in mid-1970, and saw a place that could be perfect as a home for seven and a dog, a chiropractic office, and a Baha’i center. I must confess that if I were driving down the Savannah Highway and I saw a FOR SALE sign posted in front of that old hotel, I would have been sorely tempted to stop for a look-see.

Among my favorite memories of Jericho was the the trash pile in the back, all blackened from the last fire and wet from the last rain. I can still smell the aroma of molten plastics, rotting food, and rusted scrap metal. I also remember when a crab, recently taken from the ocean, got a hold of a cat’s tail. I’m not sure how that happened, but now I suspect it probably got some help.

Across the highway, there was a hotel of a different kind that was even more noteworthy: a maze of tunnels that some neighbor kids had dug out. My memory of that system of tunnels has endured in my mind as one of the great achievements of kidkind.

It turned out the Hotel Jericho had too many hidden maintenance and repair issues, and it wasn’t easy to unload. Mom and Dad weren’t able to sell it for a couple years after we left Jericho.

© 2006 Dan J. Jensen

Just call me Bubba

Last weekend, we finally cracked and gave Bubba Gump a try. I can’t think of a more cynical Hollywood spinoff, but we were hungry, and the Aquarium restaurant was stuffed. Bubba’s food was not bad. The kids actually ate—there’s something to blog home about.

What struck me was one of the myriad bits of nostalgia: a map of the Beaufort, South Carolina area.

praise house

When I was a little boy, my family lived in five South Carolina towns in the space of less than three years. The first one was Frogmore, near Beaufort. You are unlikely to find it on a map, because they renamed it to Saint Helena, after the island that the village rests upon. Kind of a shame. At least you can still find Frogmore stew.

Source: the North by South Project

The town has a long, peculiar history. This was the place where Laura Matilda Towne and Ellen Murray moved to serve the former slave population and establish the Penn School in 1862.

By the time we arrived, 104 years later, not much had changed. We had modern conveniences like plumbing, though ours was backed up into the bath tub when we arrived. The place was still isolated. Blonde hair was still a novelty among the island children.

I was of course too young to remember our residence in Frogmore. According to Mom, my life there consisted mostly of being bitten by sand flies in my crib. There were also occasional walks outside with my oldest sister Duska, and I’m guessing I was brought along for some of the proselytizing.

It may be rightly said that Frogmore was the Geneva of the South in 1966, though I’m told that Joe Frazier, himself a Beaufort native, called it the slum of the South. It was in Frogmore, at Penn Center, that Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Jessie Jackson, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met every year. Locals, including our family, were invited to attend the November 1966 conference, during which, I’m told, much debate took place regarding the pros and cons of nonviolent activism. I have read that it was at this conference that King expanded his vision from civil rights to human rights.

Laura Towne and Ellen Murray spent the remainder of their lives serving the islanders—a combined 85 years. We couldn’t hold on quite that long, and returned to California in early 1967, though we did visit Frogmore when we returned to South Carolina several years later. I remember spirituals being sung in a hall there. I remember one particular Baha’i song called “We Are Soldiers In God’s Army”. I haven’t heard it in a long time. I can tell you unequivocally that it most certainly rocked!

I also remember my brother Al catching a hammerhead shark and a ray off the pier. That could be a manufactured memory, but I remember it vividly.