Members of the West Pasco Baha'i Community gathered Oct. 22 to honor the 200th birthday of the faith's founder, Baha'u'llah.
More than 250 people celebrated at the Verizon Event Center in New Port Richey. Speakers included local religious leaders and New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe. The evening featured music, prayer and dinner.
The Baha'i faith, which calls for seeking personal religious truth, places emphasis on peace and nonviolence.
"One of the main messages of Baha'u'llah is to unite people of all religions in harmony," said Liliya Gevorgyan, event co-organizer. "To celebrate the birthday of the prophet, we invited a diverse group because we all share common ground."
Among the attendees were Carol Tracht-Kader, who recited a Jewish prayer; the Rev. Sandi Spauldi of the Chapel of the Divine Spirit; Unity of Port Richey pastor Marta Newman, and members of the United Methodist Church Joining Hands Mission.
The evening, which included music by the Gulf High School Jazz Band, centered on a message of acceptance. Jay Miller spoke on the life and legacy of Baha'u'llah. Baha'i men, women and children shared prayer and song.
"All Baha'i come to the faith by choice," Gevorgyan said.
Born in Armenia and raised Christian, she discovered the religion at age 18. A mother of two, she is raising her children Baha'i but will encourage them to "investigate the truth for themselves" as young adults.
"I liked that the faith encourages self-investigation, that within the faith men and women are equal," Gevorgyan said. "There is also a combination of science and religion — a balance."
New Port Richey resident Tony Quinones, who accepted Baha'i teachings in 1979, joined the West Pasco religious community in 2001 and helped plan the anniversary celebration.
"This is one of the greatest things that's happened in my lifetime," Quinones said. "We aren't just doing this here. People are celebrating this all over the world."
Marlowe, who spoke at the event about his Methodist beliefs, said he was previously unaware of the Baha'i community in Pasco.
"I didn't really know about it until I received this invitation," he said. "I'm happy to see them here. They definitely add something to the community."
Newman, the Unity minister and speaker, said all religions want similar things.
"We allow ethical, religious and political beliefs to separate us," she said. "We are all human beings, and we all want to find a sense of security. We all want to make a small difference in the world."
Tampa doctor David Dean, who grew up Baha'i, agrees. He works as a family physician and recently traveled to Puerto Rico to deliver medical supplies. Formerly a member of the West Pasco Baha'i, he received warm welcome-back greetings from the crowd at the event.
"The mission of our faith is to unite people and change the world for good," Dean said. "A lot more people know about the faith than did when I was growing up. Most people, even if they don't know a lot, know we are trying to do good."
Gevorgyan said Baha'i followers everywhere strive to create harmony. Seeing family, friends and new faces in one room together, she smiled.
"It's exciting," she said. "It's a celebration."