George Davis grew up on the South and West sides of Chicago, and he moved with his parents to suburban Maywood, just west of Oak Park, when he was 13.
At the time, Davis only had experience with Christian denominations and teachings. But one day, during a contemporary history class he was taking in high school, his teacher asked a Baha’i student in the class to talk about some of the core values of that faith and how they related to topics in modern society.
The student spoke about how Baha’is believe in the oneness of humanity, where all individuals make up one people, full of diverse backgrounds and cultures but still capable of coming together under the common goals of peace and unity. As a faith, Baha’i teaches that science and religion can live together in harmony without inherently contradicting each other, the student said.
“All of these ideas and other related things, I was so compelled by that I just started talking with her afterwards,” Davis said. “There were a few Baha’i students in my high school, and I started spending some time with them socially, and then eventually learned more about the Baha’i faith’s teachings.”
Today, decades after he came to the faith as a 17-year-old high schooler in Maywood, Davis is the director of the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette, which was the second Baha’i Temple ever constructed and still the only one in North America.
After a 43-year career in case management and human services, mostly in Rockford, he and his wife moved to Evanston when he became the temple director last year, the first person to hold the new title. Evanston is home to the national Baha’i offices, located on Central Street near Evanston Hospital. Nowadays, Davis’ main job involves thinking about community building and using the temple’s resources to connect with local residents.
At the end of July, I had the chance to sit down with Davis to talk about his journey to the Baha’i faith, what the religion teaches and the temple’s history in the suburbs north of Chicago. We met in his office in the basement of the Welcome Center next to the temple, which could also serve as a museum, with pictures of the Baha’i temples around the world and information about the faith’s history.
Davis is a slight man with wire-rimmed glasses and graying hair. He has a deep, slow voice that immediately draws your attention when you hear him talk. He can spend an hour discussing the tiniest of details in Baha’i scripture, but he can also tell you all about how the first time anyone mentioned Baha’i in a public speech in North America was during an address by a Lutheran minister at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Davis said he wants the local community in Evanston, Wilmette and surrounding towns to know that the temple is there as a peaceful and beautiful place for everyone, regardless of religion or beliefs.
“This is a place that we not only hope that people admire from a distance, or even just from driving by, for its remarkable beauty, but [we hope] that they also see it as a place for them, where they can be and really experience what the temple has to offer,” he said. “There is a special energy that is here that is not common, unfortunately. But also, we think that it’s possible for that same energy to become more and more common, the more people focus on those same ideals of collective progress in their own communities.”
The temple’s history
The prophet-founder of the Baha’i faith was a man named Baháʼu’lláh, who was born in present-day Iran in 1817. From an early age, he deviated from Islam and preached his own beliefs in one God and one humanity, which led to his exile in Iraq and eventual imprisonment in modern-day Acre, Israel, where he died in 1892.
During his lifetime, he wrote more than 1,500 letters about his beliefs, his vision for the Baha’i faith and his understanding of God, and those letters became the foundation of Baha’i scripture.
His eldest son, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, was also imprisoned in Acre until 1908, at the age of 64, when the Young Turk revolution finally freed him. Four years later, he went on a tour across North America, stopping several times in the Chicago area.
His followers in the United States had proposed building a temple in Chicago, but they were divided between constructing it within the city or on a site along Lake Michigan north of Chicago. During ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the city, he selected the site in Wilmette for the location of the temple, where it still stands today.
Workers broke ground shortly thereafter, but they did not finish construction until 1953, when Baha’is held a dedication ceremony at the site. The temple was the second Baha’i House of Worship ever constructed – one had been built earlier in Russia, but the Soviet Union destroyed that temple. As a result, the Wilmette temple became a central monument in the Baha’i faith.
“Someone once said that the temple helped to build the Baha’i community as the Baha’i community built the temple, because it became an organizing and rallying point of unity for Baha’is around the world,” Davis said.
Today, there are eight continental temples and four local or national temples around the world. The Wilmette House of Worship attracts an estimated quarter million visitors annually, according to Davis, which makes it the third most-visited temple after the ones in India and Chile.
Each temple has its own unique design and structure, but they are all nine-sided because part of Baháʼu’lláh’s name can be derived from an Arabic word with nine letters, so the number nine has become a theme across the faith.
For example, the temple in Wilmette features nine sides, nine gardens, nine fountains and nine entrances, which established a precedent for the other temples around the world.
“[ʻAbdu’l-Bahá] said that Chicago was a city and a place of great importance because it was the heart of the nation, and that whatever flows from the heart will contribute to the health of the entire body,” Davis said.
Building community today
As I walked through the gardens and sat on the red-cushioned chairs lining the inside of the temple itself, I was struck by the serenity and calming energy that Davis had told me about in our interview. Inside the House of Worship is a huge dome with those chairs, a lectern, a small carpet and short phrases from Baha’i scripture carved on the walls like “ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.”
The simplicity of the space also reflects the simplicity of the faith as well. Baha’i services and prayer meetings never have a speaker or a sermon, instead featuring readings from scripture and quiet time for reflection and meditation.
Unlike the bureaucratic structures and hierarchy typical of many other organized religions, Baha’i does not have clergy or priests of any kind. In fact, the only governing bodies overseeing operations of the temples around the world are an elected international council called the Universal House of Justice, and an elected National Spiritual Assembly in each country.
The American National Spiritual Assembly appoints a five-person temple board for the House of Worship in Wilmette; Davis serves on that board with four others.
Under Davis’ leadership, the temple is becoming more of a community gathering space for various purposes. One local synagogue, Temple Jeremiah, held a Rosh Hashanah service in the temple last year, and in July, Davis met a group of college students from California who ended up playing music for a Sunday devotional service.
Temple Jeremiah conducted a modified service for Rosh Hashanah because only music and scripture readings are allowed inside the Baha’i House of Worship.
During the first two weeks of August, the temple is also hosting facilitated conversations and activities for a group of more than 40 young people from Evanston and Rogers Park.
“What we would like is to have more people see this as a place that is their place of refuge, their place of reflection, prayer and meditation,” Davis said. “We’d like to see people, even as families, small groups or friends, come and perhaps offer prayers at the podium if they wish to express something out loud, or just to sit quietly as a point of renewing their connection with each other.”
Davis and other Baha’is say they hope to make the temple a resource and a gathering place for any purpose, regardless of faith affiliations or traditions.
“We don’t see ourselves as a temple as promoting the temple based on offering programs so much as we really want to connect with the surrounding community about how they want to use the temple,” Davis said, “and how they can see this as a place that’s theirs.”