Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Praise-song for my co-religionists

In 1970 there were about 40 Bahá’ís on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Compared to the thousands of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims at the university at that time 40 may seem a paltry sum, but believe me, 40 young Bahá’ís in 1970 was a force to be reckoned with. The hub of our activities was the Stewart home, and the lot of us struggled and prayed and tried to fast* and lost control and made plans and taught our Faith and lost our Faith and found Faith again. We sang a lot. Some of us left the country and found larger lives than we could have imagined. Sometimes we studied. All of us became more than we were.
That fall one of the wild men of the past, Von Scherb, a street musician and visionary, offered us a job as gleaners in a cornfield. We could work and send money to the Baha’i fund**. We piled into several old cars sans seat belts, sans parental guidance, sans schoolwork and headed out to the field, which had been harvested by machine. We had a pickup truck (driven by Von, who would take our harvest to market) and we set out into the stubble like large and feisty mice. We picked for years it seemed. Years and lifetimes. By noon we were exhausted and the truck was not even a quarter full. We must have had food to sustain our wasted bodies after such intense labor, for we worked more lifetimes until the truck was about half full. That night we all dreamed of corn stubble and hidden ears of corn. The nicks and cuts on our hands reminded us for days of our good work. We made $40.00 for the fund and felt righteous.
Today I walked a harvested field looking for the hidden ears, but all of them had been eaten by deer and mice. I thought of Von, now long dead, and thought of him, singing on street corners with his ukelele to make enough money to attend the Jubilee*** at London’s Albert Hall in 1963. It took him a year to save the cash, but he made it. And when his mother died and left him a mansion in Brazil (Bray-zle), Indiana that he couldn’t heat, he held meetings about the Bahá’í Faith there, burning furniture to keep his guests warm and serving them hobo coffee (made with an egg), popcorn and ukelele music.
We don’t “do” shrines for ordinary folk these days (did we ever?), but I’d like to propose that every time we see a corn field newly harvested under a blue Indiana sky, we offer up a prayer for the soul of Von Scherb, born a Hoosier, but a true and fleet footed citizen of this new world we inhabit. And I’d like to remember the young people of 1970, who have settled into various lives of service around the world. The fire they caught from the likes of Von they helped nurture into a steady blaze. They trusted enough in the goodness of an All-Loving God to throw their futures into a nascent religion. Those of us still on the planet continue to ride the white-water of transformation, but at the end of this short life we will have at least half a truck of field corn to show for our labors. Half a truck of corn, a lifetime of mistakes, wounds, some small service and lots of beautiful children (in both this world and the world to come).
* We fast every year for 19 days from sunrise to sunset. You can imagine how hard that is for teenagers. At 60 it’s almost too easy, but at 17 it was like a life sentence at Alcatraz.
**The Bahá’í Fund: local, national and international Baha’i activities are funded exclusively by registered Bahá’ís.
***The Bahá’í Jubilee was held in 1963 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. Bahá’ís from around the world came together for the first time and celebrated the closing of the first century of their religion, and to consult together on the future. It must have been an amazing time.


  1. Gleaning that cornfield in 1970 was one of the first service activities I participated in as a newly-declared Baha'i. I remember how good the cup of tea tasted that was boiled over a campfire in the middle of the field on that chilly fall day!

  2. Your writing continues to be wonderful... Thank you for this lovely memory of Von. Wish I'd been on that cornfield crew...