There are countless heroes and heroines in the Baha’i Faith, all who devoted their very lives for the progress of the Cause. Luckily, we have access to innumerable works of literature which profile these heroic figures and provide inspiration for us to serve the Cause in our own way. One such work, Champions of Oneness: Louis Gregory and His Shining Circle, does just that.
Written by American author Janet Ruhe-Schoen, the book focuses on the years between 1898 and 1921 and portrays the lives of a handful of Baha’i pioneers of race amity in the United States. At great personal sacrifice, these early Baha’is traveled extensively to share the teachings of their newfound Faith, even if it meant facing severe challenges from those resistant to change.
We caught up with Janet to find out more about her work and the inspiration behind her latest book.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us Janet. Please tell us a little bit about yourself!
I live in the Hudson River Valley, a super beautiful and historic region of New York State where many artists reside. I spend time on writing and on artwork — collages that I regard as visual poetry. The writing is poetry, non-fiction and fiction, and I also include reading for research. And simply being alive! Actually artwork and writing take up all of my time it’s what I do and I’m always at it one way or the other.
Baha’i Blog: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Did you always know you would write Baha’i literature?
As a child I wanted to be an actress or a writer, didn’t know which. But I’ve been a bookworm since realizing, at the age of four, that I could to read my favorite Little Golden Book all by myself. It was called Pantaloon, and it was about a French poodle who rode a bicycle and became a fabulous pastry chef in Paree. I loved the pictures of the cakes! I also recall being very excited after realizing that I could sound out the world “convertible” in a book about cars.
I had no suspicion that I’d write Baha’i literature because, before I was 18, I’d never heard of the Baha’i Faith. My family is Jewish. My first instinct is always to read, read, read about anything that interests me, so I read doggedly about the Faith, starting with a search in the college library where all I could find was an encycIopedia article about The Bab. It left me thoroughly confused. After I straightened all that out, I was particularly interested in the Faith’s historical drama and the lives of the great Baha’is. But it didn’t occur to me to write Baha’i literature. However it’s my habit to write what’s on my mind and/or what I love.
Baha’i Blog: Tell us about your latest book Champions of Oneness: Louis Gregory and His Shining Circle. What inspired you to write it?
Louis Gregory would often sign his letters to friends, “love to you and all your shining circle”. I thought it was apt because the book is not just about him; it also profiles some of his co-workers in race amity. Actually the original title was My Book of Oneness but the publisher re-named it.
I came to write the book because Palabra Publications, which had brought out my first book, A Love Which Does Not Wait, wanted “a sort of companion volume” to that book to go with a new Ruhi course on the Covenant. Everyone I profiled in A Love Which Does Not Wait had been mentioned in a telegram from Shoghi Effendi when Marion Jack died. He said she’d gone to join her co-workers in the Abha Kingdom. He listed the co-workers; so I wrote about her, and each of them. I didn’t have any reference like that for a companion volume. But I knew that I wanted it to be ethnically diverse, and I wanted it to feature men. Hyde Dunn was the only man mentioned in Shoghi Effendi’s telegram so he was the only man who had a starring role (so to speak) in the first book, which people often refer to as “that book about the women”.
I had no doubt that I wanted to write about Louis Gregory and his wife Louisa Mathew Gregory, but I dove into research to decide who would co-star, and after a couple of years I had: Doris and Willard McKay, Pauline and Joseph Hannen, Mirza Abu’l-Fadl and Zia Bagdadi. There are many others who are discussed quite fully, also, among them Agnes Parsons and Roy Williams.
Abdu’l-Baha, of course, is totally central to the book, He being the Center of the Covenant, the Exemplar of Oneness in all his words and deeds.
I was also inspired to write the book because of my ongoing concern about people of color and their suffering and sacrifices in our society. Abdu’l-Baha, as we know, had that concern from deep down in his heart and soul, and I really wanted to delve into it and learn.
Baha’i Blog: ‘Champions of Oneness’ and many of your other titles, including ‘A Love Which Does Not Wait’, ‘The Nightingale Baha’u’llah’ and ‘Rejoice in My Gladness: The Life of Tahirih’, are works of non-fiction. I imagine publishing these books is no easy feat. What process do you go through to research and publish these works?
“A Love Which Does Not Wait” in reality took 23 years. “The Nightingale, Baha’u’llah” was first written in Spanish in Chile in 1992 but not published until 2004, after I found the manuscript among my papers and re-wrote it in English. “Rejoice in My Gladness: The Life of Tahirih”, took six years from the time of inception in to its publication in 2011. It was an extremely intense and fabulously rewarding period which included my taking Farsi lessons with a wonderful Iranian Baha’i woman who could chant Tahirih’s poetry beautifully.
Doing research, I follow on the computer and in books many enticing connections — threads of inspiration and information — found in primary documents from Baha’i archives, also in conversations with people who knew the folks I’m writing about or are descended from them or have studied them deeply. I read a great deal, following leads from one book to another, often from the bibliographies of books and of online articles. It’s a mystery trail and an adventure.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope people will get out of reading your latest offering?
Louis Gregory and his co-workers overcame tremendous obstacles in themselves and in the world around them to be activists for integration and race amity. And they were constantly tested by each other’s limitations, actually tested by each other’s tests as well as their own! Yet they unswervingly traversed the Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, braving every abyss and rift in the spirit of Majnun, the great lover. Anyone reading about them with an open heart will feel his or her own inner Majnun responding to the call of Louis Gregory and his shining circle.
Baha’i Blog: What aspects of Louis Gregory’s life have particularly inspired you?
The greatness of his spirit. You know Abdu’l-Baha said he was like pure gold, and the more I immersed myself in study of him, the more I realized what that meant. The spiritual wealth and abundance of the man are beyond words but I hope I conveyed something of his greatness.
Baha’i Blog: Are you currently working on another book? What can we expect next from Janet Ruhe-Schoen?
For a year after finishing Champions of Oneness I just did collages. I hadn’t rested at all from doing Rejoice in My Gladness, had gone right into research for “Champions” before I was even finished with “Rejoice”, so there was a period when I was so exhausted that I got almost mortally ill and took a long time recovering before I could get my planned Champions of Oneness down on paper. (Rejoice in My Gladness was originally called Rent Asunder, and that’s what it did: it rent me asunder!) So when I finished Champions of Oneness that I didn’t write anything, but now some writing is coming out of me again. And some research is going on. We’ll see where it leads…
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much for your time Janet! It’s been wonderful getting to know more about you and your work!
Champions of Oneness can be purchased here on Amazon.