By Nicole Stock
Chaos spilled through the streets outside, but the corner of a modest apartment in Kampala, Uganda, sheltered a small pot of tea and a plate of cookies. Christopher LaMountain, a Northwestern University senior, sat on a broken couch as the host passed out on mcookies, a cup of tea, and a book of Baha’i prayers to every guest.
“The biggest shock for me was how standard everything is across the board in Baha’I communities,” said LaMountain, who is from Westborough, Mass. “I could be in a very humble house in Uganda and witness the exact same method of devotion, as happens in Sydney, Australia, in a mansion.”
LaMountain, a religious studies and opera major at Northwestern, spent this past summer traveling the globe to seven of the eight continental Baha’i temples, learning the choral music within each Baha’i community. His trip took him to Frankfurt, Germany, Kampala, Uganda, New Delhi, India, Apia, Samoa, Sydney, Australia, Santiago, Chile.
As the recipient of the Northwestern University Travel-Study Circumnavigators Grant, LaMountain received $9,500 to travel around the world, researching and learning about the intersection between the Baha’i faith and its musical practices.
Now back in school, LaMountain will performing in the celebration of the Baha’i bicentenary on Oct. 29-30. He will be singing with the choir at the Wilmette temple, a lakefront house of worship that opened its doors in 1953.
LaMountain noted that something that stood out to him about the Baha’i faith was how welcomed he felt in each community.
“The choral director from the Uganda temple came and picked me up off the dusty roads of Entebbe, Uganda, and whisked me through their only highway to get to the compound I was staying at,” LaMountain said.
He attributed this generosity to how universal the community values are, and how standard the religious practices remain in every city around the world. The one place where he did see cultural differences was in the music.
“These faith spaces are purposefully not administratively guided on devotional music so that each house of worship can tailor the sound of the house of worship to local styles of worship music,” he said.
Joyce Jackson, a consultant in the Office of Community Administration for the National Baha’i Center, which is Evanston, met LaMountain through his involvement with the Baha’i choir in Wilmette. She said she saw a similar trends within music styling across Baha’i cultures.
“Even though there’s a lot sort of ‘formal’ Baha’i music that might be a little bit more classical that they might sing in all the temples, they also have their own music traditions,” Jackson said.“They put the Baha’i writing or whatever’s being sung in those traditions.”
As LaMountain learned the choral stylings of each of the communities he worked with, he also learned music in preparation for the bicentenary, which celebrates the birth of the Bab, who is considered the prophet herald of the Baha’i faith, and Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the faith.
LaMountain said he practiced for these celebrations both in Europe and in Chile, and will be performing in the festivities held in Wilmette at the end of the month.
The Wilmette temple will kick off the celebrations around the world, said Joyce Litoff, a communication specialist in the Baha’i Office of Communications.
The celebrations for the bicentenary officially begin on Oct. 26, with a concert put on by the Lincolnwood Chamber Orchestra and the Baha’i House of Worship choir. This is followed by two days of events on Oct. 29 and 30. More information about the events can be found here.
Although this bicentenary will be well-celebrated within the community, Litoff notes that the importance pales in comparison to the day-to-day work Baha’i members do in the community.
Litoff said that the Baha’i community works to promote racial and gender equality on multiple fronts, ranging from engaging in social discourse to taking action. For example, she noted that the choir director from Wilmette traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, this year to host a concert in honor of the fifth anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting.
“Really what the Baha’is have been doing in the communities over the past two years is more significant than what we’re going to do in these couple of days,” Litoff said.
Photo at top: (Nicole Stock/MEDILL) —– The Baha’i House of Worship at Sheridan Road and Linden Avenue in Wilmette, is the oldest standing temple in the world. All are welcome.