Fifty years on, Uganda's Baha'i temple stands as a symbol of unity and progress
KAMPALA, Uganda — At a ceremony to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Baha'i House of Worship here, Uganda's Chief Justice has praised the temple's continuing contribution to the unity of religion and social transformation.
"It is a reminder of what is to be put in place for a better future," the Honorable Mr. Benjamin J. Odoki told some 1000 visitors who gathered in Kampala last Saturday for festivities to mark the temple's golden jubilee.
"Celebrations such as this are a gracious reminder to us to count our blessings, to put God at the center of our lives, and to look at civilization as basically spiritual in nature," said Chief Justice Odoki, who was guest of honor at the event.
The first Baha'i House of Worship on the continent – known as the "Mother Temple of Africa" – was built between 1957 and 1960 on Kikaya Hill, three miles north of Kampala.
Chief Justice Odoki, who recalled that he was a student in the city when the temple opened, said that the House of Worship has had a "discernible impact on the lives of those who have been associated with it and those who have visited it."
"It has attracted, and brought in through its doors, the diversity of the kindred of the earth who have found spirituality inside it," he said.
A spiritual and social purpose
On 15 January, participants from some 18 countries – including a dozen African nations – gathered for a program of prayers and choral singing inside the House of Worship to mark the anniversary. Outside, visitors were given a taste of the various community building activities that the Baha'i community today offers.
"It is the combination of social welfare and acts of service that will regenerate the world," remarked Chief Justice Odoki, acknowledging the foundation of Baha'i schools "based on moral principles where children of different races and backgrounds have cultivated lasting relationships based on the principle of oneness of humanity."
The concept of the Baha'i House of Worship, as envisaged by Baha'u'llah, not only incorporates a central meeting place for prayer and meditation but, in time, a range of facilities to serve the social and educational needs of the surrounding population.
"Areas of education are very important," said the Chief Justice. "They are the foundation for development. This is a very important social obligation of the religious groups, to be able to uplift the people because of the abject poverty the communities face, including ignorance and disease."
The House of Worship provides a range of educational programs in its grounds including study circles for adults and youth, as well as several children's classes every Sunday.
"These are for everyone," remarked Aqsan Woldu, who lives close to the temple and often serves there. "One of the things the children learn in these classes is the presence of God. We have stories about the Messengers of God and what the attributes of God are and what we should develop. And beyond that we have songs, because music is food for the soul and everyone should sing and learn."
"In the future, I think the House of Worship will be the central point, the pivot," said Mr. Woldu, "and the surroundings will be these schools, a hospital, and so on. People will come up and say prayers at the House of Worship and then go back to their duties. This is a beautiful thing."
Robert Byenkya – another Ugandan attending the golden jubilee – noted how people of all ages benefit from the temple's programs. "They are welcome to enter and worship at their convenient time," he said. "Children, junior youth, the aged, people who are mature, they can come to be together."
When people of different faiths - Christians, Muslims and Baha'is among them - pray together at the House of Worship, there is a special atmosphere, added Mr. Woldu. "The temple plays a big role in that people who had some kind of prejudice towards other religions, when they come here, they see that we're all saying prayers from different Holy Scriptures. Once you are inside the House of Worship we are one in the name of God. And that just brings us together."
For the last fifty years, the temple's expansive gardens have also proven to be a popular place for visitors to rest and contemplate. "When its school time, you find a lot of students on the hill, reading," said Brenda Amonyin, who lives in Kampala. "Some people come and pray. They say their private prayers in the temple during the week days when the temple is open. Others come on Sundays."
Chief Justice Odoki particularly thanked the Baha'i community for maintaining the gardens. "They represent the spiritual purity to unite the world," he said.
"New heights of service"
In further comments, the Chief Justice expressed that he found it remarkable that the "Mother Temple of Africa" was built in Uganda.
"I am informed that the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith referred to Uganda as the spiritual heart of Africa," said Chief Justice Odoki. "This is very striking given that the heart is the vital organ that pumps blood to all other parts of the body."
"We should try to comprehend the significance of the institution of the temple and why it is a bounty to the African community in general," he said. "We should think about the world that is in turmoil and the role justice has to play in putting the affairs of the world in order and the importance of the role of the Baha'is in community building."
"It is my sincere expectation that you continue to exercise a positive influence on all those who come under this shadow," he told the gathering, "and guide humankind to new heights of service to the cause of unity and peace."